TROY — Sometimes the stars align, and certainly that was the case at the May 16 meeting of the Stillwater Civil War Roundtable at the Hayner Center in Troy. Roundtable moderator Joe Bellas, Ohio’s 2005-06 Gilder-Lehrman American History Teacher of the Year and long-time Tipp City High School teacher, called the group to order and introduced two of his students. They made the presentation on the Battle of Shiloh and the role the 71st Ohio Volunteer Infantry (OVI) played in that battle.
Arguably one of the youngest Stillwater Civil War Roundtable presenters ever, Tipp City High School Junior Will Riehle and one of Bellas’ current students joined 2010 Tipp City graduate Luke Zerkle, one of Bellas’ former students and currently also a teacher at Tipp City High School, in making the presentation.
The duo explained that the 71st OVI was recruited from Troy and surrounding communities from September 1861 through January 1862. They were mustered into the Army in downtown Troy on Feb. 1, 1862, and then marched to Camp Tod, which is now a public park in Troy.
They received scant training before being ordered south to Paducah, Kentucky, arriving there on Feb. 10. To illustrate their “training”, the unit was transported by train to Kentucky and along the way, the train stopped, the soldiers disembarked, and each soldier was given five rounds to “practice” shooting before they resumed their journey. In some cases, it was the first time they had ever fired a gun.
In fact, the battle is not distinguished by outstanding generalship on either side. It is interesting to study as a battle fought by raw volunteers on both sides, young men without previous experience in a major battle and with little or no military training.
In fact, the 71st OVI was positioned on the opposite side of the battlefield from their brigade, and as the battle progressed, their position was deemed untenable and they fled the battlefield. They were thereafter known as the “Cowardly Ohioans”.
The battle unfolded following the Union victories at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in February 1862, Confederate General Sidney Johnston withdrew from Kentucky and left much of the western and middle of Tennessee to Union occupation.
This permitted Major Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to push his troops toward Corinth, Mississippi, the strategic intersection of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad and the Memphis and Charleston Railroad and a vital troop and supply conduit for the South. “Grant knew that if he could capture Cornith, he could sever the north/south and east/west rail lines that passed through Cornith,” Zerkle explained to his audience.
“Alerted to the Union army’s position, Gen. Johnston intercepted the Union army 22 miles northeast of Corinth at Pittsburg Landing,” Zerkle said. “The encounter proved devastating — not only for its tactical failure, but for the extreme number of casualties. After Shiloh, both sides realized the magnitude of the conflict, which would be longer and bloodier than they could have imagined when the fighting began.”
In fact, one of the Confederate army’s ablest generals was killed on the first day of the battle. Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston was wounded, did not realized the seriousness of his wound, and bled to death while still riding his horse and directing troops.
“Johnston was the highest ranking American general killed in the Civil War,” said Riehle. “As word of his death spread, it demoralized the Confederate troops.”
The Confederate army achieved early success as the battle unfolded. They enjoyed the element of surprise, and pushed the Union troops back. Many of the Confederate troops halted as the Union camp was overrun, eating the food the retreating troops had been preparing, ransacking their camp in search of valuables that the fleeing army had been left behind. Fleeing Union troops attempted to board the gunboats anchored on the Tennessee River.
Grant ordered the boats to move away from the shore in an attempt to halt the impending disaster, ordering the troops back to the field. “Grant was hampered because of an injury he had suffered when his horse had fallen landing on his ankle, causing Grant’s ankle to be badly sprained,” Riehle explained. “Even so, once he was helped on his horse, he continued to ride the length of the Union lines, encouraging the troops.”
In addition to Johnston being killed, the battle resulted in more than 24,000 casualties with the human toll being the greatest of any battle fought on the American continent up to that date. It also marked the first time massed artillery was used, when the Confederate army simultaneously opened fire with approximately 60 cannon.
Because of the carnage, there were calls for Grant to be relieved. President Abraham Lincoln defended the embattled general, and his support resulted in the Union army’s ultimate success.
Following their presentation, both Riehle and Zerkle answered questions from the audience, which included a number of high school students. They received rousing applause when they finished their presentation.
George Wolf, moderator of the Northwest Ohio Civil War Roundtable, attended the meeting and extended an invitation to those present to attend their next meeting, scheduled for Thursday, May 25, at the Richardson-Bretz Center in Celina. The topic will be How the Confederacy Met the Need focusing on the ammunition production of the Augusta Works. Those desiring additional information can contact Wolf by email, [email protected].
The year’s final meeting of the Stillwater Roundtable will take place on June 20 at the Hayner Center. Before the meeting concluded Bellas noted he and Zerkle would be leading a four-day tour of Civil War sites July 13-16. The tour will include Harpers Ferry, Antietam, and Gettysburg. Those wishing to obtain additional information about joining the group can contact Bellas by email, [email protected].