The Civil War began in April 1861 and thousands of Iowa men quickly volunteered to fight the Confederacy. Many Iowa soldiers served in Missouri, a state that did not secede. This helped secure the western side of the Mississippi River for the Union. In 1862 General Ulysses S. Grant and his army moved into Tennessee. Nearly 20,000 Iowans had joined the Union army by then, most fighting in state bordering the Mississippi River. After capturing two Confederate forts guarding the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, Grant’s army moved south.
On Sunday, April 6, an unexpected attack by 40,000 southern troops took Grant’s army by surprise. The battle that developed over the next two days was named Shiloh. It involved eleven Iowa regiments. The Union line was pushed back, with its center resting on an abandoned road. Five Iowa regiments joined other Northern units in this natural fortification. It became known as the “Hornet’s Nest.” Erastus B. Soper of the 12th Infantry recalled that the position allowed them to fire “volley after volley into the advancing foe with murderous effect.” The battle, he wrote, “made a constant roar, rising and swelling and falling like the roar of some mighty tempest… the noise was such that there could be no talking.”
The Union line on either side of the Hornet’s Nest was pushed back, leaving the men in it surrounded. Soper’s unit fell back, under attack from all sides. “Destructive fire caused the men to fall in every direction,” he wrote. They shot back as they retreated. The area was “one vast slaughter pen,” Soper recalled. “One could walk all over that hill on dead bodies some places two deep… it was an awful sight; once seen never to be forgotten.” Surrounded and threatened with destruction the men in the Hornet’s Nest surrendered. Their stubborn defense helped save Grant’s army. On the second day of the battle, the Confederate army was defeated. Shiloh was bloody, with more than 10,000 Union soldiers killed or wounded. Iowa units suffered badly, with nearly 2,400 men killed, wounded, or captured.
Victory at Shiloh, as well as the capture of New Orleans in April 1862, left the Union with control of much of the Mississippi River. Northern armies then moved south to try and capture Vicksburg, the most important remaining Southern fortress on the Mississippi River.
“Excerpt from a book in progress, published with permission of the author, 27 January 2020.”