Strange but True Stories about Tennessee’s Bloodiest Battle

Drummer boys of the Union Army in camp after the battle of Pittsburg Landing (Shiloh Church), Tennessee River on April 7, 1862. John Clem, a drummer boy, wounded in the battle, was promoted to lieutenant. (AP Photo/George Armistead)

Every spring I think of the Battle of Shiloh, which occurred in April 1862 in Hardin County. Here are some of the more interesting things I’ve learned about it over the years.

During the two-day battle, nearly 24,000 soldiers were killed, injured, or were missing. That’s more than all the battles in all of the American wars that had taken place until that time—the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican-American War, and the first few months of the Civil War.

The Confederate attack surprised the Union troops during breakfast and, during the early part of the battle, the Union troops were in retreat. As the Confederate troops arrived at the Union camps, many of them stopped to eat and to rummage through the Union tents to take whatever they found. Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston admonished a lieutenant who was carrying Union souvenirs. “None of that, sir,” he said, according to one account. “We are not here to plunder.” Delays caused by eating and plundering probably slowed the Confederate advance.

There were, during the Battle of Shiloh, several instances of so-called “friendly fire.” For instance, a battalion of Confederate troops from Louisiana showed up wearing blue uniforms. On at least one occasion they were shot at by another Confederate battalion, which understandably assumed they were Union troops. The next day the Louisiana troops turned their uniforms inside out, which made it look like they were wearing white.

Isham Harris, the pro-Confederate governor of Tennessee when the war started, was present at the Battle of Shiloh as an aide to General Albert Sidney Johnston. At one point, Harris returned from delivering a message and found the general under an oak tree, sitting alone and motionless on his horse. Harris asked Johnston if he was wounded. “Yes, and I fear seriously,” the general replied. Harris and Johnston’s quartermaster led the general’s horse to a ravine, then laid him on the ground. Upon removing his boots, they saw he had been shot in the right leg and was bleeding profusely. Johnston died a few moments later.

A Union colonel named Lew Wallace fought for the Union at Shiloh. In the months and years following the battle, he was heavily criticized for the fact that he and his men did not arrive at the battle in time because they took the wrong road. “Shiloh and its slanders!” Wallace later said. “Will the word ever acquit me of them? If I were guilty I would not feel them as keenly.” Today, Wallace is better remembered for a novel he wrote years after the war, called Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.

Another Union officer at Shiloh was a lieutenant from Illinois name John Wesley Powell. He was struck by a Minie ball at Shiloh, and most of his right arm was amputated two days later. Despite this disability, Powell would later fight for the Union Army at Vicksburg, Atlanta and Nashville. After the Civil War, he became a geology professor at Illinois Wesleyan University. Then, in 1869, he led a three-month expedition down the Colorado River—the first time in known history that the Grand Canyon was explored and traversed.

One of the Confederate privates captured by Union troops at Shiloh was Henry Stanley. After the battle, Stanley went to a prisoner of war camp in the North, but was allowed to leave that camp by agreeing to fight for the Union. Stanley later went on to have an amazing career as a journalist and African explorer. In 1872 he made international news by finding missionary Dr. David Livingstone in the Congo.

Toward the end of the battle, cavalry troops under Nathan Bedford Forrest got in a skirmish. For a moment, it looked as if Forrest would be killed or captured. But according to eyewitnesses, he reached down from his saddle, grabbed a Union soldier, and carried him along as a shield as his horse galloped away. Then, reaching safe ground, he flung the soldier aside.

After the battle was over, Union troops gathered as many of the dead bodies of their comrades as they could and buried them in graves marked by pieces of wood. They buried Confederate bodies in mass graves.

Union General Benjamin Prentiss, whose men held out at the so-called Hornet’s Nest for hours despite repeated Confederate charges, is believed by many to have been one of the heroes of Shiloh. According to most accounts of the battle, Prentiss’ men finally surrendered at about 5:30 p.m. on the first day of the battle. The next day Prentiss was the personal prisoner of Confederate general Joseph Shelby.

Many years later, the two former enemies met face to face at a hotel in Missouri. They showed each other great respect and spoke about the war for hours. “It was quite early in the evening when the two old soldiers sat down to once more fight over their battles, but it was almost dawn when they separated,” The St. Joseph News later reported.