The Hornets Nest
Official Report of Brig.Gen. B.M. Prentiss
Commanding Sixth Division, at Shiloh
Quincy, Ill, November 17, 1862
Col. J.C. Kelton. Asst Adjutant General, U.S. Army, Washington D.C.
Colonel: Upon my return from captivity in the hands of the enemy, I have the honor to submit my report of the part taken in the battle of April 6th, at Shiloh, by the Sixth Division, Army of West Tennessee, the command of which was assigned to me.
Saturday evening, pursuant to instructions received when I was assigned to duty at Shiloh, the usual advance guard was posted, and in view of information received from General Grant, I sent forward five companies of the Twenty-fifth Missouri and five companies of the Twenty-First Missouri Infantry. At about 7 o'clock, Colonel David Moore, of the 21st Missouri returned, reporting that a rebel cavalry reconnaissance was going on in our front. I strengthened the pickets on the Cornith Road, extending the line a distance of a mile and a half, at the same time extending and doubling the lines of the grand guard.
At 3 o'clock on Sunday morning, Colonel Moore, with ten Missouri companies, went to the front, and at day break was driven back by the enemy's advance, commanded by General Hardee. I communicated this fact to Generals Hurlbut and Wallace and send a brigade to the front.
Shortly before 6 o'clock, Colonel Moore now being severely wounded, the Missouri regiments commenced falling back, the enemy being close on their rear. At this point I ordered my entire force, and the cavalry which had been held in the rear, advanced to the extreme front and immediately they came under fire, receiving the assault made by the entire force of the enemy. This position was held until the enemy had passed our right flank. Realizing the enemy was flanking me, I ordered the division to retire in line of battle to the color line of our encampment, at the same time communicating this fact to Generals Hurlbut and Wallace.
Being now attacked by an overwhelming force, and not being able longer to hold the ground against the enemy, I ordered the division to fall back to the line occupied by General Hurlbut, and at 9 o'clock, reformed between Hurlbut's and Wallace's divisions.. My battery (Fifth Ohio) was posted to the right on the road.
At 10 o'clock my line was again attacked, and finding my command greatly reduced by reason of casualties and because of the falling back of many men to the river, they being panic-stricken, I called for help from General Wallace and he sent me the Eighth Iowa.
At this point General Grant appeared upon the field. I showed him the disposition of my force, and I received his final orders, which were to maintain the position at all hazards. This position I did maintain until 4 o'clock when General Hurlbut, being overpowered, was forced to retire. I was then compelled to change front with the 23rd Missouri, 21st Missouri, 18th Missouri, 18th Wisconsin, and part of the 12th Michigan, occupying a part of the ground vacated by General Hurlbut. When Hurlbut retired, I conferred with Wallace and was informed that the entire army, except for us, had fled to the river. A few minutes later General Wallace was killed and his division left the field.
The Hornets Nest
I was about to be surrounded, so I ordered my command to charge the enemy which was done, but we found them advancing in mass, completely encircling my command, and nothing was left to do but continue to fight; we did so until 5 o'clock when further resistence meant the slaughter of every man in the command. I surrendered.
It is difficult to discriminate among so many gallant men as surrounded me when we were forced to yield to the overpowering strength of the enemy. Their bravery under the hottest fire is testified to by the devotion with which they stood against fearful odds.
I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
B.M. PRENTISS, Brigadier-General, U.S. Volunteers
Grant is admitting here that Night saved him.
The Grave of Prentiss
Harrison County, Mo.
Myth of the Hornets Nest
How much Benjamin Prentiss deserves credit for the Union stand in front of the gap that carried the Corinth road to the landing must be dragged out of the dust of history. William Wallace's division played a very important role in stemming the rebel tide sweeping over the Union center and left; but he was killed and Prentiss survived.
What seems reasonably clear is that by about 10:00 a.m. Prentiss had lost over half of his division and could not have held his second line, formed behind his camps, without the aid of Wallace's division.
The battlefield tablets show that the dead were comparatively light in the center of the Union line, where the Hornets Nest was located. Troop positions also show that there was little action from rebel attacks coming directly across the farm field in front of the road where Prentiss had an Ohio artillery battery in action. The most severe action against the Hornets Nest came on both its flanks, Bragg pushing with Tennesseans and Kentuckians, on the north end, Breckinridge, under the direction of Sidney Johnston, pushing with two brigades against the south end.
Looking North along the road toward the center of the Hornets Nest
Looking South toward the center of the Hornets Nest
John Breckinridge, handling two brigades, supported by a third, spent several hours pushing his front against the left flank of the Hornets Nest, until he told Johnston that he did not think he could get the men to charge again. "Oh, yes!" Johnston is reported to have said; "I think we can," and joining a Tennessee regiment, he led a charge up the road, past the Union flank, into the ten acre Peach Field. Breckinridge rode with his staff on the left flank of the regiment in the charge. Every single member of his staff was wounded here. Then, about 2:30 p.m. the word came that Johnston was killed and Breckinridge was on his own.
All this time, the battlefield was in furious chaos, the sound of rifle volleys and artillery blasts getting louder and louder, mixed with furious quavering yells as the rebels came on, broke, fell back in to a lull, then came running forward again like howling wolves in packs. In front of them, the captain of the Ohio battery sang the commands, and the men ramed and primed, touched off the vents—the guns exploded—and the men rolled them back and loaded again, the smoke from the guns billowing out from the muzzles of the cannon, lacing with spikes of yellow light. The faces of everyone on boths sides were the color of ashes, their cheeks red with powder burns, their hair singed by fire, their mouths full of grime from biting cartridges, their hands black with powder from the ramrods.
Then there was rebel infantry running between the guns, and the Union men that were crowded behind in the trees took off running, looking back over their shoulders, going hard for the rear without their rifles. Horses were mixed in it, running with the bits in their teeth. The Union resistance at the Hornets Nest had finally collapsed.
Regiments That Stood the Fire
21st Missouri Volunteer Regiment
All of Prentiss's regiments—three from Missouri, one from Michigan, one from Wisconsin, and one from Iowa, all arrived at Pittsburg Landing by steamboat ride from St. Louis on April 5, 1862. All but the three from Missouri had been in uniform for less than three weeks. The Missouri regiments had been operating in Northwest Missouri since November 1861.
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