Seriously, what would you expect me to write about on the anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh?
For those easterners who have not examined Shiloh in detail, what came to be known as “Ruggles’ Battery” occurred on the afternoon of the first day (April 6, 1862). Federal resistance stiffened on an arch from the River Road to Owl Creek (roughly parallel to Tilghman Branch). The center of this line was the division of General W.H.L. Wallace, facing Duncan Field from the (not so) Sunken Road. Although the flanks of this Federal line gave way in the later afternoon, Wallace’s division held.
And not only did the division hold the ground, it also held the attention of the Confederates for several reasons – not the least of which was simple target fixation. After a series of uncoordinated infantry assaults failed, the Confederates turned to artillery. The old-line, standard interpretation comes from D.W. Reed, a member of the park’s military commission, in The Battle of Shiloh and the Organizations Engaged:
General [Daniel] Ruggles, having noted the ineffectual efforts of Bragg to break the Union center, determined to concentrate artillery upon that point. He therefore assembled ten batteries and a section, sixty-two guns, and placed them in a position along the west side of the Duncan field and southeast of the Review field. In support of these batteries he brought up portions of the brigades of Gibson, Shaver, Wood, Anderson, and Stewart with the Thirtieth Tennessee and the Crescent regiment of Pond’s brigade, and once ore attacked the position so stubbornly held by Wallace and Prentiss. The concentrated fire of these sixty-two guns drove away the Union batteries, but was not able to route the infantry from its sheltered position in the old road.
And that is what the markers at the battlefield say – “the greatest concentration of field guns seen on a North American battlefield up to that time.”
There’s even an audio, triggered by a push button touched all too many times by my fingers, with cannon blasts in the background as the narrator explains the effects of those massed batteries. (Although I’m told the park is updating these interpretive exhibits, so my memories date me.)
But starting in the late 1960s, some began to question if indeed 62 guns blasted out the Federal line. In his dissertation, later published as Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862, O. Edward Cunningham estimated Ruggles assembled only 52 guns. Although Ruggles should receive some credit for organizing the guns, other accounts indicate the massing was more impromptu battlefield tasking. Colonel Francis Shoup, of General William Hardee’s Corps, brought guns under his control to the line as a group (and later claimed some credit).
And even the effectiveness of that reduced number of guns came into question with new scholarship. Or perhaps another way to put it, reviewing the old sources, one finds that several Federal batteries gave as good as they got, if not more. Some Yankee batteries held position until ammunition ran low – instead of being driven off by Confederate artillery. For instance, Captain Frederick Welker’s Battery H, 1st Missouri Light Artillery, armed with 10-pdr and 20-pdr Parrott rifles, supported the Sunken Road line well into the afternoon. Duncan Field was perhaps the one place on the battlefield where the Parrotts could feel out their range advantage. Welker’s official report clearly indicates ammunition was the reason his battery pulled out of the sector. Even after losing an arm, Captain John Powell kept his battery in the fight. Accounts from several other batteries offer similar experiences. Although not a picnic in the shade, the artillery duel was far from a one-sided affair that Reed suggests.
The massing and control of the Confederate batteries was anything but centralized. Although several batteries went into position around 4 p.m. that afternoon, somewhere between a third and half of the overall weapons engaged did not arrive until 4:30 p.m. In reports immediately after the battle, commanders admitted not knowing adjacent batteries. Furthermore no leader established control of the fires or directed the mass at common targets.
Another issue facing the Confederates was range, as alluded to above. The infantry line stood about 500 yards away and in easy range of the 6-pdr field guns and 12-pdr field howitzers. But most of the Confederate shot and shell went over the infantry into the treeline beyond, many aimed at the Federal batteries. Those were further beyond the infantry line, at 600 to 800 yards. Such gave the rifled Federal guns an advantage. The one Confederate battery with 12-pdr Napoleon guns, Captain Felix Robertson’s Alabama Battery, attracted the attention of the Federal Parrotts (two Missouri batteries used them in the Hornet’s Nest sector). During the bombardment, Robertson ordered a retreat and temporarily abandoned two guns for lack of horses.
In Cannoneers in Gray, historian Larry Daniel summarized, “Ruggles’s fifty-three guns had neutralized the Federal artillery and hastened, if not caused, the demise of the Hornet’s Nest. Yet, the action was too late to alter significantly the outcome of the first day’s battle.”
Time lost assembling the massed batteries (Daniels cites a hour and a half delay) indeed muted the artillery’s impact. The massed guns certainly damaged the Federal lines once assembled. However, I think more than anything what caused the collapse of the Hornet’s Nest was the Confederate flanking and encirclement. That in consideration, perhaps the most important contribution of Ruggles’ guns was to hold the Federal’s attention. So perhaps in retrospect the impact of Ruggles’ batteries was more in word than deed.
At the site where those guns massed in the afternoon of April 6, 1862 is today occupied by thirty-three guns. Perhaps those guns represent a historical interpretation more than historical fact. But those thirty-three guns form the most diverse set of Civil War field artillery at one location today. Continuing the Shiloh theme, tomorrow I’ll offer up a cannon by cannon walk of that line.