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Kingsport man was front and center for the Battle of Shiloh

Ned Jilton II • Apr 17, 2019 at 9:30 PM

Front and center is normally the most expensive ticket with the best view at a concert or ball game. But for a Kingsport man, front and center was his view for one of the great battles of the Civil War, the Battle of Shiloh.

After Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s victories at Forts Donelson and Henry, along with Gen. George H. Thomas’ victory at Mill Springs, the western Confederate army, which had been spread out along the Tennessee-Kentucky border, gathered in Corinth, Mississippi. It was here that Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston came up with a plan to deal with Grant.

Grant, with the Army of the Tennessee (Federal armies were named for rivers), would be arriving at Pittsburg Landing, where it would go in to camp and wait until joined by Gen. Don Carlos Buell and the Army of the Ohio, and together they would advance on Corinth with about 80,000 troops.

But Gen. Johnston was too sharp for that and wouldn’t wait; he would attack first.

His plan was good. He would surprise Grant and trap him in a box with Owl Creek on one side and Lick Creek on the other, both flooded because of rain. The Tennessee River was at Grant’s back and the Confederate Army at his front. He would crush Grant before Buell arrived.

And surprise Grant he did.

Only the day before, Grant had wired to his superior, Gen. Henry Halleck, that “The main force of the enemy is at Corinth; I have scarcely the faintest idea of an attack being made upon us.” And Gen. William T. Sherman, whose troops were the first attacked, would later say when asked, “Hell no we weren’t surprised, we were astonished!”

For the 19th Tennessee, with its two companies of soldiers from Sullivan County, the day started out quiet. Johnston, thinking Grant might send troops in boats up Lick Creek and attack from behind, ordered regiments detached from Gen. John C. Breckinridge’s corps and sent to guard the creek. The 19th Tennessee drew this duty, so they spent the whole morning listening to the distant sounds of the battle.

By noon, two facts became obvious. One, there was nothing coming up Lick Creek, and two, the attack had stalled. The 19th Tennessee with the other regiments were ordered back to the lines as Johnston was getting the attack moving forward again.

The 19th Tennessee arrived on the right side of the Confederate line of battle, which was on a small hill. About 200 yards away on a parallel hill were the Federals. The brigade could not drive them off by the fire of their muskets, and to charge them seemed like going into the very jaws of death.

Suddenly Johnston was on his horse in front of the brigade shouting “They are stubborn, we must give them the bayonet, I will lead you.”

The regiment fixed bayonets and with a shout charged down the hill and up the other hill with Johnston on his horse leading the way, sending the Federals running.

Johnston truly led the attack, and he had the bullet holes in his coat and the heel shot off his boot to prove it.

It was then that Union artillery from the next hill opened on the just-taken hill. Johnston turned and gave orders for Breckinridge to send a regiment to silence those guns.

Breckinridge sent the Crescent City Regiment of New Orleans to silence the Union battery. The Crescent City boys charged down the hill through the brush, firing and yelling as they went. They passed the hollow and began to ascend the opposite hill. But as they started up the hill, those cannons rained deadly grape shot and canister on them, and their charge lost its momentum and they began falling back.

And then the worst happened. They went to ground, lying down among the brush in the hollow in a desperate attempt just to stay alive.

Breckinridge, as he watched the Crescent City boys being torn apart, turned to his staff and said “Is there a regiment here that can relieve those men and take that battery?”

Lt. Col. Francis Walker, who assumed command of the 19th Tennessee when Col. David Cumming, the regimental commander, was wounded in the first charge, quickly turned to Breckinridge and said, “General, I think the 19th Tennessee can!”

The order was given, and for the second time that afternoon, the 19th Tennessee charged. Down the hill they went, through the brush and right over the top of those Crescent City boys, up the hill, and they took those guns.

Rev. David Sullins had watched the charge and said you could hear cheering everywhere after the 19th Tennessee silenced those cannons, but they wouldn’t have been cheering so loudly had they known they had just carried out Johnston’s last order.

Shortly after giving the order to silence the Federal cannons, Johnston began to reel in the saddle and lose consciousness. Johnston’s staff helped him from the saddle and carried him to a small ravine nearby. A bullet had clipped the artery at the back of his knee, and in spite of their best efforts to treat his wound — the doctor having been sent off to tend some wounded Yankee prisoners — Johnston bled to death in the arms of his brother-in-law, Col. William Preston of Kentucky. The South’s highest-ranking general in the field had died after leading the 19th Tennessee into battle.

Despite what had happened, the day’s work was not over.

Although the Federals had driven them back on the left and right, the center still held. The Hornet’s Nest, as the center of the Federal line was called because of the buzzing sound of all the bullets coming from there, had held out for six hours that day and formed a bulge in the line. Now the 19th Tennessee would charge the enemy for the third time that afternoon.

The final attack would come from three sides as ordered by Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, who assumed command after the death of Johnston.

Still, the Hornet’s Nest right and center held in the attack, but the left side broke under the charge of Breckinridge’s men and then surrendered. Union Gen. Benjamin Prentiss surrendered his sword and the men of the Hornet’s Nest to Lt. Col. Walker of the 19th Tennessee.

Color bearers are an honored position in a regiment, as they are part of command and control on the battlefield. They are always front and center, in the middle of the line of battle as the regiment centers on the flag.

The man who was the color bearer during the charge in which Johnston was fatally wounded, during the charge when the 19th Tennessee saved the Crescent City Regiment and took the cannons, and who was holding the colors by Walker when the Hornet’s Nest surrendered, was William King of Company C, from right here in Kingsport. Regimental musician and historian William Worsham later wrote that “he kept them up where all could see.”

And now you know the Kingsport man who was front and center for the first day of the Battle of Shiloh, April 6, 1862.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at [email protected] .