John S. Bowen’s Brigade and the First Day at Shiloh

In the early afternoon of April 6, 1862, General Albert Sidney Johnston raised the tin cup he had grabbed from a Union camp earlier that day and tapped the line of bayonets of his Rebel troops to rally them forward. “Men of Missouri and Arkansas, the enemy is stubborn,” the general cried. “I want you to show General Beauregard and General Bragg what you can do with your bayonets and toothpicks!” With their beloved leader at the helm, the Confederate troops in Brig. Gen. John Bowen’s brigade, Brig. Gen. John C. Breckenridge’s Reserve Corps charged forward into the fray.

CDV of John S. Bowen in his uniform from the Missouri State Militia. (Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis).

With approximately 1,700 infantrymen, Bowen’s brigade was composed of the 9th and 10th Arkansas Infantry, 2nd Confederate Infantry, 1st Missouri Infantry, Hudson’s Mississippi Battery, Watson’s Louisiana Battery, and Thompson’s Company of Kentucky Cavalry.[1] Like many other units at Shiloh, this was the brigade’s very first experience in combat, including their commander’s.

Just 31 years old, the Georgia-born, West Point educated, and former U.S. Army officer Bowen had a career as an architect in St. Louis, Missouri when the war broke out. In May 1861, he was in command of a company in the pro-secessionist Missouri State Militia, which was surrounded and forced to surrender to Capt. Nathaniel Lyon’s Federal home guard troops infamously at Camp Jackson in St. Louis. On June 11, 1861, the Confederate Army commissioned Bowen as a colonel and he formed the 1st Missouri Infantry at Memphis, Tennessee. In December 1861, he assumed command of what would soon become Bowen’s Brigade under Johnston’s command; less than one month later, Bowen was promoted to brigadier general in recognition for his leadership in the evacuations of Bowling Green and Nashville.

By the time Bowen’s men joined the rest of their Reserve Corps under Breckenridge late on April 5, 1862 after a thirty-plus-mile forced march from Burnsville, Mississippi, they were arguably the last brigade to arrive with the main army, within four miles of the main body of the Union Army of the Tennessee at Pittsburg Landing.[2] The next morning, Bowen’s brigade and the rest of Johnston’s Army of the Mississippi awoke hours before sunrise and advanced toward the Federal army, who the Rebels hoped were unaware of their approach. Before 5:00am, shots rang out in Fraley Field, and soon, more were heard along the Corinth Road around Shiloh Church. The bloodiest battle in American history up to that time had officially begun.

For nearly five hours, the men of Bowen’s brigade and the rest of Breckenridge’s Reserves waited impatiently for their chance to prove themselves on the battlefield. One member of the 1st Missouri Infantry, Joseph Boyce, recalled the men asking, “Does Gen. Johnston think we left the service? What about getting even on this Camp Jackson business?”[3] Finally, at approximately 10:00am, Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard sent Breckenridge’s 6,000-man corps to the Confederate right to finally force the Federals from their base of supply at Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee.

John Donelson Martin was second-in-command of Bowen’s brigade, until his commanding officer was severely wounded. Martin then took command of the brigade. He was killed at the Second Battle of Corinth in October that year. (Image courtesy of the Photographic History of the Civil War)

“We were then ordered to the scene of action at double-quick for nearly 2 miles, when the scene of battle lay before us. We here formed in line of battle, the First Missouri and my regiment [2nd Confederate Infantry] in front and the Ninth and Tenth Arkansas Regiments in the rear,” reported Col. John D. Martin.[4]

Along with roughly 8,000 Confederate troops, Bowen’s brigade was a part of a strengthened Confederate right flank. At the front, Bowen rallied his men, particularly the Missourians, by shouting, “Remember Camp Jackson!” This battle cry resonated strongly with Bowen’s men. Being the first battle for the brigade, it was their first time to seek revenge themselves against the Federal troops who had captured them and fired shots in St. Louis that day in May of 1861. Around noon (according to historian and veteran David Reed), Johnston rallied the men of Bowen’s brigade and the Confederate right flank, and personally led them forward to the east of the Peach Orchard. After moving across several deep ravines and skirmishing with Federal troops, Col. Martin recalled, “on reaching the top of a hill we were received with a destructive volley, killing and wounding about 12 of my men. Simultaneously we returned their fire and charged ahead; they fled in confusion.”

Bowen’s men had smashed into neighboring Federal regiments, including the 9th Illinois Infantry of Brig. Gen. John McArthur’s brigade, made up of their rival pro-Union German immigrants. In the fight in the Peach Orchard sector, Bowen’s men contributed greatly to turning the Union left flank (largely under the command of Brig. Gen. Stephen Hurlbut), even under severe fire.

An etching of Hurlbut’s division at the Peach Orchard. (Image courtesy of The Soldier in Our CIvil War)

With the death of Johnston, a staunch Federal defense, and a lack of coordination among the four corps, the advance of the Confederate right began to lose its strength and direction. Forming on the right of Col. Winfield Statham’s brigade and to the left of Brig. Gen. John Jackson’s and Brig. Gen. James Chalmers’ brigades was Bowen’s men, who along with these other brigades were drawn northwestward across the Hamburg-Savannah toward the Federal troops in Wicker Field and beyond in the infamous Hornets’ Nest. By putting pressure and ultimately flanking the Federal northeastern flank in the Hornets’ Nest, Bowen’s brigade had been a factor in forcing the Union soldiers out of this position. Bowen himself had been wounded severely in the right shoulder, neck, and in the side. Taken to the rear for his devastating wounds, Bowen was out the rest of the fight and the brigade was soon under the command of Col. Martin.

Boyce summarized the significance of the fight, “This was the grandest move made that bloody day … That grand regiment was from Missouri; they were ‘regulars,’ and as it swept round it closed the only escape for Prentiss. It burst on his left flank with the yell of ‘Remember Camp Jackson, boys, remember Camp Jackson.'”[5] However victorious it may have seemed for the Rebel troops in defeating and capturing over 2,000 Federal troops, the Federal defense of the Hornets’ Nest was a major factor in slowing down and redirecting the Confederate advance on that day. By nightfall, the brigade, having seen their first bitter fight, fell back toward Col. Everett Peabody’s brigade’s old campsite after being exposed to the naval guns of the Tyler and Lexington on the river.

Though the Army of the Mississippi as a whole was unable to capitalize on their momentum on the first day, Brig. Gen. John S. Bowen’s brigade played a major role in driving forward the Confederate right flank, one of the major aspects of Johnston’s strategic plan. Suffering over 35% casualties in the battle, the brigade performed admirably in some of the severest fighting at Shiloh, particularly at the Peach Orchard and Hornets’ Nest. By war’s end, the regiments had seen combat in nearly every major battle of the Western and Trans-Mississippi Theaters. Nicknamed, the “Stonewall of the West,” Bowen’s leadership and courage under fire made him one of the Confederacy’s finest commanders. However, his life was cut short in the war, having died of dysentery just days after the surrender of the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy.”

Sources:

  1. Larry Tagg, The Generals of Shiloh: Character in Leadership, April 6-7, 1862 (El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie, 2017), 226; David Reed, The Battle of Shiloh and the Organizations Engaged (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2008), 36.
  2. Philip Thomas Tucker, The Forgotten “Stonewall of the West:” Major General John S. Bowen (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1997), 102.
  3. Captain Joseph Boyce and the 1st Missouri Infantry, C.S.A., ed. by William Winter (St. Louis: Missouri History Museum, 2011), 62.
  4. Report of Col. John D. Martin, Second Confederate Infantry commanding, Second Brigade, in The War of the Rebellion, series 1, volume 10, part 1 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1880), 621.
  5. Captain Joseph Boyce, 64.
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5 Responses to John S. Bowen’s Brigade and the First Day at Shiloh

  1. Tony Robertson says:

    Bowen formed that First Missouri Infantry from Camp Jackson parolees & some SE Missourians at Memphis, TN – the first Missouri unit to officially serve in the Confederate Army. They were the first Missouri Confederates to serve east of the Mississippi and would be joined by their brethren from the Show Me State after the latter’s defeat at Pea Ridge. They would form the core of the First Missouri Brigade, who would become the dependable shock troops of Price, Pemberton, Johnston, and Hood, and would end the War defending Fort Blakely, AL on the very day Lee surrendered at Appomattox.

  2. Blake Myers says:

    Thank you for the terrific article on Bowen’s Brigade. One minor point – I am pretty sure it was Patrick Claiburne that was known as the “Stoneewall of the West”, and not John Bowen.

    • Kristen Pawlak says:

      Thanks for the comment, Blake! Actually, they both were nicknamed “Stonewall of the West.” As you pointed out, Cleburne is most famously referred to as such. With Bowen’s growing reputation, leadership, and courage, and the fact that his life was cut short following the surrender of Vicksburg, there were connections with he and Jackson in that sense. I hope that clarifies that for you. Thanks again for reading!

      • Andy Papen says:

        Great article, Kristen! The late Phil Gottschalk, who wrote a very fine history of the Missouri Brigade, firmly believed that, had Bowen lived, he would have been as well remembered as Cleburne and might have supplanted him as the premier Confederate division commander in the West. Maybe, maybe not. No way to prove it either way. However, Bowen was a very good field commander, and did have two things going for him that Cleburne did not. He was native born and a West Pointer. I could have seen Bowen in the running for a corps in 1864. He’s a man who certainly deserves to be better remembered than he probably is. Great job!

  3. David Corbett says:

    Interesting read; thanks.

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