The stinging effect of the Battle of Fort Donelson weighed heavy on the hearts of the 29th Illinois Infantry, which included soldiers from Massac County, as the euphoria over their first major victory on Feb. 16, 1862, began to fade.
The cold reality of death and injury was everywhere as thousands lay scattered across the land following the previous four days of armed struggle. These brutal scenes were such that none had ever seen and, now, could never forget. They had “seen the elephant” having now experienced the uncontrollable drive to kill their enemy, forever leaving innocence behind.
Once the dead were buried, the wounded were cared for locally or sent to hospitals set up in cities along the Ohio River. Another practical reality was the need to process and transport the approximately 15,000 Rebel prisoners back north to newly established prisons in Indianapolis, Springfield and Chicago. It wasn’t until Feb. 18 that camp life began to take on some semblance of a new normal as equipment, such as tents and food, finally arrived.
Another reality affecting many of the soldiers was sickness caused by the extreme exposure they had experienced since landing below Fort Henry on the Tennessee River two weeks earlier. Forced marches through waist-deep water, combined with drenching rain, sleet and snow, produced no small amount of suffering and sickness. Diarist William Bolerjack, for one, was so sick he was sent to a hospital in Mound City and from there furloughed for a couple of months.
On March 1, the 29th Illinois was brigaded with the 17th, 43th and 49th Illinois regiments as the 1st Division’s 3rd Brigade under Col. Leonard Ross from Lewistown. Three days later, they received orders to prepare rations and be ready to move. Standing in ranks until noon on March 4, they were finally allowed to start their advance, but, as usual, the rains made for a miserable afternoon and evening as they trudged through mud and swamps. That evening, they sat in snow as they set up camp.
Their journey the following day spanned 15 miles, bringing them within sight of the river, but leaving yet another mile to traverse the following morning through waist-deep ice water. The brigade finally boarded the steamers only to spend several more days boarding and disembarking to shore as they awaited permission to advance.
Finally, on March 10, they joined a caravan of steamers heading south up the Tennessee for points unknown. Lt. Col. Adolph Engelman, of the 43rd Illinois, surmised in a letter to his wife Mina that Memphis was probably their goal. While this would ultimately happen in a few months, their actual destination was within a couple days’ journey by boat — Savannah, Tennessee.
The advance — 120 miles up the Tennessee — was a spectacle to behold as the parade of 80 to 90 steamboats loaded with eager soldiers passed through a land many described as fine, fertile farmland. The procession would pause occasionally to load wood necessary to keep their steam up. While happily acknowledging the cheering Unionist residents along the way, there were a number of occasions when enemy snipers would shoot at the soldiers aboard the boats.
The first ships of the flotilla started arriving in Savannah on March 8 with the 29th Illinois and fellow regiments arriving several days later on March 12. They disembarked the following day, setting up camp in a perimeter around the river town. For the next week, they remained in Camp Savannah with detachments going out to capture foodstuffs that were destined for Confederate use.
After just over a week in Savannah, the recently organized 3rd Brigade was ordered to board boats at the landing and proceed up the river 8 miles to Pittsburg Landing on March 22. After unloading their plunder from the previous few days, they marched inland 2 miles up onto the high plateau located between the watershed that fed creeks bordering the soon to be Shiloh (Tennessee) battlefield. It was here they experienced their first sights and smells of a Southern spring with leaves and fruit blossoms sprouting throughout the virgin woodland.
At the point the Corinth Road intersected the east-west Hamburg-Purdy Road, they found a stretch of land along the road that provided a position directly behind Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s 3rd Brigade of Ohioans. One by one, the 17th, 29th, 43rd and 49th Illinois Regiments took their place in sequence along the Purdy Road heading east. This choice land was located close to a spring which gave them some of the best water they had yet found. The camp of the 29th Illinois was located a short 300 yards to the east of the Shiloh Meeting House, which gave its name to the epic battle ahead.
Little did these soldiers know as they set up their tents to establish their new camp that in just two weeks’ time, they would play a significant role at the outset of the bloodiest battle ever fought in North America up to that time. This surprise attack by the Confederates under Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston on a calm Sunday morning in April 1862, would become a day that no one would ever forget.
… to be continued …
Phil Shappard lives in Winfield, and is the great-great-grandson of Pvt. Henry Shappard of the 29th Illinois Infantry Volunteers. His family has had a presence in Massac and Pope Counties for over 160 years. He can be contacted at email@example.com.