Today we are pleased to welcome back guest author Sean Michael Chick
In the American Civil War, Don Carlos Buell’s arrival at Shiloh with over 15,000 men, stands as the most famous reinforcement of the war. Its importance to the battle’s outcome has been long debated, with Ulysses Grant’s partisans sometimes downplaying its importance. Regardless, it certainly ended the Confederacy’s slim chances of victory at Shiloh and allowed the Union to launch a sloppy but successful counterattack the following day. The same night Buell’s men were unloading at Pittsburgh Landing, a lone Rebel regiment was coming to the aid of the Confederates. The regiment was the 47th Tennessee, led by Colonel Munson R. Hill, a local lawyer and politician. When compared to Buell’s thousands, Hill’s regiment illustrates the near impossibility of a major Confederate victory. The Confederates lacked the reserves to exploit a tactical triumph.
The 47th Tennessee was an unremarkable unit. It hailed from northwest Tennessee; Gibson, Obion, and Dyer Counties. Organized in December, the regiment was encamped near Beech Grove at Camp Trenton along the Kentucky border. Apparently training did not go fast enough. In March, the regiment was still unassigned and kept in camp. Their position was exposed after the fall of Fort Donelson and Columbus and yet they remained there for nearly six weeks. Leonidas Polk, the commander at Columbus, Kentucky, did not bring Hill with him to Corinth.
Polk’s reasoning is unclear. Certainly the 47th Tennessee could be destroyed by a Union column or even scattered, particularly since the men lacked training and experience. Most likely in the rush to evacuate Columbus, the 47th Tennessee simply was not a major concern for Polk. Civil War generals lacked experience in large operations and even as late as 1864 most staffs were undermanned. In addition, Polk, rightfully considered one of the lesser generals of the war, was also a sloppy administrator. His oversight might be hard to explain but it is hardly surprising. Hill and his men fell through the cracks so to speak.
Hill, whatever his other qualities, was diligent about arming his men. His regiment lacked bayonets. Worst of all most of the men started the war with sporting rifles and shotguns. There were over forty-five different types of fire arms in the regiment. To remedy this, Hill had an armory constructed at his hometown of Trenton, which remade over 300 of the regiment’s weapons. By March 31, the armory was moved to Grenada, Mississippi and Hill had to beg Polk for weapons.
Albert Sidney Johnston, commander of the Army of the Mississippi, decided to strike Grant’s encampment at Pittsburgh Landing in April. Polk at last called up the 47th Tennessee to join in the battle. The raw regiment made a grueling march to the battlefield. Since April 2 provisions had been scarce. The men had at most two crackers to a man. They marched through rain and mud. On April 6, Hill pushed the men from 7 a.m. to midnight, gave them a four hour rest in the rain without tents or food, and then pressed ahead to Shiloh, arriving on the morning of April 7. They were escorted by a staff officer dispatched by Benjamin Cheatham to the famous sunken road. The exhausted regiment marched through the horrors of the field, tramping over unburied bodies in what was up to then the bloodiest battle in American history. Few Civil War regiments had a more dramatic and difficult entrance into their first battle. They had made a forced march through rain on empty stomachs and were pressed forward to the front of a battle already lost. The 47th Tennessee consisted of a mere 700 men at best. Buell had already deployed two divisions, some 10,000 troops, in battle line. The 47th Tennessee, despite their efforts, could not possibly turn the tide of battle. The hard march was in vain.
The regiment’s role in the battle is sketchy. It had a supposed strength of 731 men, but likely no more than 600 completed the march. They were assigned to Preston Smith’s brigade, formerly led by Bushrod Johnson. The most accepted account is that the men armed themselves with discarded Union rifles but took only a limited part in the fighting. According to Larry J. Daniel, the 47th Tennessee did not spearhead Smith’s failed late morning attack on the Sunken Road. Yet, Hill later stated that his men helped repulse an attack and then counterattacked, retreating only as the battle turned against the South. Whatever the truth, the regiment was engaged. According to the West Tennessee Whig it lost 67 men in the fighting on April 7. Unfortunately, the regiment’s most famous act, the reinforcement at Shiloh, remains a blind spot in our understanding of the battle.
The regiment may have only lost 67 men at Shiloh, but the hard march, bad diet, and poor conditions at Corinth wrecked the outfit. On May 24, Hill reported only 199 as fit for duty. Hill’s heath declined as well. In May 1862, he became severely sick and did not follow the regiment into Kentucky. After Stones River, Hill resigned. Hill’s career fortunes did not improve. He lost a race for the Confederate Congress and in 1867 he died of yellow fever in Memphis.
Although their role in the battle remains unclear, Shiloh is still the most famous episode in the history of the 47th Tennessee, although it saw heavier fighting in later battles. The regiment was merged with the 12th Tennessee. Together both regiments fought at Richmond, Stones River, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Peachtree Creek, Atlanta, Jonesboro, Franklin, Nashville, and Bentonville. They were particularly hard pressed at Stones River, the regiment’s most costly battle, and suffered greatly at Chickamauga and Franklin. The 47th Tennessee never achieved fame nor a reputation as a first rate outfit. They provided solid service and are still best known as the only reinforcements the Confederacy received at Shiloh.