Battle of Shiloh, and the Wounding, Capture, and Death of Elijah Owen

James Riley “Jim” Owen and wife, Annie Abigail Bryan, my dad’s grandparents: Jim Owen was just a few days shy of five years old when he watched his big brother Elijah ride off to join the Blount Guards on August 12, 1861. He would never see his brother again.

The North and South were four months into civil war when Jim Owen watched his older brother Elijah ride off to Blountsville, Alabama, to sign up to go whup the Yankees. Seeing him off would have been his father, Owen Owen, mother Susannah, older sisters Zilpha and Margaret Jane, and the youngest sister Susannah and younger brother Mitch, who was 12 years old. Jim, my great-grandfather, was the baby.

Nobody thought it would take very long to go do the job and come back home. It was an exciting Monday, August 12, 1861, eight days before little brother Jim would celebrate his fifth birthday. That it was a war from which the son and brother would never return may not have entered their thoughts. According to the federal census, Elijah Owen was 17 years old in 1860 – age 18 when he signed up with the Blount Guards in Blountsville.

Present for duty at muster for the 19th Alabama on December 1, 1861, were 35 officers, and 625 men (with an aggregate of 940). When the regiment surrendered four years later, only 76 members answered roll call. The Battle of Shiloh, their very first real trial by fire, claimed one-third of them.

The 19th Alabama Regiment remained three months in camp in Huntsville under their colonel, “Fightin'” Joe Wheeler. A graduate of West Point, he picked up the nickname in a skirmish with Indians in New Mexico just a few months before the opening salvos of the Civil War. In November 1861, the regiment was ordered to Dog River, below Mobile. The Ambrose Doss Papers in the W. S. Hoole Special Collections Library at the University of Alabama, gives many specifics of the lives of the men (which necessarily would have included my ancestral uncle, Elijah Owen) during their slow months of training.

Fightin’ Joe Wheeler

Besides drills several times a day, the men were kept busy cutting and hewing timber for winter quarters, though being camped near Mobile, summer seemed to hang on and on with no winter in sight. The men from Blount County were more used to cooler weather come fall, and some hard frosts by November. They were also more used to hills and mountains, rocks and boulders than the sand hills and pinewoods among which they were camped. To add to their many other miseries, including mumps and measles, snakes were crawling and at least one man was bitten. Sand fleas added a little something extra to their torment.

On top of the usual miseries of men living in close quarters in tents, were the lack of supplies. Though they ate fairly well (except coffee was at a premium), the recruits had no guns and no pay, which caused “bad feeling” among the men, especially as they were camped within a few miles of the enemy and could often hear their guns off in the distance. The pay was especially needed by the married men who wanted to send money back home for their wives and children.

Ambrose Doss of Jefferson County, Alabama, wrote to his wife Sarah to send “my bullet molds”, and to “be sure to keep the rust out of my gun, and do not loan it out to anybody”. He must have entertained the idea that he might have to go home and arm himself in order to fight. In a droll aside Doss also told his wife to “tell the boys back home not to volunteer under no excitement”. He also said he had seen some of their friends die without ever having seen a Yankee or fired a gun in anger. “[The men] have not yet tasted the fury and horror of battle,” he said, “but it won’t be long now.”

It was late in December before the men drew their pay, about four months from the date of their enlistment. They were now in winter quarters, an 80 ft long by 12 ft wide barracks with partitions 10 feet long holding six men each. In January sickness ravaged the camp and many died of typhoid fever. Guns had finally been issued, but the battle they thought was imminent never materialized.

In February the camp moved from Mobile to Pensacola, Florida, traveling all night by train on platform cars in a pouring rain. A battle had been fought there back in November and the men of the 19th got to see the after-effects “where cannon balls fell thick and hot around our boys” [Doss Papers], but had not yet seen a battle themselves. It must have been a bitter pill to swallow being so close, and yet not be fighting beside their brothers in arms. They had no way of knowing a blood bath was coming their way in early April, just a little over a month away.

Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston

A few weeks after arriving at Pensacola, they were ordered to Corinth, Mississippi. At Corinth, the 19th Ala joined General Albert Sydney Johnston’s army. They were placed under Gen. A. H. Gladden and brigaded with the 1st Alabama Battalion and 25th Alabama Regiment.

At the end of March, while at an advance camp in Tennessee, Doss wrote his wife that they were “alooking at a fight here every day, but don’t know when it will be. The Yankees are 8 miles of us. We went out on picket guard and they got in one-fourth of a mile of us and we had to get back to camps”. They were greatly outnumbered. 

Gen. Braxton Bragg

The Battle of Shiloh lasted 2 days, April 6-7, 1862, and the 19th Alabama is found to be in the Army of the Mississippi in the 2nd Corps (Gen. Bragg commanding).

Its associate commands were the 17th and 18th Alabama Regiments, an Alabama Battalion, an Arkansas Battalion, the 2nd Texas, and Girardy’s Battery. Their baptism by fire was upon them.

 

BATTLE of SHILOH

Photo taken by me at Shiloh National Military Park, Shiloh, Tennessee

At 6 a.m. on Sunday morning, April 6, Johnston’s Confederate troops were in position on the Corinth road.  Probably because of the incongruity of this first day of bloody battle falling on the Lord’s Day, the Battle of Shiloh was later spoken of by Sherman as “The Devil’s Own Day”. As it happened, because of the months of intense training drills, Elijah Owen, along with his Blount Guards, was among the best trained fighting men in the Army of the Mississippi [Wikipedia, The Battle of Shiloh, Braxton Bragg’s men from Mobile and Pensacola].

Though the number of troops on both sides were about even, the Confederates were mostly untrained, raw recruits with inferior arms. Some carried old swords from home and other munitions from earlier wars. Some were issued flintlocks. The newer Enfield rifles were scarce. Johnston was depending on the element of surprise in a full-scale assault, which his second-in-command, P.G.T. Beauregard, never believed would work because he thought they had lost the element of surprise, and tried several times to talk him out of it.

However, Grant’s troops were at Pittsburg Landing none the wiser. In a telegram to Gen. Halleck on April 5, Grant said he wasn’t expecting an attack, but was prepared. (Turns out he wasn’t as prepared as he thought). Sherman, who was taking the lead at Pittsburg Landing, was so convinced there were no Johnny Rebs around, that

. . . when an Ohio colonel warned Sherman that an attack was imminent, the general said, ‘”Take your damned regiment back to Ohio. There is no enemy nearer than Corinth.”  [Wikipedia, Battle of Shiloh, (with references)]

If it weren’t for Col. Everett Peabody sending out a reconnaissance from the 25th Missouri, the surprise would have been total. As it was, the resulting hot fight gave the Union troops a small heads-up, but not enough to take the initiative. The unexpected onslaught sent many of them into all-out flight or firing and fighting as they retreated. From the book “Blood, Tears, and Glory: How Ohioans Won the Civil War”, by James Bissland, the author makes use of eye-witness accounts:

1st Lt. Marion Posegate of the 48th Ohio is “enjoying his first cup of coffee” when he hears drums and “scattered gunshots”. He’s about to order his men into a defensive position when their colonel, Peter J. Sullivan, orders them forward, to meet the attack. But the tide of oncoming Confederates soon sends them running for cover.

From on top of the ridge near the Shiloh Meetinghouse, 1st Lt. Ephraim C. Dawes of the 53rd Ohio watches in horror.

Directly in front of Dawes are solid ranks of Confederates, their bayonets and swords gleaming in the early morning sun. They are advancing four ranks deep on a three-mile front, with one rank after another rolling forward like the tide. [Blood, Tears, and Glory]

Trying desperately to make up for their shortsightedness, Grant and Sherman are in the thick of it. Sherman is wounded and has had two horses shot out from under him.

Galloping furiously back and forth, directing the troops, are Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Brig. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. They had failed to prepare for or even consider the possibility of the Confederate attack, but now they are working fearlessly and furiously to rally their stunned forces. [Blood, Tears, and Glory]

But the lack of veterans among the Confederates saves the 48th Ohio.

Enemy fire is so heavy, according to Posegate, that thickets of brush look as if they have been cut down with “a dull sickle.” Trees are riddled with bullets and branches broken; only the fact that the inexperienced Confederates fire too high—as new soldiers often do—saves the 48th from annihilation. Posegate is wounded and removed to a hospital boat. [Blood, Tears, and Glory]

Then, about 2:30 p.m., disaster strikes. Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston takes a bullet behind his right knee while leading a charge near the Peach Orchard.

The Peach Orchard, once a scene of heavy fighting where peach blossoms rained down upon the living, the wounded, and the dead. Photo taken at Shiloh National Military Park. (My husband Mike reads the Peach Orchard marker).

Not knowing how seriously he is wounded, Johnston sends his personal physician away to take care of “more seriously wounded” soldiers. Within the hour he has bled to death and command of the Army of the Mississippi goes to Beauregard. And though the Confederates push on to win the day, they have not won the battle. By 6 p.m. Beauregard confidently opts to take a break and finish them up tomorrow. But if he could have heard Sherman and Grant, with their backs to the bluff and the river, he would not have been so confident.

Sherman says to his commander, “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” Quietly puffing his customary cigar, Grant calmly replies, “Yes, lick ‘em tomorrow, though.” [Blood, Tears, and Glory]

Surprised by a massive Union counterattack at dawn on Monday, April 7, Beauregard nevertheless stabilizes his front by “10 a.m., positioning his corps commanders from left to right: Bragg, Polk, Breckinridge, and Hardee. In a thicket near the Hamburg-Purdy Road, the fighting was so intense that Sherman described in his report that it was ‘the severest musketry fire I ever heard.’ “And though Beauregard launched a series of counterattacks by early afternoon, when his last counterattack was flanked and repulsed, he knew it was all over. He had lost too many men. They were out of ammunition, food, and water. Positioning batteries near Shiloh church and on the heights to keep the Union forces at bay, and 5,000 men under Breckenridge as cover, Beauregard pulled his troops back in an orderly withdrawal to Corinth. The Union forces were too exhausted to pursue very far. [Wikipedia: Battle of Shiloh].

Elijah Owen, Co K, 19th Alabama Inf., fought under Gen. Bragg. At some point on this second day of battle, Elijah takes a bullet in the arm and is captured. Transported to Camp Douglas, Illinois, where conditions are so horrific that the people of Chicago are moved to protest, his health deteriorates. Almost a month to the day later, on May 4, 1862, Elijah Owen, age 19, dies of pneumonia. Though the Confederate records give his age as 21, two census records show he was born before June, 1843. Here is his record:

Military:    Civil War: CSA, 12 August 1861, Blountsville, Alabama
Unit:         Company K, 19th Infantry, Capt. Skinner’s Company
Action:      Battle of Shiloh, 7 April 1862
Wounded in arm
P.O.W.:    Camp Douglas, Illinois
Died:        Of pneumonia 4 May 1862, age 21
Marriage status — Single

He is buried in the Confederate Mound at Oak Woods Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois. As I researched the Owen family for my father (it was his mother’s family), I couldn’t help but wonder about Elijah’s life before 1861. He probably worked the farm, courted a girl, made plans for the future. I couldn’t help but wonder how Elijah’s mother, Susannah, dealt with never even having the body of her son to return home. I wonder how all the mothers, and fathers, and sisters, and brothers, Union and Confederate, in this same situation, dealt with never having the closure of a funeral, or a grave site to visit. But it is the same in all wars, and on all sides. Grief and lifelong heartache are camp followers who do not fade away after the war is over.

Photo taken at Shiloh National Military Park

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