Shiloh and the 15th Michigan Volunteer Infantry
On March 27, 1862, the 15th Michigan Infantry left the state to join the Army of the Tennessee under the command of Major General Ulysses S. Grant. They arrived at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee on April 5, 1862. At that time, Grant was in Savannah, Tennessee, and had been using the Tennessee River as a thoroughfare leading deeper and deeper into the Southern Confederacy. Grant and many of his generals deemed the Confederate Army of General Albert Sidney Johnston whipped, and that one more Union victory could possibly doom the Confederacy and end the war.
On April 7, 1862, the 15th was assigned a position beside the 18th Wisconsin under the command of General Benjamin Prentiss; however, due to the lateness of the hour, and the fact that Prentiss was camped a long way away, they bivouacked near the Landing for the night. The 15th was rudely awakened the morning of April 6th by a surprise attack by Johnston’s Army of the Mississippi, thus beginning the Battle of Shiloh. Thousands of screaming Confederates slammed into the Union pickets, sending them running away from the fight. The gray-clad wave continued until it began to envelop the now exposed camps of the Union soldiers.
Soldiers of the 15th Michigan had heard the scattered gunfire during the morning hours. Some of them inquired about the shooting, only to be told that the pickets must be “shooting squirrels.” Not far from their bivouac, soldiers of the 15th came upon a wounded man being helped to the rear. When asked about the pickets “shooting squirrels,” the soldier displayed a bloody hand, and stated that they were the “funniest squirrels” he had ever seen.
The men from Michigan quickly realized a fight was brewing. They were ordered to advance in the direction of Prentiss’s camp. Colonel Oliver, knowing that his men had not yet been issued ammunition, marched to the front hoping that he could pick up some cartridges en route. Reaching their destination, the 15th fell in next to the 18th Wisconsin, forming the extreme left flank of that brigade, in the area that was to become known as the Hornet’s Nest. As the Michigan boys dressed their lines, they could see a line of Confederate soldiers forming on the opposite ridge. Unable to secure any cartridges on the march, Oliver ordered his men to fix bayonets. As these Confederate soldiers approached the 15th, they leveled their guns, and fired into the ranks of the Michigan soldiers. Soldiers of the 15th began to fall in their ranks, and because they had no ammunition, they could not return fire. One Private of the 15th stated “We stood at order arms and looked at them as they shot.” After taking several volleys from the Confederate troops, the soldiers of the 15th were told to about face and they were marched back to the Landing.
When the left of the Hornet’s Nest began to give way, the whole position of the Hornet’s Nest was at risk of collapse. George W. McBride, a youth with the 15th Michigan, remembered the terrible fear of being trapped: “Someone calls out, ‘everybody for himself!’ The line breaks, I go with the others with the howling, rushing mass of the enemy pressing in close pursuit. The artillery seemed to have a crossfire and a short range was sweeping the ground with canister. The musketry fire was awful; the striking of the balls on the Sibley tents gave out a short cutting sound that terrified me.” Men
were falling all around McBride, and he was driven mad by the thought: “I felt sure that a cannon ball was close behind me, giving chase as I started for the river. I was never so frightened before, never ran so fast, was never in such a storm of bullets. Out of that fire I came alive and unharmed, but it was a marvel.”
In the confusion of the battle, Father Thomas Brady of Detroit, Michigan, Chaplain of the 15th Michigan, rode around looking for his regiment. He saw a body of men close by and asked them if they could tell him where the 15th Michigan was located. Unfortunately the men in question happened to be Irish Confederates. Recognizing Brady as a priest, the Confederates politely told him they did not know where his regiment was, and they let him turn his horse around and ride safely toward the Landing and friendly troops.
Although the day was lost, the battle was not and the reinforced and regrouped Union Army, including the 15th Michigan with ammunition, took back the battlefield and more the next day.