A Revelation of
Civilians in Hardin County, Tennessee, Spring, 1862
by Vicki Betts
War came to the civilians in Hardin County, Tennessee, in the spring of
1862. What had been a matter for public debate and far away confrontations came
upriver with the huge Federal army, disembarking at the foot of Main Street in
Savannah and about eight miles south at a small landing called Pittsburg.
Theoretical political divisions between friends became matters of life
and death, homes were disrupted throughout the county, and nothing would ever be
the same again. Three groups of civilians saw the war from the closest
possible perspective—the people of Savannah, the people of the Pittsburg
Landing area, and the northern citizens who either accompanied the transports
south, or who came to aid the wounded immediately after the battle of Shiloh.
Hardin County, organized in 1819, was a rural area inhabited mainly by small acreage farmers—only five with more than 500 acres and fourteen with over 20 slaves, the standard for the planter class. Total population was 11,214, which included 1623 slaves and 37 free blacks. Savannah, the county seat, perched on a bluff on the east side of the broad Tennessee River. It could boast of no more than 1,000 citizens in 1860, no newspaper, no railroad, and no telegraph. One visitor called it “a quiet, sober looking old town, with a single street, a square brick court house, a number of buildings scattered along the street, with some pretty and rather stylish residences in the suburbs.” The 1860 census found there the typical blend of teachers and physicians, blacksmiths and carpenters, spinsters and seamstresses.
When Tennessee’s referendum on secession came in 1861, Hardin County voted to remain with the Union. Even after fighting had begun, much of Savannah and the eastern part of the county continued to quietly support the old flag, while the western side of the river tended to be pro-Confederate. The militia began to drill, and in the summer of 1861 Confederates held a recruiting “grand barbecue” west of Saltillo, with patriotic speeches and a mounted parade around the camp meeting arbor by enlistees “with small flags attached to their horses’ heads.” Charles S. Robertson soon formed a cavalry company, followed by the “Hardin County Boys,” Company B, 34th Tennessee Infantry. Officials instituted a local draft for additional men and from those Col. Crews formed a five-company regiment, armed with confiscated squirrel rifles and double-barrel shotguns, clothed with home-produced brown jeans cloth uniforms with a black stripe running down each pant leg. This unit would guard the county seat. The Southern cause was at its zenith in Hardin County.
On February 7, 1862, several steamboats passed Savannah at full speed, alarming the town. A passenger jumped into the water and swam to the shore, announcing that Fort Henry had fallen and that Yankee gunboats would surely be heading upriver. Unionists were elated at the news, but Confederates were terrified at the prospect. That same day, the Tyler, Lexington, and Connestoga captured the partially completed gunboat Eastport at Cerro Gordo on the northern edge of the county, then caches of citizens’ guns at Coffee Landing and Savannah the following day. Most of Crews’ regiment withdrew to Murfreesboro and later marched to Corinth to join the main Confederate army. Many who had been “pressed” into service deserted and went home to await the Federals.
By March 1, two of the gunboats, the Tyler and the Lexington, had returned to patrol the river, and they found the 18th Louisiana Infantry and Gibson’s battery at Pittsburg Landing. The gunboats opened fire, driving the Confederates from the edge of the bluff. A landing party engaged in a brief fight, then withdrew. They checked on the location for several more days, then left. In the face of a probable imminent invasion, on Thursday, March 6, Confederate officials at Savannah held their part of a statewide enrollment of all men of military age, with mustering in scheduled for Monday the 10th. Word of the draft and of "ill treatment of Union men at Savannah” soon traveled downriver. A Federal gunboat was dispatched, and about half of the 40th Illinois Infantry arrived on the 7th to occupy the town. They soon made themselves at home, with some soldiers “invading the houses” and “threatening mischief,” according to an officer of the 46th Ohio whose troops arrived the following day. The 46th sent out a patrol and pickets, but otherwise stayed on their transport.
During Saturday night many Unionist refugees began arriving in Savannah from both sides of the river, as well as “perhaps more than a thousand drafted men.” The 46th Ohio staged a dress parade on Sunday, which added to the feeling that this was “the liveliest day the little town . . . had ever witnessed.” About forty or fifty of the local men mustered into the 46th and others joined the crew of the Tyler. Later reports upped the total number of Federal recruits to five hundred, a clear indication of regional support for the Unionist cause. Some local citizens, fearing Confederate reprisals, asked for transport north to safer havens.
That afternoon, the gunboat Lexington steamed upstream and lobbed about a dozen shells into Pittsburg Landing. There was no reply.
By Monday, Federal food supplies were running low, and sickness began to spread aboard the transports. William H. Cherry, the town’s leading Unionist, a wealthy planter, merchant, and the county’s fifth largest slave-owner, had been authorized to offer a home vacated by a Confederate owner as a hospital. Town officials also volunteered a new frame church, and the local citizens did all in their power to make the patients more comfortable.
The next morning, March 11, the remaining troops left the transports so that they could be cleaned. About noon the steamer Golden Gate arrived, announcing that the main body of the western Federal army was just behind it. The 46th Ohio, and probably everyone else in Savannah, gathered on the hill above the landing, peering down the river as far as they could see. By two o’clock the lead boat came into sight. One witness wrote: “The weather was soft and fine, and one or more flags floated over every boat. Nearly every regiment had a band of music, and in this, till then, sequestered region, occurred a scene of martial activity and festivity, never before witnessed in the Union. Unexpected, grand, and indeed terrible, it was, to the inhabitants along the forest-girded banks of the Tennessee.” The fleet included up to a hundred steamers, “laden to the guards with soldiers, cattle, and munitions of war.” The “decks were dark with blue coated soldiers. Bright brass cannon glittered on the foredeck, where the batteries were loaded, and the bands played their most soul-stirring airs.” The transports sent forth “vast volumes of smoke, which shadowed and sooted the atmosphere from hill to hill across the river valley.” They docked at Savannah on both sides of the river for a mile, at places four or five deep. At night the bright lights on either shore looked “like so many will-o’-the-wisps dancing over the water.”
The charm of the army’s arrival soon gave way to unsanitary conditions and disease aboard the transports. Savannah became “one vast hospital” of men with malaria, dysentery, and typhoid. The army took over the brick shell of the half-finished Savannah College, laid a floor in it, and used it as a hospital for months. Major John H. Brinton, surgeon, fought army red tape continually for proper food (particularly fresh meat), medicines, and medical supplies. The hospital boat City of Memphis took 410 sick men to St. Louis, and the Louisiana, with Mrs. Harriet R. Colfax aboard, took over three hundred downriver. The number of deaths depleted the local supply of lumber for coffins.
Gen. William T. Sherman had located his troops upstream at Pittsburg Landing on March 16, and when Gen. U. S. Grant arrived at Savannah the next day, Sherman urged that the army be moved to that more strategic location. Grant ordered all of the troops still on the transports to Pittsburg Landing, leaving only McClernand’s division encamped around Savannah.
Pittsburg Landing was the principal river shipping point in the 15th Civil District of Hardin County and the northern terminus of the road to Corinth, Mississippi, a major Confederate rail center. Pittsburg Landing never was a town—indeed, the entire 15th Civil District could not boast of a town, a teacher, a physician or a preacher in the 1860 census. One merchant, W. A. Pettigrew, may have operated a storehouse on the landing, but the Federal gunboats had probably driven him away well before the arrival of the Union army. The scattered landowners were overwhelmingly farmers, growing mostly corn and hogs, with a few bales of cotton, some sweet potatoes, and a small amount of orchard produce, including peaches. There were only twenty-three slaves in the entire district, belonging to eight owners. The fields were merely clearings in the forest, and the houses were often “rude” log cabins, at best, modest frame homes. Shiloh Church, a Methodist meeting house, was described as a one-room cabin, originally chinked, with a clapboard roof and plain benches, which “would make a good corncrib for an Illinois farmer.”
Among the numerous chroniclers of the battle of Shiloh, both Northern and Southern, there are very few reports of encounters with local civilians in or near the Pittsburg Landing encampment. Chances are that most evacuated to area family or friends, although no one is sure when that happened—whether at the first firing of a Federal gunboat or when the first troops came onshore to stay.
Members of scouting details came across empty cabins guarded only by the families’ roosters which had been left behind. T. W. Connelly, of the 70th Ohio Infantry, remembered that:
The native inhabitants of this part of the country were scarce and far between.
Occasionally a clay-complected looking chap would come into camp, pretending to
be a friend, and after being directed to some Regimental or Brigade Headquarters
would address the commander with the following question: “Can I get a guard, sah?”
In reply the Colonel would put the following: “What is your name?” “My name is
John Jones, sah.” “Are you a loyal man?” “Oh, yes, sah; I am a loyal man, sah; and
the Rebels have taken about all I’ve got, sah. I want a guard.” “All right; you can
have a guard.”
Some local citizens occasionally served as guides and warned Federal officers of Confederate outpost locations, although much more information seemed to be funneled to the Southern side. At least one resident even told the Yankees that General Beauregard had visited both Pittsburg Landing and Adamsville, as a “peddler of pies and cakes.” Other citizens, including probably either the McCuller or Bell family, stayed at home, even up until the battle started, when William H. Lowe of the 55th Illinois Volunteer Infantry saw a woman and a man at a cabin in that area.
While the army at Pittsburg Landing drilled, enjoyed the beginning of a Tennessee spring, and withstood rain, mud, and dysentery, Grant set up his headquarters by invitation at the Cherry Mansion in Savannah. The eight room home, which adjoined a convenient river landing, belonged to William Cherry, the most outspoken Unionist in town, and his pro-Confederate wife, the former Annie Irwin. Gen. C. F. Smith, who had contracted tetanus while debarking from one of the headquarters boats, later shared the house with Grant, while the general’s staff set up in the yard. Two of Annie Cherry’s sisters, one of whom had a husband in the Confederate service, sang and played for the visiting Federal officers in the evenings after they returned from official duties at Pittsburg Landing. Rumor had it that Annie plied Grant with liquor and flirtation to discover military information which she could then pass on to her brother in the First Confederate Cavalry. Also, security was so relaxed in this ostensibly loyal home that Annie’s brother James, the brothers of Cherry’s first wife, and some of the Hardin boys, all in the Confederate army, would sneak into the basement at night and listen to Federal staff meetings in the dining room above!
In a more modest home in town, Major John Brinton became friends with another local family who were “’secesh’ to the back-bone.” They had two sons in the Confederate service, and five daughters. After a while the girls treated him to their “Secession songs” including “Wait for the wagon, the dissolution wagon” and “To arms, to arms in Dixie land.” Their favorite, however, included the line “And, one, two, three, we’ll crush them!”
All dealings with the Federal army in Savannah were not so congenial. Grant received several reports of slaves either being hidden on steamers by soldiers, or else being taken to Pittsburg Landing without their owners’ permission. In each case he demanded that the slaves be returned and the responsible men be held to account. Military authorities also occasionally commandeered buildings in town for the use of the army—but whose buildings were taken often depended on the politics of the owners. Patrols into the east Hardin County countryside occasionally brought in prisoners and confiscated mules, and at least one house was set on fire, although it was quickly pout out by others in the detachment.
When the Federal transports had steamed up the Tennessee River, a number of Northern civilians were aboard. May Ann Bickerdyke, fondly known as “Mother Bickerdyke,” accompanied the 21st Indiana Infantry on the gunboat Fanny Bullet from Fort Donelson in March. She stayed in Savannah to nurse the sick as best she could without official sponsorship initially from any group. Mrs. Belle Reynolds, whose husband served as a lieutenant in the 17th Indiana Infantry, arrived on March 21. She and another woman set up adjoining tents not far from the Shiloh meeting house. Lucy Kaiser of Illinois, bored with nursing at Benton Barracks, and a smuggled young woman with two little girls, shared a room on a transport and made it ashore for one of the grand reviews at Pittsburg Landing. Mary Ann Newcomb, another volunteer nurse, arrived at Pittsburg Landing on Friday, April 4. Mrs. Vail of Iowa, Miss Hadley of Wisconsin, Mrs. Dr. Hood of Ohio, and Mrs. Turner, state unknown, were on nearby transports also at the landing. The wife of Col. William Hall of the 11th Iowa Infantry, shared his tent on shore, while Mrs. Jerusha R. Small stayed with her husband who served with the Twelfth Iowa Infantry. Modenia Weston, the “mother” of the 3rd Iowa Infantry, had just managed to get the regiment’s bout with diarrhea under control at Stacy Field.
So many visitors were managing to make the trip that on April 3, Grant wrote his wife: “It will be impossible for you to join me at present. There are constantly ladies coming up here to see their husbands and consequently destroying the efficiency of the army until I have determined to publish an order entirely excluding females from our lines. This is ungallant but necessary. Mr. & Miss Safford were up here and returned a few days ago.” One of the last to make the trip was Ann Wallace, the wife of Gen. W. H. L. Wallace, who was on a boat along with a “kind woman nurse that belonged to Colonel Ross’ regiment on board with sanitary supplies.” Ann had had a premonition that her husband would need her, and had decided to come without her husband’s knowledge or permission. She arrived at Pittsburg Landing just before dawn, on Sunday, April 6.
Captain Coates, 11th Illinois Infantry, offered to walk Ann Wallace to her husband’s headquarters even though they could both hear quite a bit of firing in the distance. She was assured that it was only pickets returning and clearing their rifles, but then Capt. Coates suggested that perhaps he determine Gen. Wallace’s exact location before they started the trip. In less than thirty minutes he returned wounded, with news that a large battle was underway, and Ann was forced to remain on the boat. Soon casualties by the hundreds were being brought aboard, and she “passed from place to place holding water and bandages for the surgeons.”
Belle Reynolds and “Mrs. N.” were cooking breakfast when “we were startled by cannon balls howling over our heads.” Belle finished her husband’s cakes, wrapped them in a napkin and tucked them into his haversack. Warned to flee for their lives, they abandoned their trunks and “snatching our traveling baskets, bonnets in hand” headed for General Ross’s deserted camp just down the road. Again warned to head for the river, they had barely cleared the area when “a shell exploded close by, the pieces tearing through the tent, and a solid shot passed through headquarters.” When about a half mile from the river, they came across where the ambulances were unloading the wounded, and they went to work, helping as best they could. However, within ten minutes they were all ordered to the transports, where at one point Bell, on the hurricane deck, was handed a revolver and ordered to assist a lieutenant in keeping panicked soldiers away from the boat.
Mrs. Colonel Hall had her own introduction to warfare that Sunday morning. She later told a reporter: “We were in our tent and not prepared to receive company. In fact, we were both en dishabille when a big cannon-shot tore through the tent. A caller at that early hour, considering its unexpectedness, and our condition, may possibly be regarded as a surprise.” She completed her toilette and joined others fleeing to the riverbank, but not without her dress being struck in twenty-nine places by bullets and shell fragments.
Mrs. Jerusha Small turned her tent into a temporary hospital and tore up “all her spare clothing and dresses to make bandages and compresses and pillows” for the wounded. When they came under enemy fire, she and the more mobile soldiers fled to safer areas.
Not long after dawn that Sunday morning, Gen. Grant awoke in one of the upstairs rooms of the Cherry Mansion in Savannah. He dressed and went down for breakfast, but had not even tasted his coffee when he was informed of heavy gunfire upriver. His saddled horse was immediately loaded on the already stoked Tigress, and he left for “Shiloh’s dark and bloody ground.” The fighting went on all day, with the Federal gunboats shelling at fifteen minute intervals all night, then the battle continuing into Monday.
The sound could be heard for miles. Caldonia Banks, on the western edge of neighboring Wayne County twenty-five miles away, was at a spring getting water for the day. “She raised up and began looking around to see which direction the sound was coming from. No cloud was in the sky but the rumbling continued. Later in the day, the rumble changed to ‘boom – boom – boom’. She had no idea what was going on all through the day. But the noise went on. Even the next day the noise continued well in to the day.”
Wilbur Hinman was with the Sherman Brigade, marching in from Nashville. While still out in the Hardin County countryside, he passed the local people who had:
turned out en masse to see the long column pass. The battle then raging was as unexpected
to them as to us. They had sons, brother, husbands and fathers in the Confederate ranks.
Anxiety, fear and sorrow were depicted on their faces. Many of the women were crying
bitterly. Most of them were too much affected to express themselves in words. Groups
were collected at every house. At one point where we halted, I observed a large number
of old, gray-haired men and women. I inquired what brought so many of this class together,
and was told they came there to hold a prayer-meeting, but that they had to give it up, as
everybody’s thoughts were on the battle.
Even four or five miles beyond Savannah, he could hear the cannon clearly and distinctly, and the volleys of muskets.
Hinman’s regiment reached Savannah at about 10 a.m., Monday morning, April 7th.
Here was a scene of the utmost confusion and excitement that it is possible to imagine.
All through the night steamboats had been running to and from Pittsburg Landing, carrying up
troops, artillery and ammunition for Buell’s army, and returning with hundreds of wounded
men from the first day’s battle. All the buildings in the little straggling village had been taken
possession of for hospital purposes. Here and there, on porches and in yards, lay the
bodies of those who had died during the night. In almost every house surgeons were at
work dressing wounds and amputating shattered limbs. As we marched down the main
street toward the river we could hear on every side the groans of the suffering. To us all
this was a revelation. We were looking upon the ghastliest picture of war.
Among the nurses in town was Mother Bickerdyke, helping to clean and bandage wounds, and cooking for the troops.
About the same time that Hinman reached Savannah, county residents also began gathering there as well as at Crump’s Landing and other communities near Pittsburg Landing. Local men were fighting on both sides that day, and family members wanted to be ready to search the battlefields for loved ones as soon as the volleys stopped.
At Pittsburg Landing, the fighting front had pushed back into the interior. Mrs. Vail and Mrs. Hood came to Mary Ann Newcomb determined to do something to help the wounded,
so we got some tin buckets and went about two miles back from the river to a point
where there had been fighting a short time before. The dead and dying lay so thick that
we might have walked a mile with every step on a dead body. Mrs. Vail, from Iowa,
fainted, Mrs. Dr. Hood, of Ohio, stood it a little better. We filled our buckets with water
from the springs and gave the thirsty men. We tore our aprons in little squares, filled them
with grass and leaves and stopped some gaping wounds that were bleeding. We made
bandages from our garments and bound up shattered limbs. Meanwhile the ambulances
were busy carrying the men to the old house on the hill where the knife and saw could do
Ann Wallace, while caring for the wounded aboard one of the transports on Sunday, received word that her husband had been killed and his body left on the battlefield. “God gave me strength and I spent much of the night in bathing the fevered brows and limbs of the sufferers around me. Action was a relief to me, and it was slight help to aid men who were suffering in the cause for which Will had given his life.” However, at mid-morning the next day her husband was brought in living, although with a severe head wound. He was taken to the Cherry Mansion where he lingered until Thursday. Ann took comfort in the fact that he did regain consciousness enough to know that she was with him, and that he died with family around him.
Within twenty-four hours news of the battle reached Chicago, St. Louis, and Cincinnati. The Western and United States Sanitary Commissions mobilized immediately and sent the hospital steamers D. A. January, Imperial, and Empress, the latter with Mrs. E. C. Witherall as matron. Each boat was complete with surgeons, volunteer nurses, medical supplies, bedding, clothing and food. The Chicago Branch returned the hospital boat Louisiana while the Cincinnati Branch sent the Tycoon and the Monarch. Other western states and cities sent their own boats as well, each preferring to minister to its own soldiers, much to the consternation of military authorities. Governor Louis Powell of Wisconsin and Governor Richard Yates of Illinois both traveled to Savannah, where Governor Powell accidentally fell into the river and drowned. The Army Committees of the Young Men’s Christian Association (soon to be part of the U. S. Christian Commission) of St. Louis and Chicago sent delegates of volunteers. Mary Safford, “the Angel of Cairo,” returned to help, to be followed by Eliza Chappell Porter, an official with the Sanitary Commission, and several other “lady” nurses who worked closely with Mother Bickerdyke in Savannah. Boatload after boatload of the wounded, many with women nurses or matrons, headed downstream to hospitals in Keokuk, St. Louis, Louisville, Mound City, Evansville, Cincinnati, Paducah, and Mt. Vernon, Indiana.
Among the nurses aboard the hospital boats were a number of Catholic sisters. Dr. George Blackman and Mrs. Sarah Peter of Cincinnati took five Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis on the Superior. Another Cincinnati group aboard the Lancaster No. 4 included Mrs. O’Shaughnessy, Miss McHugh, Mayor Hatch’s wife and daughter Jennie as well as ten Sisters of Charity headed by Sister Anthony O’Connell, matron of St. John’s Hospital. A Sanitary Commission agent in St. Louis asked six Sisters of Mercy from Chicago, who had just closed a hospital in Jefferson City, Missouri, to assist aboard the Empress. Upon arriving at Pittsburg Landing they debarked and searched the battlefield for wounded, brought them aboard the transports, and cared for them as they were transported to Northern hospitals. On one occasion, Sister Anthony even assisted Dr. Blackman with surgery at Pittsburg Landing.
The volunteer nurses were not without physical and emotional casualties of their own. Mrs. Anna McMahon served at one of the hospitals set up at Pittsburg Landing. She contracted measles there. After five days “she raised her languid eyes and asked, ‘Have I done my duty?’ The doctor assured her that she had, then, with a weary sigh, she said, ‘Good-bye; I will go to sleep.’” A soldier-carpenter made a coffin from cracker boxes and the nurses “wreathed it in flowers from the battlefield.” She was buried beneath “three large trees that grew on the bank of the Tennessee River” with a “rude board headpiece, bearing her name.” Other nurses, such as Belle Reynolds, continued to be haunted by bad dreams. “At night I lived over the horrors of the field hospital and the amputating table. . . . Those groans were in my ears; I saw again the quivering limbs, the spouting arteries, and the pinched and ghastly faces of the sufferers.”
By Tuesday, April 8th, local residents headed for the battlefield, searching through the dead and wounded, or to merely satisfy their own curiosities. They were soon followed by Northern family members, Sanitary Commission officials, and sightseers. All were overwhelmed at the amount of destruction which stretched back from the landing for at least five miles—“scarred trees, . . . ground cut by the wheels of guns and caissons, . . . shattered muskets, disabled cannon, broken wagons, and all the heavier debris of battle. Everywhere could be seen torn garments, haversacks, and other personal equipment of the soldiers. . . In every direction I moved, there were the graves of the slain, National and the Rebel soldiers being buried side by side.” The bodies of hundreds of dead horses were buried or burned to decrease the stench and to ward off disease.
Souvenir seekers went to work immediately. One soldier referred to them as “so many hyenas, gathering up relics, old swords and guns that a soldier would scorn to touch, selfishly anxious to secure trophies,” the more unusual the better. Gen. Lew Wallace complained that “each one is a museum collector with the talent and industry of Barnum. . . Those shot which had killed a horse, so much the more valuable; those which had killed a man, precious as gold. After all, there is some justification for the intense hatred the Butternuts seem to have against trading Yankees.”
Other visitors came to claim their dead, in some cases buried for two weeks. A widow arrived and searched the fields for several days, finally finding her son’s name scrawled on a board serving as a tombstone. “She signalled with her handkerchief to some soldiers who were aiding in the search. . . and then fell on her knees with her arms over the little mound of earth.” The father of Fletcher Ebey just wanted to see the location where his son was killed. “The blood still showed on the ground. . . . As we came away he brought a wild ground willow pulled out of the blood of his son to carry home to plant.” The vast majority of Confederate family members were unable to come to the battlefield, since it remained in Federal hands. Their sons, fathers, and husbands remained in large common graves, and their wounded were scattered all of the way to Mississippi.
The Federal army, steadily enlarging with reinforcements, remained at the Pittsburg Landing site for at least two months. As the wounded were evacuated their places were taken by the sick, and surgeons established a large hospital a few miles upstream at Hamburg. Medical transport boats made trip after trip from both Pittsburg Landing and Hamburg through June 19. Many of the civilian nurses served throughout the time period, and Sanitary Commission officials continued to replenish whatever medical supplies the soldiers needed.
By the first of May, the bulk of the federal army was inching its way to Corinth, and presumably the residents of the 15th Civil District, Hardin County were free to return to their farms, or what was left of them. The area would never again be contested between the two great armies, only small bands of cavalry and swarms of bushwhackers—Unionist, Confederate, and freebooters. Some of the original inhabitants were still in place long after the war when veterans began to return to walk the fields, boast of their regiments, argue over strategy, and visit the national cemetery.
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Note: This article previously published in The Citizens' Companion