Analyzing Lt. Cox's Diary
Updated: Feb 17, 2019
Last week I posted the portion of Lt. Sam Cox's diary from the Battle of Shiloh. It had some riveting moments that can hardly be found in any other source when it comes to Kentucky Union soldiers present on those two terrible days. But let's take a closer look at Cox's entries. The fog of memory can often times skew what someone remembers of an event, and little details might be very different than what they were. Corroboration is important, so let's see how Lt. Cox's diary matches up with some other sources. If you have not been able to read his diary from Shiloh, click here!
"We arrived there in a few moments, and found our forces falling back gradually. Our Brigade, consisting of the 17th Kentucky, 44th Indiana, 31st Indiana regiments were formed in line of battle close to the edge of a field. We had been there but a few moments when the enemy opened a "G" and wounded several. While this was going on, a continual roar of musketry both on our right and left proved the battle was raging at every point. "
Cox does not mention the 25th Kentucky as the other Kentucky regiment in Lauman's brigade. That is probably due to the fact that the 25th and 17th were already in the process of consolidating. During the battle, Lt. Colonel Benjamin Bristow was then commanding the remnant, and Colonel James Shackelford had already returned to Kentucky for a new command. Evidently the men already considered themselves one combined regiment. In fact, the 65 or so men fit for duty on the 7th, fell in with with the 17th.
"In a few moments, the enemy attacked the 31st and 44th Indiana, which was on our right. We could easily see the fight, it being but a few rods away, but not close enough for us to participate."
Colonel Hugh Reed of the 44th Indiana recorded in his report that his skirmishers were quickly driven in and the "whole line of the 44th and 31st Indiana were assaulted." The right of Lauman's brigade (the 17th was on the left flank) received the heavier and larger of the Confederate assaults during this portion of the battlefield with Larken Bell Cotton Field in their rear. Lt. Col. Bristow reported that the enemy was too far to engage at first, and the men could only watch.
"Our order was not to fire until the command was given, which was obeyed almost to the letter. They had probably gotten halfway across, when General Hurlbut gave the command, 'Now, boys, give it to them.' Our regiment opened and "Great God!" I never saw men lie down faster when not skirmishing than they did. It seemed to me that the whole line fell. Every man in forty yards of the flag was either killed or wounded....we remained at that place some two hours."
Colonel McHenry wrote in his report that the enemy, about two regiments, came at an angle that forced him to order a fire at an oblique. This was done and McHenry reported that the Southerners were driven off with "tremendous loss." McHenry also notes that the amount of time spent at this location was two hours. So far, Cox's account holds up.
Eventually the brigade was forced back just north and east of what would become known as Bloody Pond. It was this location where the 17th received the highest proportion of its casualties during the battle. Lauman's brigade was virtually alone on the left flank of the Union army, and after being hit by two Confederate brigades was forced to fall back after 5 hours. Let's see what Cox has to say...
"Soon arriving on the ground, the enemy made its appearance and a most desperate struggle ensued. For five long, weary hours, did we stand under a terrific fire both from musketry and shell. We advanced inch by inch on the enemy and man a poor soldier "bit the dust" trying to maintain his position. We gained on them gradually until nearly every cartridge in the regiment had been sent on his mission of death, when we were outflanked by ten times our number and compelled to fall back, which was done, thank God, in good order. At this point, a few minutes before our ammunition gave out, our gallant Captain Morton fell, mortally wounded. I was close by his side and took him on my back and started for the landing which was a mile distant."
Virtually all the commanders issuing reports attest to the ferociousness of the fighting on the flank. McHenry related, "Many of my best men fell, killed and wounded, and the gallant Captain Morton, of Company A, received at this place a fatal wound whilst he was in front of his company, setting them a daring example, which he was ever ready to manifest in the presence of the enemy. We had been constantly engaged for five hours. All of the ammunition in the cartridge-boxes of my men was exhausted to the second round, and the enemy made a renewed attack upon our whole line, which was met with determined resistance on the part of our troops at this place." McHenry fails to mention the counterattack by the brigade, but General Hurlbut highlights the success in driving back men of what were probably Jackson's Texas brigade. "...his line of fire was obstructed by the charge of the 3rd brigade, which, after delivering its fire with great steadiness, charged full up the hill, and drove the enemy three or four hundred yards."
Colonel Reed also attests to Cox's account by saying, "The 44th Indiana and the 17th Kentucky, in all not to exceed a thousand men, (the 31st Indiana being in reserve,) fought the enemy for nearly three hours; this being by far the fiercest contest of the day. The enemy outnumbered us at least three to one." Cox probably embellished the amount of Confederates attacking them in the afternoon on the left. They faced the brigades of Chalmers and Jackson, and they definitely did not outnumber the Federals 10:1, though the fact that they were able to continue to exploit the open left flank did force them to fall back.
"Last night it rained all night and the men were compelled to lie down on the cold, wet earth while they enemy had possession of our camps and were sleeping comfortably. Our boys, being very tired and hungry, went to sleep, notwithstanding the rain, which was descending in torrents. They lay anxiously awaiting the return of daylight so that they might know the result. At last it came. The rain, however, had held up and directly after day light, General Buell's forces opened the fight. They crossed all night; soon afterwards, General Grant's command went in. The firing was tremendous, I believe equal to yesterday, although the artillery was not so heavy. Our brigade, at least the remainder, was ordered on the right a distance of three miles where we arrived and soon were engaged. We fought at this point until about four o'clock in the afternoon when the enemy gave way, and soon afterwards was in full retreat toward Corinth. Our soldiers sent up cheer after cheer."
There really isn't any disputing the cold, rainy night of April 6-7. It was about as miserable as one can imagine. In terms of corroboration, Cox does not offer up anything that can be disputed. Lauman's brigade was, in a way, held in reserve, but was called upon to help drive back the Confederate left. They were particularly engaged in Jones' Field. All commanders make mention of the action in this sector.
Overall, Lt. Cox seems to have recorded the event pretty close to what others have said as well. I doubt anyone present would have disputed his words. One interesting aspect is that virtually every marker for the 17th Kentucky is EXACTLY where he says the action and positions were located. Next time you visit Shiloh, follow along with Cox and the men of the 17th Kentucky and imagine the ungodly killing he witnessed.