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"The Time that Tried Men's Souls" The Kentucky Brigade at Shiloh

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

On the day of this post's release, it will be the 160th anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh. We have several posts here on the site that cover different aspects of the battle, so I encourage you to go to the blog and search for those. They are well worth your time.

Below, I have two newspaper accounts concerning the First Kentucky Brigade, or the Orphan Brigade as it is also commonly called. What's interesting, is that both of these accounts are from newspaper publications outside of Kentucky, which is understandable considering that by the spring of 1862, Kentucky was totally under Union control, and anything pro-Confederate was not likely to be printed. The first, is one of the most eloquently written descriptions of the battle from a Kentuckian's perspective that I have read to date. The author, who I have not been able to yet identify, acknowledges the difficulty in navigating the ravines and the brutal nature of the second day's fight and withdrawal. Rather inadvertently, I think, he lets us in on the confused nature of the Kentucky Brigade's lack of true focus during the first day of the battle, which I imagine you could say about many of the Confederate organizations that day. The brigade was marched to and fro eventually taking positions on the far west and far east of the battlefield all in one day. Also of interest, is the author's admittance of Kentucky's Confederate soldiers as "homeless." Not quite orphaned, but the term is most definitely justified there. It truly is a remarkable account that I don't think I have read anywhere else.

The second publication is a poem penned by a Kentuckian named "Anderson." It, too, is one that I have not seen anywhere else, and since it was published just two weeks after Shiloh, I thought it was appropriate to include it below the report on the battle.

Private William Walter Smith, 9th (formerly the 5th) Kentucky Infantry.
Private William Walter Smith, 9th (formerly the 5th) Kentucky Infantry.

Natchez (Mississippi) Daily Courier

May 2, 1862

A member of this brigade who was in the fight the whole two days at the battle of Shiloh, in a private letter to a friend, gives the following graphic descriptions of the contest. It has been furnished the Courier for publication, and affords us the pleasure to present the same to our readers as a record of what the exiles from their Kentucky homes are doing in the contest now so fiercely waging.

After giving the strength of the forces from his native State, the counties they hail from, the commanders under which they are serving, the regiments, etc. the writer says of the late battle:

Our march was completed on Saturday night, being with the lines established by Gen. Hardee. Before sunrise on Sunday morning, the rattle of the drum gave us to understand that the time that tried men's souls was near. Immediately, we formed column by Division and hastened in double quick time to the sanguinary contest in which many noble hearts were soon called to pour out their life's blood. The hour of trial was at hand--dread carnage covered the face of the earth. It seemed that the clouds had been robbed of their thunder, and the lightnings of terror--as peal afters and peal of the dread artillery belched forth their terrific fire. God had given us strength. The dread messengers of death came to us and passed on. The earth shook and her bosom heaved as by an earthquake at the sacrifice of her sons. Still, with sublime heroism, the united Kentucky Brigade stood dauntless in an unbroken phalanx with invincible courage, as though God had given faith to their hearts and strength to their arms to avenge our injured cause. We occupied the centre of the left wing.

Position of Cobb's Battery at Shiloh.
Position of Cobb's Battery at Shiloh.

The first call upon our courage was to defend a battery (I believe Burns') which was heavily assailed by the terrific fire of an immense reinforcement. [The author may have mistaken Cobb's Kentucky battery for Byrne's as the latter was detached to another part of the battlefield. Also, Cobb's was was taken out of action after most of the battery's horses were killed during the Union counter attack south of Jones Field.] Here, in this critical position, we were held for three-quarters of an hour without the permission of firing a gun, in the vain hope that our battery would be able to silence their guns--but soon our attention was called to a large body of the enemy's reinforcements, evidently making a death struggle to flank the left wing of our Brigade. A moment now lost and all would have been gone. Our centre would have been broken by front and by the flank fire--but that undying motto, "Eternal Vigilance," saved the hour. The gallant Trabue, (Acting Brigadier-General) with a full sense of the imminent peril, and the necessity of immediate action, gave the command to march to the left oblique, in double quick, and engage the enemy's flanking lines. Then came the tug of war. The Anglo-Saxon sons met as enemies in the same contest. Here they held in their hand the instrument of death that the light of science had developed full to perfection. The struggle was terrible and bloody. But justice sustained and lit up by the sparks of undying courage, made victory perch upon the banner of those who dared to be free. Then was decided one of the most critical and important disputes during the whole of Sunday's engagement--for two reasons; 1st, If we had been beaten back the enemy would have had pre-eminent advantage, it being the general rendezvous of reinforcements in the positions that commanded two flanks of the Southern army, with the addition of an immense front advantageously fortified by ravines and broad acres of heavy timber; 2d, Our success gave us their position, which we used with destruction upon their unprotected flanks.

So soon as they fond their centre had been **illegible** route was complete. It was not long **illegible** prisoner--others of rank were captured at the same time, with the addition of about four thousand of their best troops, being western men. Here the action of Sunday may be considered at a close, with the exception of the banterings of the batteries.

Kentucky Orphan Brigade position on April 7th.
View from the brigade's position on April 7th.

Early Monday morning the ball opened. The fire seemed terrific--battery was pitted against battery--shot and shell fell thick as hail, and very destructive. The two great lines were drawn up. Gen. Buell had come to their assistance. The flower of their great army in uncounted numbers stood before us, and we looked as but a handful to the tribes of the North with which we had to measure arms. But undaunted and flushed with the previous days victory, we still pressed on, little dreaming that it was in the range of possibilities to be overpowered. If patriotism has ever called upon men to make sublime sacrifices for his country, it was indeed in this hour. Upon the right and left we could see comrade and acquaintance fall--while the tender ear had to turn deaf to the piteous cry of the suffering wounded.

My heart grew sick--but the remembrance of those who might inquire for my conduct, said, still press on. Our Generals not wishing to surrender, commenced the withdrawal of the army from the field--Kentucky's homeless sons were left to cover the retreat, after they had fought twelve hours and twenty minutes the last day.

Poem in The Sunday Delta (New Orleans, Louisiana)

April 20, 1862

The Kentucky Brigade

By Anderson

Stand firm and prepared, the hour has come!

Now strike! and let vengeance give strength to the blow!

Hurrah! for our gallant young chief,* and to-day

Let the signal to charge sound the knell of the foe!

Remember the wrongs that our old State hath suffered;

How she groans with the foot of the foe on her breast!

Remember that there are graves of our fathers,

And let us redeem them or else with them rest!

Then with hand unto hand, today let us stand

A circle of steel round the flag of our land;

'Tis the cause of our God, and the time will yet be,

When the Tyrant shall fall-and Kentucky be free!

Through the fire-rimmed cloud of the gathering battle,

Where the feast of Death shall to our coming be spread,

Again let us carry our flag on to glory

Or else let its shadow fall over the dead!

And think, boys! our blood hath once mingled at Shiloh;

There, sleeping still, some of our young brothers lie,

And again, thus together, as friends let us conquer,

Or together, as brothers and friends, let us die!

Then with hand unto hand, we swill fearlessly stand

A circle of steel round the flag of our land;

And if God will but help us, the time will yet be

When her foe shall be crushed--and Kentucky be free!

And when years have rolled on, and our Father shall say:

That was the wars of the nations forever shall cease;

When the sword shall be given up unto rust,

And the battle-star sing in the morning of peace,

Our children will gather to hear the old tales

Of the times when for battle our hosts were arrayed;

And will tow how their grandfathers gallantly fell

In the charge of the brave old Kentucky Brigade.

Then with hand joined in hand, to day let us stand

A circle of steel around the flag of our land;

God is with us, my boys! and the time will soon be

When Kentucky, the home of our hearts, shall be free.

*John C. Breckinridge


Derrick Lindow is an author, historian, teacher, and creator of the WTCW site. His first book, published by Savas Beatie, will be released in Spring 2023. Go HERE to read more posts by Derrick and HERE to visit his personal page. Follow Derrick on different social media platforms (Instagram and Twitter) to get more Western Theater and Kentucky Civil War Content.

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