The Second Michigan Battery in the Peach Orchard at Shiloh
by Gordon Thorsby
Today, the National Park Service has had a hard time growing Peach trees in Larkin Bell’s field. Back on April 6, 1862, Sarah Bell had no problems and the peach blossoms were on the trees that day…at least a while.
Most of Johnston’s Confederate army focused on driving back the federals around Shiloh Church. Union soldiers had been camping in the orchard at the time of the Confederate advance on the Yankee army. As Federal forces tried to steady themselves against waves of Southern attacks, the muzzles of the Second Michigan Light Artillery were brought to bear against the lines of Gray.
The battery was commanded by Capt. William Ross, 1st Lt. William Bliss, 1st Lt. Arndt, and 2nd Lt. Cuthbert Laing, all Detroit boys. Half of the men were farmers, some were carpenters, tradesmen, lumberjacks, Great Lakes sailors, a cooper and a couple of brewers. These volunteers were also older than the average recruit with their average of 27 years. They received their guns when they reached Missouri and Pittsburgh Landing was their first engagement.
Union Gen. Hurlbut moved two of his three brigades to the Peach Orchard and formed line of battle with Williams's brigade facing south and Lauman's brigade facing west. The batteries of Mann's, Ross's, and Myer's, were behind the infantry.
"After going about a mile, [we] took position in an open field and immediately opened fire upon the enemy, whose line of battle could be seen very distinctly,” Reported Lt. Laing commanding one section of Battery B.
Hurlbut reported, “ [I] took with me the First and Second Battalions of the Fifth Ohio Cavalry, Mann's light battery, four pieces, commanded by 1st Lt. E. Brotzmann, Ross' battery, Second Michigan, and Myers' battery, Thirteenth Ohio. Brotzmann unlimbered between William’s and Lauman’s brigades." Ross’ battery unlimbered with 4 10lb. parrotts and 2 6lb smoothbores to the left. Myers' 13th Ohio took fire from Robertson’s Florida Battery. Laing reported, “the Thirteenth Ohio Battery had formed on our right and a little in advance. They had just got unlimbered when one of their caissons was shivered to pieces, and the horses on one of the guns took fright and ran through our lines. All of them left the battery without having fired a shot. Two of our sergeants went to the spot and cut a number of the horses loose. Our battery then fell back through an orchard and ceased firing for about twenty minutes.”
Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the field, Johnston ordered Breckinridge’s reserve Corps into action. While Robertson’s Florida gunners traded shots with Brotzmanns’ and Ross’ artillerists, a strong force of confederates under Statham, Jackson, and Bowen formed in columns, doubled on the center, and advanced over the open field. Hurlbut reported, “The glimmer of bayonets on the left could be seen on the left of an advance in the making in front of the First Brigade and an attack was soon made….They were allowed to approach within 400 yards, when fire was opened from Mann's and Ross' batteries, and from the two right regiments of the First Brigade and the Seventeenth and Twenty-fifth Kentucky, which were thrown forward slightly, so as to flank the column. Under this withering fire, they [Confederates] vainly attempted to deploy, but soon broke and fell back under cover, leaving not less than 150 dead and wounded as evidence how our troops maintained their position.”
Hurlbut ordered Ross’ battery to advance. “[We] held this position for about an hour and a half, during which time Lieut. Arndt had his horse shot under him and Lieut. Bliss' horse wounded; also two team horses on gun shot and two cannoneers wounded. The enemy's fire was now so hot we were obliged to retire. We soon advanced again still farther to the right, running up a narrow road, and came into battery beside a log house; it was an elevated spot and very much exposed. Here, we silenced the enemy's six-gun battery” (Robertson’s?)."
Laing reported that one section of the battery was ordered to the left and that section may have been Arndt’s smoothbores. Arndt recorded, “I was ordered to take my howitzers to an open field … Hardly had we come into action when the rebels advanced in line of battle, determined to capture our battery. I gave the command, 'canister double-charge.' When they came within 200 yards, I gave the order, 'Low range-Ready-Fire.' This command was immediately repeated. By this time the advancing columns discovered that double-charge canister was unhealthy and retreated.
The Federals infantry retreated through the orchard, but artillery fire continued to rip through the lines of rebel attackers, exacting heavy casualties. As the furious volleys of bullets and shell hit the peach trees, a flurry of blossoms fell upon the dead and the dying.
From Hurlbut, “Mann's (Brotzmann) battery fought with the division all day, and again on Monday. Ross's battery did excellent service until ordered to fall back at 4 p. m [other reports say 5:30], and was preparing to retire to the Landing when it was charged upon…” The First Mississippi Cavalry under command of Lt. John H. Miller, operating as a reserve force, captured the battery as it was making its way to the river. In his report Miller said, "I …came suddenly in view of the battery, about 300 yards distant. Their horses were all attached and all evidently ready for retreat. As soon as they discovered us I judged, from their rapidly moving to and fro, that they were preparing to turn, unlimber, and open upon us. I ordered the battalion to charge, which was done promptly, and every horse, man, and gun captured.”
Ross, Arndt, Bliss and 53 of the 80 men fit for duty that day became prisoners, were paroled and eventually exchanged. Five gunners were also wounded that day. Battery B First Michigan Light Artillery bought the Army of Tennessee time.
Cuthbert Laing wrote the after action report since all other officers had been captured.
Not all guns were captured. In Laing’s report, “ a shot got wedged in the Parrott gun and could not be got out. Not having any wormer, the captain ordered me to retire with it. I sent one of the sergeants to camp for another wormer. I now lost two more horses and a driver wounded. We next came into battery near our camp, the enemy driving our left at a run. The captain now ordered me to go to our camp, get what horses I could, and retire with my section. I only found four horses that could walk, so that I only got the Parrott away, leaving a corporal to spike the 6-pounder if it became necessary. After running the gun down to within half a mile of the river returned to join the battery, but could hear nothing of them. On Monday morning recovered the 6-pounder.” -Laing
The National Park Service at Shiloh battlefield has a Marker to the 2nd Michigan Light Artillery on Hamburg-Savannah Road, half a mile north of Hamburg-Purdy Road in Shiloh National Military Park.
Shiloh, by Cunningham, Edward O., Edited by Gary D. Joiner and Timothy B. Smith, Savas Beatie, 2007.
The Battle of Shiloh, by Reed, David W., University of Tennessee Press, 2008.
Official Records, War of the Rebellion.
Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.