The 17th Kentucky at Shiloh

The 17th Kentucky is, I guess you could say, my pet regiment. I love learning about these guys, mostly because they are local and I had a few cousins in its ranks. It has an interesting story that was touched on in a brief regimental history published back in the 1970s. Good luck finding a cheap copy of that...Usually runs around $100. Fortunately, my alma-mater's library had a copy donated. It does a decent job, but it doesn't really get into the details of the regiment's movements at places like Shiloh. One reason is a lack of primary source material from the regiment. We really only have the reports in the Official Records, and a fairly detailed diary entry by Sam Cox, an enlisted man in the regiment. I've told that there are a few more floating around in what seems like the twilight zone, but I have not been able to get my hands on those. Maybe one day.


The Kentuckians, commanded by Colonel John H. McHenry, arrived at Pittsburg Landing on March 17, 1862 and encamped in Cloud Field after several days on the uncomfortable and unhealthy steamboats. Upon disembarking, Sergeant Sam Cox was able to see the hastily dug graves of the men killed at the skirmish near the landing on March 1. Cox recorded that the dead were "buried about four inches beneath the earth; the nose and hands of some are being entirely naked. It is actually a shame to think that neither army pays no more attention to the dead." The regiment settled into their new camps where there was an abundance of "pure water." Until the late night of April 6, they and the 25th Kentucky, were the only Kentuckians present in the Union army. Being veterans of Fort Donelson and a few 1861 skirmishes, they were also some of the more experienced soldiers in the army as well.

Colonel John H. McHenry, 17th Kentucky Infantry.

As Grant's army went through reorganization, Colonel Charles Cruft, who had been commanding the brigade since earlier that year, was replaced by Brigadier General Jacob Lauman. Cruft returned to the 31st Indiana, a regiment in the brigade. Lauman's brigade consisted of the 17th and 25th Kentucky Infantry regiments, and the 31st and 44th Indiana, all veterans of Fort Donelson. Unfortunately for Lauman, the transition occurred on April 5, the day before battle.


The 17th Kentucky heard the shots coming from the south as the battle intensified on the morning of April 6. When Prentiss was in danger of being overrun, General Stephen Hurlbut advanced his division, minus the brigade of Veatch, toward what is now the Peach Orchard and Bell Cotton Field. There, they fought for several hours, falling back to a position close to where the cabin now stands. Eventually, they were moved to the extreme left of the Union line, east of the Hamburg-Savannah Road. The brigade and division then fell back further toward their camps and Cloud Field, before finally retiring to the artillery line near the siege guns and Pittsburg Landing. On April 7, the regiment fought on the Union right, in Jones Field and pushed south toward Shiloh Church. Below is the combined report of Col. McHenry (Normal Text) and the diary entries of Sam Cox (Italicized Text). Mixing both of them together presents a more detailed look at the only Kentuckians in blue that fought on April 6 and 7, 1862

Report of Col. John McHenry, 17th Kentucky

Camp, Pittsburg, Tenn., April —, 1862.


Tablet indicating the campsite of the 17th Kentucky in Cloud Field.

General: My regiment was ordered into line early on Sunday, 6th instant, upon a sudden and unexpected attack which had been made upon our front lines by the enemy. Owing to the small number of men present with the regiment, the large number of sick, and those detailed on special duty, my regiment numbered in line on the morning of the 6th, officers and men, only 250 men. Being on the left of the brigade, we were posted about 1 mile in front of our camp, near the right of an open field, which was immediately in rear of a portion of the camp of General Prentiss, which was at that time occupied by the enemy.


Sam Cox:

"We were brushing up for Sunday morning inspection when, to our very great surprise, the cannon and small arms opened not a mile distant and in ten minutes that everlasting long roll was beaten and we gathered our guns and formed in line. In a few minutes we were seen winding our way to the point from whence the music of musketry came."


In a short time after taking our position the enemy opened a heavy fire of artillery upon us, which proved to be a fire for the purpose of covering a rapid movement of their troops across the field diagonally on our left. They were moving across for the purpose of flanking our left. They soon, numbering about two small regiments and moving in close column, doubled on the center at a double-quick. My regiment opened fire upon them obliquely, and drove the column back with tremendous loss. About the same time we were attacked by a cross-fire of artillery and musketry from our front and right, and were gallantly sustained in our stand by one effective piece of artillery, under command of Lieutenant Edwards, of the Missouri battery.



I included the tablet of the 25th Kentucky as they essentially fought with the 17th. Before the battle, the two regiments were in the process of consolidation, and fought under one commander on April 7.

I imagine that as the 17th fell back by "right of companies" that their line rested along the path that is technically a part of the Hornet's Nest. The brigade seems to have swung backward like a door, with the 44th Indiana being the hinge that stayed put.

Sam Cox:

"We arrived there in a few moments, and found our forces falling back gradually. Our Brigade, consisting of the 17th Kentucky, 44th Indiana, 31st Indiana regiments were formed in line of battle close to the edge of a field. We had been there but a few moments when the enemy opened a "G" and wounded several. While this was going on, a continual roar of musketry both on our right and left proved the battle was raging at every point. In a few moments, the enemy attacked the 31st and 44th Indiana, which was on our right. We could easily see the fight, it being but a few rods away, but not close enough for us to participate. We had to wait but a short time, however, as they appeared in front of us in the field spoken of above. Our order was not to fire until the command was given, which was obeyed almost to the letter. They had probably gotten halfway across, when General Hurlbut gave the command, "Now, boys, give it to them." Our regiment opened and "Great God!" I never saw men lie down faster when not skirmishing than they did. It seemed to me that the whole line fell. Every man in forty yards of the flag was either killed or wounded. The flag bearer, however, walked coolly across the field waving his color. He excited the admiration of all for bravery and coolness. I suppose he had at least five hundred shots fired at him, but Providence seemed to be on his side as no person touched him. At this point, we had one or two of Company A wounded. One ball struck Captain Morton squarely in the breast, but being a spend ball, it did no damage. We remained at that place some two hours and the Brigade which was fight on our left, from some cause or other, gave way and we had to leave our position which we had so nobly held to hold them in check at that point."


Tablet indicating the position across the Hamburg-Savannah Road.


The enemy, unable to drive us from our position, withdrew and moved behind the field to our left, which movement was counteracted by an admirable order of our commanding officer, by moving our brigade some 500 or 600 yards to the left. The Thirty-first Indiana, held as a reserve to the brigade, immediately in rear and to the left of my regiment, was moved over to the brink of a hill, and sustained a destructive contest with a large force of the enemy for two hours. The firing was kept up continually during that time, maintaining our ground and resisting every attack and attempt of the enemy to repulse us.


Many of my best men fell, killed and wounded, and the gallant Captain Morton, of Company A, received at this place a fatal wound whilst he was in front of his company, setting them a daring example, which he was ever ready to manifest in the presence of the enemy. We had been constantly engaged for five hours. All of the ammunition in the cartridge-boxes of my men was exhausted to the second round, and the enemy made a renewed attack upon our whole line, which was met with determined resistance on the part of our troops at this place. We were ordered to draw back, and did so, under your eye, slowly and without confusion. My regiment was again ordered into line in the rear of the heavy and light artillery, which opened fire upon the enemy so severely and unexpectedly, and which was kept up unceasingly until night closed the struggle of the day, in which your whole brigade had acted a conspicuous and gallant part.



Sam Cox:

"Soon arriving on the ground, the enemy made its appearance and a most desperate struggle ensued. For five long, weary hours, did we stand under a terrific fire both from musketry and shell. We advanced inch by inch on the enemy and man a poor soldier "bit the dust" trying to maintain his position. We gained on them gradually until nearly every cartridge in the regiment had been sent on his mission of death, when we were outflanked by ten times our number and compelled to fall back, which was done, thank God, in good order. At this point, a few minutes before our ammunition gave out, our gallant Captain Morton fell, mortally wounded. I was close by his side and took him on my back and started for the landing which was a mile distant."



About 4 o’clock p. m. Sunday, owing to the withdrawal of Lieutenant-Colonel Bristow, and the wounding of Major Wall, of the Twenty-fifth Kentucky, that command was turned over to me, and the gallant officers and men of that regiment acted with the same unabated courage and bravery that had characterized them during the whole day.


We were moved to the front of the line of artillery above alluded to, and bivouacked during the night in the rain, weary and worn, and without food or protection from the heavy rain that fell upon us. Without sleep, we arose with the dawn, and I found that my regiment, in killed, wounded, sick, and disabled, had been reduced to less than half of the small number of men who had occupied the ranks on the day and night of the 6th.



Sam Cox:

"By the time I had arrived, the Regiment had taken a position behind some heavy siege guns, which had been mounted as a last resort to hold Pittsburg Landing. In a very short time, they were belching forth their missiles of death which held the enemy in check until night closed and put a stop to the butchering of human lives. I have no idea of the number killed and wounded but know the loss was heavy on both sides. I was of the opinion that we would never see a harder fight that we had at Donelson, but that was nothing in comparison to this. There has been one continual roar of musketry and big guns ever since the commencement this morning. I will now quit and hope for the best. General Buell's forces are now crossing the river by the thousands so we may expect war times tomorrow morning."


About 10 o’clock on the 7th we were led near the extreme right of our forces, and participated in a desperate charge of one column upon the enemy, which resulted in driving them back, and gave the victory, glorious and dearly bought, once more to the beloved flag of our country.


During the terrible fire to which my regiment, together with your remnant of a brigade, was repeatedly subjected on the 7th, we were in close proximity to the Forty-fourth Indiana Regiment, Col. H. B. Reed commanding, and I cannot refrain from expressing my admiration of the gallant conduct of that regiment, and the bravery, coolness, daring, and judgment of its brave commander. Lieutenant-Colonel Stout, on account of an extremely painful but not dangerous wound in the arm, received in the gallant devotion to his duty on the 6th, at my urgent request did not go with the regiment on the second day. Maj. Isaac Calhoon was during both of these two eventful days to be found at all times where his duty called him, fearless and bold in the discharge of it. Both of these officers’ horses, as well as that of my own, were wounded by musket-balls from the enemy on the 6th. Capt. Robert Vaughan, Company I, after having fought bravely during the whole day, was severely wounded on the evening of the 6th. Captain Davison, Company B, behaved with his usual coolness and courage, with his excellent lieutenant, Byers, executing all orders upon the field with zeal and devotion to the cause.


Lieutenant Keith, in command of Company G; Lieutenant Kail, Company F; Sergeant Landrum, Company H ,• Lieutenant Brown, Company K; Captain Beckham, Company C) Captain Hudson, Company D; Lieutenants Campbell, Bratcher, Ferguson, Little, Heston, and Adjutant Starling were to be found constantly at their posts on the 6th, with their respective commands, cheering, encouraging, and sustaining the gallant soldiers of the Seventeenth Kentucky Regiment, who now mourn the loss in killed and wounded out of their reduced ranks of eighty-eight of their comrades.


Very respectfully,

JOHN H. McHENRY, Jr.,

Col. Seventeenth Regt. Ky. Vols.,

Third Brig., Fourth Div.

Brig. Gen. J. G. Lauman,

Commanding Third Brigade, Fourth Division.


Sam Cox:

"Last night it rained all night and the men were compelled to lie down on the cold, wet earth while they enemy had possession of our camps and were sleeping comfortably. Our boys, being very tired and hungry, went to sleep, notwithstanding the rain, which was descending in torrents. They lay anxiously awaiting the return of daylight so that they might know the result. At last it came. The rain, however, had held up and directly after day light, General Buell's forces opened the fight. They crossed all night; soon afterwards, General Grant's command went in. The firing was tremendous, I believe equal to yesterday, although the artillery was not so heavy. Our brigade, at least the remainder, was ordered on the right a distance of three miles where we arrived and soon were engaged. We fought at this point until about four o'clock in the afternoon when the enemy gave way, and soon afterwards was in full retreat toward Corinth. Our soldiers sent up cheer after cheer."



Louisville Daily Journal, April 21, 1862, Page 3.

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