A Broken Constitution and an Incurable Wound: William J. Anderson, 13th Kentucky Infantry
As a researcher, you sometimes stumble upon information that stops you in your tracks.
I recently had one of those moments while reading a short notice about a soldier who had served in the 13th Kentucky Union Infantry Regiment.
On November 3, 1871, the Kentucky Advocate reported that “Wm. Anderson, of Campbellsville, in this State, committed suicide last Friday morning, by shooting himself in the head with a shot-gun. He died instantly. He had been a soldier in the 13th Infantry, in the late war, and came home with a broken constitution and an incurable wound.”
I immediately had questions: when, where, and how had he been wounded? How long did he serve? What debilitating injury caused him to take his own life?
The answers illustrate how one battle can have a terrible, long-term impact upon a person’s physical and mental health.
William J. Anderson was born in Amelia County, Virginia, in 1823. His family, it appears, moved to Kentucky when he was young. By 1850, he was a married farmer living near Campbellsville with his wife, Ophelia. Within ten years, they had three children, one boy and two girls, ages five, two, and six months. William had a hardscrabble life; in 1860, he was a thirty-seven-year-old laborer with a personal estate of $179. According to Anderson’s compiled service record, he stood five feet, ten-and-one-half-inches tall. He had brown hair, blue eyes, and a “fair” complexion.
When the Civil War erupted, Anderson was an early enlistee. In October 1861, he joined Company F of the 13th Kentucky Union Infantry Regiment, which was organized by Greensburg, Kentucky, native Edward Henry Hobson. According to Thomas Speed, members of the 13th Kentucky “came principally from the counties along Green river, Green, Metcalfe, Barren, Warren and others adjoining.” By November 1861, the regiment was operating in their home region. They then traveled to Nashville before finding themselves engaged at the Battle of Shiloh.
The 13th Kentucky was part of Brigadier General Jeremiah Boyle’s brigade, which also included the 9th Kentucky, 19th Ohio, and 59th Ohio infantry regiments. On April 6, 1862, the brigade reached Savannah, Tennessee, on the Tennessee River. They were twelve miles from Pittsburg Landing, where, that day, Brigadier General U.S. Grant’s command had been pushed back by Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston’s army. Boyle’s division commander, Brigadier General Thomas L. Crittenden, put his troops on steamboats—the 13th Kentucky found themselves on the Planet—and hustled them to the battlefield. At 10:00 p.m., the troops disembarked at Pittsburg Landing and pushed their way through some of Grant’s survivors, who were huddled at the landing. They then deployed in a line of battle behind Union Brigadier General William “Bull” Nelson’s troops. Boyle reported that they “remained on our arms during the night in a drenching rain."
Early the next morning, Boyle posted his brigade to the right of Nelson’s division, which was on the far left of the Union line. Boyle put the 19th Ohio on the right, the 13th Kentucky in the center, and the 9th Kentucky on the left. The 59th Ohio, Boyle reported, was kept “in the rear as a supporting reserve.” Hobson said that his troops took position to the right of Captain John Mendenhall’s artillery battery. “We were in that position but a short time when the enemy opened a heavy fire with shot and shell, which ranged over the battery and my regiment,” Hobson wrote. Boyle then ordered four companies from the 13th Kentucky and the 19th Ohio to advance as skirmishers. Encountering resistance, Boyle moved the brigade forward.
Hobson wrote that the 13th Kentucky moved “through a thick chaparral” and “found the enemy in considerable force, behind logs and trees, but a short distance in front, when I ordered my men to open fire, which was done in gallant style.” In explaining this fight at the “Hornet’s Nest,” Boyle also lauded the regiment’s performance. The brigade commander noted that “The Thirteenth Kentucky, led on by Col. Hobson in a gallant charge against the enemy, drove them back with great slaughter, forcing them to desert their guns . . .” Boyle added that the officers of the regiment “steadily led their brave men forward, driving the enemy before them.” In the charge, during which the regiment endured infantry and artillery fire, Hobson’s horse was shot out from under him.
Boyle provided more details in a letter to the Military Board of Kentucky. He explained that after he sent Hobson to assault the rebels, “This brave and gallant officer responded with alacrity, and, at the head of his regiment, led them to a furious attack upon the enemy, driving them before him with great slaughter . . . forcing them to desert their guns, [capturing] two pieces of their artillery.” The only disorder occurred when stragglers from a Wisconsin regiment ran through their ranks. Later, the 13th Kentucky fought at the intersection of the Eastern Corinth and Purdy-Hamburg roads.
Although the federal forces were knocked back on the first day, the Battle of Shiloh proved to be a Union victory. More than 23,000 soldiers were killed and wounded. Of these, Boyle’s brigade sustained 208 casualties, including 38 killed and 170 wounded. Hobson’s 13th Kentucky lost 8 killed, 41 wounded, and 10 missing. Among the injured was Private William J. Anderson, who was shot in the leg.
The severity of the engagement was illustrated by a souvenir that Hobson plucked from the battlefield. Hobson sent “a little sapling about eight feet high and one inch in diameter” to friends in Louisville. “This sapling is a remarkable memorial of the terrible character of the battle,” a newspaper wrote. “It bears the marks of no less than 28 different bullets. How any person can have escaped alive from where the leaden shower was so thick and terrible, it is hard to conceive."
The wounded Anderson was among those who endured this “leaden shower.” Taken to Louisville, he was eventually transported to Evansville, Indiana. He was likely moved by steamboat. Other injured and sick members of his regiment were taken to Cincinnati on the steamers Monarch and Tycoon. Others were relayed to St. Louis. Anderson, who was “wounded badly,” may have convalesced at the Evansville Marine Hospital. At least one other member of Company F, George W. Carlile, was taken there to heal.
Anderson never fully recovered. According to one surgeon, the soldier suffered from a “gun shot wound in [the] right femur.” He was fortunate that his leg had not been amputated, but the bullet remained embedded in his limb. He also suffered from “abdominal ascites” and “adema [sic] of the legs.” A doctor told me that abdominal ascites, a swelling of the abdomen brought about by fluid retention, is typically caused by liver disease, with the edema, or swelling of the legs, being another potential side effect of that illness. Injured and sick, and after more than seven months in various hospitals, the thirty-nine-year-old Anderson was discharged from the army on November 21, 1862. His surgeon considered him to be two-thirds’ disabled.
Anderson returned home, where he continued farming. Considering his health, this work must have been grueling. By 1870, he was living in Taylor County with his wife and three children, the eldest of whom were teenagers. With his “broken constitution,” “incurable wound,” and, possibly, the continuing effects of liver disease, it must have been impossible for Anderson to make a living. That year, his personal estate was worth $200.
Sadly, Anderson committed suicide on October 27, 1871. He was buried in Brookside Cemetery in Campbellsville, Kentucky. His one military action—fighting the rebels at Shiloh—ultimately took his life, although it was more than nine years after the battle. At the time of his death, he was forty-eight years old.
Stuart W. Sanders is the author of four books, including “The Battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky” and “Perryville Under Fire: The Aftermath of Kentucky’s Largest Civil War Battle.” His latest book, “Murder on the Ohio Belle,” examines interpersonal violence, southern honor culture, and vigilantism through the lens of an 1856 murder on a steamboat.
 Kentucky Advocate (November 3, 1871): 2.  William J. Anderson, Compiled Service Record, 13th Kentucky Infantry Regiment, accessed from Fold3.com on December 4, 2021; 1850 U.S. Federal Census, Division 1, Taylor County, Kentucky; 1860 U.S. Federal Census, Division 2, Taylor County. Both censuses accessed online at Ancestry.com on December 4, 2021. Anderson’s Virginia birth also from William J. Anderson death record, Kentucky, U.S. Death Records, 1852-1965, accessed from Ancestry.com on December 4, 2021. His wife, Ophelia, is also noted in William J. Anderson, US Civil War Pension Index, General Index to Pension Files, accessed from Ancestry.com on December 4, 2021.  Anderson Compiled Service Record; Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Kentucky (Frankfort: Kentucky Yeoman Office, 1866), 1: 864; Thomas Speed, The Union Regiments of Kentucky (Louisville: Courier-Journal Job Printing Co., 1897), “came principally,” 407, 407-408.  The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (U. S. Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), series 1, vol. 10, pt. 1: 361 [hereinafter cited as OR. Unless indicated, all other citations refer to series 1]; Speed, Union Regiments of Kentucky, 408; “Gen. J. T. Boyle’s Report to the Military Board of Kentucky,” Louisville Daily Journal (May 9, 1862): 4 (“remained on our arms”).  “The Battle of Shiloh: Gen. Boyle’s Report,” Louisville Daily Journal (April 24, 1862): 1 (“in the rear”); OR, ser. 1, vol. 10, pt. 1: 361 (“We were in that position”).  OR, ser. 1, vol. 10, pt. 1: 361-362 (Hobson quoted); “The Battle of Shiloh: Gen. Boyle’s Report,” (Boyle quoted). Location at the Hornet’s Nest from Larry J. Daniel, Shiloh: The Battle that Changed the Civil War (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), 276.  “Gen. J. T. Boyle’s Report to the Military Board of Kentucky,” (Boyle quoted); OR, ser. 1, vol. 10, pt. 1: 362. Fight at the intersection of the Eastern Corinth and Purdy-Hamburg roads from Daniel, Shiloh, 288.  Brigade casualties from “The Battle of Shiloh: Gen. Boyle’s Report;” 13th Kentucky casualties from OR, ser. 1, vol. 10, pt. 1: 107; Anderson’s leg wound from Anderson Compiled Service Record. Regimental casualties also noted in Speed, Union Regiments of Kentucky, 408.  “An Evidence of Hot Work,” Louisville Daily Journal (April 30, 1862): 3.  “Wounded Kentuckians in Hospital in Cincinnati,” Louisville Daily Journal (April 21, 1862): 3; Evansville Daily Journal (May 1, 1862): 2; “Weekly Report of the Mortality Among the Soldiers in the Military Hospitals and Camps in the Vicinity of St. Louis, Mo.,” Daily Missouri Republican (May 4, 1862): 3; “Sick and Wounded at Marine Hospital, Evansville,” Evansville Daily Journal (April 29, 1862): 2; “wounded badly” from Surgeon’s Certificate, Anderson Compiled Service Record.  Surgeon’s Certificate, Anderson Compiled Service Record.  1870 US Federal Census, Precinct 3, Taylor County, Kentucky, accessed on Ancestry.com on December 4, 2021.  “W. J. Anderson,” FindAGrave.com, MEMORIAL ID 66338400, accessed online from https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/66338400/w.-j.-anderson, on December 4, 2021; manner and date of death also noted in William J. Anderson death record, Kentucky, U.S. Death Records, 1852-1965.