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Life Before Shiloh: Vignettes of Camp Life at Pittsburg Landing

When elements of General U.S. Grant’s army landed at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee in mid-March 1862, they took the position with no idea that within mere weeks it would become the scene of the bloodiest battle in U.S. history. For many of the soldiers, the resulting Battle of Shiloh was their first taste of battle, a swirling cauldron of screaming Confederates, deafening musketry and artillery, the horrors of seeing their comrades literally torn to pieces, and the deep humiliation of being driven back from position after position. Shiloh was the graveyard of any boyish dreams they had of the “glory of battle.” That said, it is worth examining what the regiments of the Army of the Tennessee did while encamped at Pittsburg Landing for those three weeks in the early spring of 1862 to help gain some insight into how they coped with the shock of battle on April 6-7, 1862.

For starters, an examination of the grounds. Private John M. Lemmon of Co. B of the 72nd Ohio was unimpressed by Pittsburg Landing, stating that it was “not even a hamlet there being no more than three or four miserable log houses with no claims in the world to be called a town. The country is rather level and thickly covered with timber, mostly oak of an inferior quality interspersed with hickory. Axmen go in advance of each regiment and prepare the camping ground by cutting out the undergrowth of brush, shrubs, and trees. Little rills ramify the whole ground furnishing us conveniently with water. The soil is light yellow clay which may be fairly estimated from the face that the land is wholly unimproved and sold before the war for no more than $3 an acre.”[1]

Sergeant Freedom S. Gates, Co. A, 72nd Ohio

First Lieutenant John A. Smith of the 57th Ohio opined that Tennessee “is hardly worth fighting for. The land is broken and is a very poor white and red soil. The people live in dilapidated log huts and appear to have no spirit for improvement and are generally very poor.”[2] Private James A. Thompson of the 46th Ohio wrote that “the scenery here is not so fine as we expected to find in the sunny South. Instead of rich highly cultivated farms, we see nothing but a succession of dreary swamps and the high land is so poor that the Whip-or-wills have to carry their haversacks to keep from starving when flying over it.”[3] Another soldier of the 46th Ohio noted that wild game, however, existed in abundance. “The hare and wild turkey are pretty numerous, deer are also found along the low lands and swamps, and a few bears can be seen at times along the river.” But staple crops like wheat and corn were scarce largely due to the fact that “no one is here to cultivate the land. Rich men were generally secesh and had to leave their homes on account of the Union troops, while others were nearly all pressed into service. About two-thirds of the houses are unoccupied and every occupied house you will find three or four women to one man and about twice as many tow-headed children to each woman.”[4]

As each division took possession of their campgrounds, the officers directed that the camps be set up in regular army fashion. Despite the fact that the enemy was known to be roughly 20 miles away, no efforts were made to fortify the camps. “We did not fortify our camps against an attack because we had no orders to do so and because such a course would have made our raw men timid,” General William T. Sherman noted. “The position was naturally strong enough with Snake Creek on our right, a deep bold stream, with a confluent Owl Creek to our right front, and Lick Creek with a similar confluent on our left, thus narrowing the space over which we could be attacked to about a mile and a half or two miles.”[5] The regimental historian of the 70th Ohio recalled that “our campground became very muddy but our tents were comfortable and dry- we still carried our little sheet-iron stoves to heat them. We built little bunks out of poles to sleep on and made them high from the ground. We policed our quarters, aired our blankets and knapsacks each morning. We had two or three bake ovens built in the regiment and other arrangements completed for the health and comfort of the boys. We received mail about once in a week. Each Sunday morning and afternoon we had inspection and review and sometimes we were favored with religious services. A detachment of the 5th Ohio Cavalry was sent out to the front each morning, returning in the evening to report that they had been out 20 or 30 miles and could find no Rebels in our front.”[6]

Feeling secure in their camps and confident that the Rebels awaited their next move, the army fell into routine camp life: guard mounting, picket duty, and of course, drill. “After we had gotten fairly established in camp, we paid our attention to drilling,” recalled Private Lucius W. Barber of the 15th Illinois. “Colonel Ellis drilled the regiment every day and we soon became nearly perfect. We became so efficient in the drill that a large portion of the regiment could drill the battalion without making a mistake,” he commented.[7] Drilling could last up to five or six hours a day. A soldier of the 13th Iowa Infantry remembered that “men called it ‘the infernal drill’ and concocted all kinds of excuses to get out of it. Some were not used to such hard work while some were too fat for such severe exercise on warm days; others attempted to play old soldier when drill hour came and became sick just at that time of day. All of which had no visible effect upon the obstinate and obdurate colonel. Those who had attempted the old soldier strategy had the privilege of riding the wooden horse for the benefit of their health. It is not to be denied that curses more deep than loud were visited upon the colonel’s head by many who thought him unnecessarily severe. Nevertheless, the drills went on just the same.”[8]

In between drills, the generals found time to review the troops. General Sherman reviewed his Fourth Brigade under Colonel Ralph P. Buckland on March 25, 1862. “Besides demonstrating the tolerably good and neat condition of the soldiers, it probably demonstrated one other fact: the incompetency and neglect on the part of a portion of the officers of the brigade,” Private Lemmon of the 72nd Ohio observed.[9] Willis Thompson of the 15th Illinois wrote that his brigade was reviewed by General Stephen Hurlbut and “a splendid sight it was as four regiments of infantry and a battery of artillery marched in column by company around the level meadow and past the camp colors where the General was stationed with his staff.”[10]

A number of regiments of the army were literally fresh from the camps of instruction in their home states and the first blush of exposure to the elements caused many to become sick. Diarrhea was an almost universal complaint (brought on in part by everyone drinking Tennessee River water while cruising upriver to Pittsburg Landing), a condition compounded by the army diet and generally unsanitary condition of the camps. Surgeon John H. Brinton noted that “ a great amount of sickness existed at this time among the troops: malaria, dysentery, typhoid, and in fact all the disease partook more of less of the typhoid type.”[11] John Duke of the 53rd Ohio initially thought his regiment had drawn a lucky campground by being located adjacent to a gushing spring, “when to our mortification and the aggravation of the existing diarrhea it was found to contain something prejudicial to health. Within a very few days, two-thirds of the regiment was reported unfit for duty. It was difficult enough to muster enough well men for squad drill or guard duty.”[12]

General Benjamin Prentiss and staff visit the site of his surrender years after the battle.

Surgeon John H. Rerick of the 44th Indiana commented that it became increasingly difficult to balance the need to keep men in the ranks with his duties of protecting the truly sick. “The morning sick call, the detection of impostors, the excusing of the unfit from duty, always delicate and important duties on the part of the surgeons, became here more than usually embarrassing,” he wrote. His colonel was displeased at the large number of men excused from duty one day ordered that everyone, excused and non-excused, be formed in line so that he and the chaplain could examine the men themselves. “The suggestion was adopted and the result was that the heart of the colonel, who had a quick sympathy for the really suffering, was touched, and the excused list somewhat enlarged rather than diminished,” Rerick wrote.[13]

Thomas W. Connelly of the 70th Ohio remembered that “everything was done that could possibly be done for the health of the soldiers, yet after all, our camping ground became very muddy and disagreeable. Many of our boys were taken sick due to the unhealthy condition of the camp. Men would take sick in the morning and we would have to bury them before night.”[14] Robert McConnell of the 71st Ohio reported in late March that disease had already reduced his newly formed regiment to about 400 men able for duty. “I have stood it as well as any man in the regiment and there is not 20 men in our company that is in better health than I am. Take away the diarrhea and I am as well as I have been for the last ten years,” he wrote. “After commenting on the number of men who had died in the regiment,” he opined that “I think several more of them will be buried soon if they do not leave here soon.”[15]

To try and give the men some exercise, Colonel Ralph Buckland commanding Sherman’s Fourth Brigade organized a “picnic excursion.” Gathering the three regiments into line, Buckland marched south on the Corinth road for eight miles then plunked down to eat dinner. “Major J.W. McFerren of the 70th Ohio with seven men was sent further out on the road as pickets and they had not advanced very far before they were challenged. ‘Halt! Who comes there!’ To which the Major replied ‘It is the advance guard of the Grand Army of the United States.’ To which the challenger replied ‘The hell you say!’ at the same time sending a volley of cold lead toward the Major and his men who retreated back to brigade lines with greater speed than when they advanced. A short council was held by our officers, resulting in a speedy retreat to our camp at Shiloh Church,” recalled Thomas Connelly of the 70th Ohio.[16]

The inexperience of the officers and men pervaded throughout the encampment as recalled by Myron Loop of the 68th Ohio who described this instance of a nervous picket throwing the entire camp into turmoil. “During the still hours of the night, the noise of a man or beast moving about in the shadows in front was distinctly heard and occasionally a shadowy form could be seen. The picket was wide awake. At last, tired of further suspense and not wishing to be captured by a Johnny, he sent a full broadside into the bushes. The shot aroused the whole camp as well as the reserve who sprang to their feet thinking the whole Rebel camp was near at hand,” Loop wrote. “After a while, all became quiet save for the squeal of a hog that had attempted to pass the picket line without giving the countersign. The comrade had in his make up the vein of the humorous, so when the picket officer censured him for disturbing the quiet of the camp by willfully shooting at a hog, he replied, ‘That darn hog had no business to be monkeying around, no how!’”[17]

Sergeant Charles Dana Miller of the 76th Ohio recalled the final pleasant days before Shiloh. “The weather had grown pleasant and spring-like. The trees began to bud and the birds filled the air with their melody,” he wrote. “Mocking birds regaled us constantly with their varied songs. The natives in the neighborhood were more friendly and supplied us with eggs and corn dodgers. To see their peddling propensities, one would imagine himself in Yankee-land instead of southern Tennessee. But one fine Sabbath morning as we were sweetly reposing on our little cots, our sense of security and rest was suddenly broken and the whole camp startled with the rattling of distant musketry and the booming of cannon.”[18] The Battle of Shiloh was on, but that is another story for another time.

[1] Letter from Private John M. Lemmon, Co. B, 72nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Fremont Journal (Ohio), April 11, 1862, pg. 3 [2] Letter from First Lieutenant John A. Smith, Co. K, 57th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Weekly Kalida Sentinel (Ohio), April 1862 [3] Letter from Private James A. Thompson, Co. C, 46th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Weekly Lancaster Gazette (Ohio), April 10, 1862, pg. 1 [4] Letter from “C.,” Co. F, 46th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Weekly Lancaster Gazette (Ohio), April 24, 1862, pg. 1 [5] Sherman, William T. Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman. New York: Penguin Books, 2000, pg. 211 [6] Connelly, Thomas W. History of the 70th Ohio Regiment from its Organization to its Mustering Out. Cincinnati: Peak Bros., 1902, pg. 19 [7] Barber, Lucius W. Army Memoirs of Lucius W. Barber, Company D, 15th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Chicago: The J.M.W. Jones Stationery and Printing Co., 1894, pg. 48 [8] Ingersoll, Lurton D. Iowa and the Rebellion. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1866, pg. 231 [9] Letter from Private John M. Lemmon, Co. B, 72nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, op. cit. [10] Letter from Private Willis S. Thompson, Co. F, 15th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, Woodstock Sentinel (Illinois), April 9, 1862, pg. 2 [11] Brinton, John H. Personal Memoirs of John H. Brinton, Major and Surgeon U.S.V. 1861-1865. New York: The Neale Publishing Co., 1914, pg. 153 [12] Duke, John K. History of the 53rd Regiment, Ohio Volunteer Infantry During the War of the Rebellion 1861 to 1865. Portsmouth: The Blade Printing Co., 1900, pgs. 7-8 [13] Rerick, John H. The 44th Indiana Volunteer Infantry: History of Its Services in the War of the Rebellion. Lagrange: J.H. Rerick, 1880, pg. 44 [14] Connelly, op. cit., pg. 17 [15] Stewart, Martin. Redemption: The 71st Ohio Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War. Troy: Self-Published, 2012, pgs. 35-6 [16] Connelly, op. cit., pg. 20 [17] Loop, Myron B. The Long Road Home: Ten Thousand Miles Through the Confederacy with the 68th Ohio. Edited by Richard A. Baumgartner. Huntington: Blue Acorn Press, 2006, pgs. 28-29 [18] Stewart Bennett and Barbara Tillery, editors. The Struggle for the Life of the Republic: A Civil War Narrative by Brevet Major Charles Dana Miller, 76th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Kent: Kent State University Press, 2004, pg. 26

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