Brothers Go To War
I know it probably seems like Shiloh is the only thing I write about around here, but this is an interesting story that hits home for me. This will probably be the last you see of Shiloh for a while! Like the 17th Kentucky, the 26th Kentucky is also a local regiment to Owensboro, and one that saw several of my relatives serve. None of them are direct, but they are brothers to my 3X Great Grandfather. William Presley Lee and John Madison Lee, 23 and 20 years old respectively both fought on the field of Shiloh on April 7th, 1862.
The boys were part of a family of nine at the outbreak of the war. There were seven children, four boys and three girls. Their mother, Sarah, passed away in 1858, but his father had remarried by 1860. William was the oldest, and John was the third child in the bunch. My ancestor, Fletcher, was 22 years old in 1862 and was the second child, but did not serve in either army.
When the Union army began to recruit regiments in Kentucky, William and John volunteered in the 26th Kentucky in Calhoun, Kentucky. Both boys enlisted on November 12, 1861, and found themselves in Company C, commanded by Captain J. Mattingly. The regiment was then under the command of Colonel Stephen Burbridge, who became infamous to Kentuckians later in the war.
The first winter in the army, undoubtedly caused suffering for the boys at Camp Calhoun. General Thomas Crittenden was concentrating enough regiments of infantry and cavalry to form a division of several thousand men. The division was tasked with protecting the lock and dam on the Green River at Calhoun from any attacks by the Confederate army that might venture north from Bowling Green, Russellville, or Hopkinsville. One such force did, led by Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest's command defeated and routed a detachment of the 3rd Kentucky Cavalry (Union), on December 28, 1861 at the small community of Sacramento, just a few miles south of Calhoun. Within hours, the 26th was part of a reaction force ordered by General Crittenden to march south of the Green to find Forrest's cavalry and disperse or destroy them. The small force did not find Forrest, who had already moved south, but they did find the dead, wounded, and destruction of the running cavalry battle and thus their first view of the grim realities of war.
Soon, the hardly sanitized and overcrowded Camp Calhoun began to take its toll on the volunteers encamped there. Between November and February, nearly 150 Union soldiers succumbed to disease in the camp. William nearly died from sickness in February as he spent several days in the hospital in Calhoun before Crittenden's division began its southward advance toward Bowling Green and its eventual goal of Nashville.
When the regiment was able to leave the disease infestation of Camp Calhoun and enter Nashville with the rest of General Don Carlos Buell's army in March, the 26th Kentucky was finally mustered into United States service. Both men were mustered in on March 8th. When General Grant's Army of the Tennessee was attacked by the Confederate army of General Albert Sidney Johnston at Pittsburg Landing, or Shiloh, the Lee brothers were already on the march for that place and were actually encamped outside of Savannah. General Crittenden writes in his report, “I ordered my command to move at once, intending to march to Pittsburg Landing...I received an order to bring my command by boat, if not already on the road. My command...were all embarked in the most rapid manner...We reached Pittsburg Landing at about 9 o'clock p.m. (On the 6th) By order of General Buell my command was debarked as soon as it could be done...We had great difficulty in landing our troops. The bank of the river at the landing was covered with 8,000 to 10,000 entirely demoralized soldiery. I was so disgusted, that I asked General Buell to permit me to land a regiment to drive them away. I did not with my troops to come in contact with them. We landed, however, forcing our way through this mob, and stood to our arms all night on the road, half a mile from the landing..."
The brothers and the rest of the 26th were placed in the brigade of Colonel William "Sooy" Smith with the 11th Kentucky and 13th Ohio. Colonel Burbridge, for some reason, was not present and so command of the regiment fell to Lieutenant Colonel Cicero Maxwell. Maxwell reported that he only had 270 men present for the fight. On the morning of the 7th, the 26th began the advance towards the Confederate defensive line anchored on the Hamburg-Purdy Road. The 26th was placed on the left of the brigade, but beyond the flank of the 26th, there was a significant gap between them and Sanders Bruce's brigade and the rest of General "Bull" Nelson's division fighting hard along the ravines near the river and the Bell Cotton Field to the east. Bruce's brigade was being raked by an enfilading fire from the Confederate Washington Artillery placed in the Daniel Davis Wheat Field. Luckily for Bruce, Nelson's other brigade commanded by William Hazen, advanced into this gap, but was soon receiving similar fire from the infantry of Bowen's Brigade (now under the command of John D. Martin). Smith's brigade needed to come up to relieve Hazen in the area that would see the heaviest casualties of the second day.
Smith deployed a company of the 26th as skirmishers, though Maxwell does not specify which company that is in his report. The Confederate skirmishers were driven back and several sources state that there was about an hour lull in this sector. Soon the area came alive as the Confederates again advanced. Smith states the right of his line recoiled, but the left and the 26th stood firm. Lieutenant Colonel Cicero Maxwell wrote, "The position of our brigade was then somewhat changed, but owing to a regiment not connected with our division coming too close to the left of our brigade and commencing firing, the regiment under my command, when its position was changed, was nearly entirely in the rear of the Thirteenth Ohio, and could not then be deployed to the left of our brigade without going before the regiment spoken of on our left. This regiment, which I have been told since I commenced writing this report was the Second Kentucky Volunteers...I ordered the left companies to commence firing. The command was obeyed very promptly , and the other companies rushed forward, became intermingled with the regiment whose left was in front, and commenced firing." The Confederate attack fizzled out, and a counter push by Smith's brigade ensued that lasted for about a mile.
The advance through the wild underbrush near what had been the Hornet's Nest of the day before, saw the brigades and regiments become extremely tangled. The regiment not only had to negotiate the terrible terrain of the battlefield, but also the evidence of the brutal fighting of the day before. The men of the 26th struggled to keep formation as they moved through thick underbrush and stepped over bodies, pieces of Union and Confederate soldiers, and the remains of dead horses. The woods through which they moved would have been wrecked by the previous day's fighting with a haunted appearance of the mangled and exploded trees.
As the 26th reached the Davis Wheat Field, the Washington Artillery became their target. Smith rather bluntly reports on the state of the brigade during this advance. "Owing to the obstructed nature of the ground, the enthusiastic courage of the majority of our men, the laggard discharge of their duty by man, and the disgraceful cowardice by some, our line had been transformed into a column of attack, representing various grades of courage from reckless daring to ignominous fear." The Union soldiers shot many of the horses and some of the gunners to prevent their escape. Two of the guns were left behind as the battery made its flight.
John Dimitry of the Confederate Crescent Regiment, which was positioned as support to the battery, recalled, "At about 9 A.M., the Crescents were resting on an open hill, supporting the Washington Artillery (5th Co.). Without any warning, a volley, poured by the Federals from the hill opposite us, threw the Battery into confusion. That fire either killed or disabled the horses belonging to two of the guns, this left them defenseless. The battery fearing to lose their guns, left these two on the ground, and made a wild rush to the rear. Instead of passing, as they should have done, to our right, they swept - carriages, caissons, shouting men, frightened horses, and all - clear through Co's A, B, & C. Of course, this threw the regiment - struck through its right flank - into confusion. The Federals, seeing our trouble, sent another rattling fire straight against our colors. It did damage, among many others, Schilling, Color-Sergeant, was wounded badly. As he reeled, the flag dropped from his hands. It was then that your, seeing the danger to the colors, rushed forward to take them. Here was one of those supreme moments of a regiment when its flag - slipping from brave hands no longer able to keep it - is caught up by other brave hands in the face of an enemy pouring, continuously, balls and shells upon its defenders. Men call the seizing of a standard, when it has had mischance, and holding it high up for the Regt. to see and to follow, the act of a hero. Knowing the facts I have given here, my dear Bullitt, I am free to call you that hero, on Apl. 7, 1862."
The men of Smith and Hazen's brigades had partially captured the battery in what amounted to two guns, but the Crescent Regiment, among others, pushed back in a furious counterattack driving the two brigades near their original positions. Smith reported, "At the head of this column stood a few heroic men, not adequately supported, when the enemy returned to the attack with three fresh regiments in good order. We were driven back by these nearly to the first position occupied by our line."
The brigade attempted to move forward again, though more cautiously. With the help of Mendenhall's Battery, the brigade again advanced on the Confederate guns. This time, the brigade attacked and held the position for the rest of the day. From reading the Confederate reports in this sector, it appears that the Washington Artillery retired after their initial retreat, and the two guns left behind were the ones recaptured in the second advance of Smith's brigade. Not long after this action, the Confederate army began its retreat back to Corinth. The brigades of Buell's army held their positions for the rest of the day, and there most of them bivouacked for the rainy night that was to come.
The 26th Kentucky suffered the second highest casualty rate out of all Kentucky regiments that fought for the Union at Shiloh with 26%, behind the 17th Kentucky which lost 35%, thought it is worth noting that the 17th fought on both days of the battle in Grant's army. In comparison, the rest of the Kentucky regiments with Buell's army suffered less than 15%.
As for William and John Lee, the two brothers only bivouac that night was with the dead. It is impossible to know the exact location of their deaths, or the manner in which they died, but I wonder if they died together, side by side. They were two of the 11 men from the regiment that would perish on the battlefield at Shiloh, and leave a family undoubtedly shattered along with so many others. William, though only 23, left behind a young widow with no children. John, would never experience marriage, and neither would ever know the joys of being a father. The story of John and William proves just how destructive this war was not only on the population, but on the families as well.
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If you are in the Nashville or Murfreesboro area, be sure to make it out to the Stones River National Battlefield this Saturday, the 15th, for some great programming on the Tullahoma Campaign with some awesome living history demonstrations, which yours truly will be a part of. Hopefully, I'll see you Saturday!
If you are interested, here is a short description and link to the site:
As spring turned to summer in 1863, the armies that had ravaged each other at the Battle of Stones River prepared to once again struggle for control of Tennessee. The past six months had seen remarkable changes in the Union Army of the Cumberland while conditions in the Confederate Army of Tennessee saw little improvement.
The Federals built and stocked a massive supply base at Fortress Rosecrans. Specialized units like the Signal Service provided Gen. William S. Rosecrans with valuable intelligence and a communications network far superior to that of his enemy.
New weapons widened the technology gap between the Federals and the Confederates. Some of these weapons paved the way for unit's such as Col. John Wilder's Brigade of mounted infantry to combine speed and firepower with devastating effect.
From June 23 - July 3, 1863, The Union turned the full force of its improvements upon Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee. In the space ten days the balance of power shifted in the Confederate heartland, and the key town of Chattanooga seemed poised to fall into Union hands.
Join rangers and volunteers for a series of programs commemorating the 157th anniversary of one of the most crucial campaigns of the Civil War.