"The Blood of Purer Patriots or Baser Rebels"

On Sunday morning, April 6, 1862, Confederates launched a massive surprise attack against Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s army near Shiloh Church in Tennessee. The gray juggernaut exploited its early gains with a series of assaults throughout the Sabbath. Brutal and bloody fighting at hot spots included a sunken road that came to be known as the ‘Hornet’s Nest.’ Union troops stubbornly resisted, but by the evening they had withdrawn to a perimeter around Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River.

A critical moment arrived as the federals stood with their backs against the river.

“Had we lost this battle,” wrote 22-year-old Union artillery Pvt. James F. Putnam, “We would have been driven backwards into the Tennessee river, and thousands would have met with a watery grave or been crushed beneath the wheels and heels of thousands of horses and wagons that crowded its banks.”
Putnam knew perhaps better than anyone how close the federals were to annihilation. He and his fellow gunners in the Eighth Independent Battery of Ohio Light Artillery anchored the extreme left of the blue perimeter, where low bare hills partly enclosed by a dense forest rose up from Pittsburg Landing.
Putnam, the son of a Presbyterian minister and great-grandson of Revolutionary War brigadier Rufus Putnam, he described what he saw and did in two letters to his mother written during the days after the fighting ended.

Putnam and his battery were posted on one hill. Gunners from the First Missouri Light Artillery occupied a hill opposite their position. The gunboats Tyler and Lexington provided additional firepower from the adjacent river. About dusk, infantry reinforcements from the Army of the Ohio arrived and began to cross the river. Commanded by Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell, the troops had marched all day to join Grant’s army.

From his vantage point overlooking the landing, Putnam watched three regiments from Buell’s lead division cross the river and form for battle. Meanwhile, a large body of Confederates appeared in force. As they came into view, Union artillery from the two hills and the warships spewed forth lead from the fiery mouths of its big guns. “Shot, shell and canister never sped faster on its errand of death than from these three points, and when finally Buell poured in his showers of musketry from thousands of guns, Minie was for once an unpleasant name to Secesh,” Putnam declared.

On the Tennessee River, one of Buell’s soldiers observed the action. Ambrose Bierce, who would later gain fame as a journalist and author, described the scene in his short story “What I saw of Shiloh.” He wrote, “On the heights above, the battle was burning brightly enough; a thousand lights kindled and expired in every second of time. There were broad flushings in the sky, against which the branches of the trees showed black. Sudden flames burst out here and there, singly and in dozens. Fleeting streaks of fire crossed over to us by way of welcome. These expired in blinding flashes and fierce little rolls of smoke, attended with the peculiar metallic ring of bursting shells, and followed by the musical humming of the fragments as they struck into the ground on every side, making us wince, but doing little harm. The air was full of noises. To the right and the left the musketry rattled smartly and petulantly; directly in front it sighed and growled. To the experienced ear this meant that the death-line was an arc of which the river was the chord. There were deep, shaking explosions and smart shocks; the whisper of stray bullets and the hurtle of conical shells; the rush of round shot. There were faint, desultory cheers, such as announce a momentary or partial triumph. Occasionally, against the glare behind the trees, could be seen moving black figures, singularly distinct but apparently no longer than a thumb. They seemed to me ludicrously like the figures of demons in old allegorical prints of hell.”
Putnam believed that the combined fire of Union infantry and artillery “decided the fight for the night” and credited the timely arrival of Buell’s forces for saving the day.

Maj. Gen. Grant, who characterized the fighting as “a case of Southern dash against Northern pluck and endurance” had a very different view. In his Memoirs, he downplayed Buell’s participation: “As his troops arrived in the dusk General Buell marched several of his regiments part way down the face of the hill where they fired briskly for some minutes, but I do not think a single man engaged in this firing received an injury.”

Although Buell deserves a share of credit for the show of force, the real cause for the end of the fighting was a fateful decision by Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard, who had assumed command of Confederate forces after the mortal wounding of Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston earlier that day. Beauregard suspended orders for a full-scale final attack, believing “I thought I had General Grant just where I wanted him and could finish him up in the morning.”

Beauregard was dead wrong.

“Early Monday morning the fight began again,” Putnam reported, “and until about four in the afternoon the battle raged with, if possible greater fury than the day before, until finally the rebels unable to withstand our attacks longer fled fighting from the field.”

Putnam continued, “As soon as it was known they were retreating I got ready three of the teams and started out upon the battle field to bring in the wounded. Such a sight I never want to witness again. Hundreds of the dead and wounded were lying around—some with arms, others with legs, and some their heads shot off. One poor fellow had the whole of his face, excepting his eyes, shot away. A great many died of their wounds before they could be conveyed to the Hospital, and others upon the way. The number is immense, and can only be counted by the thousands.”

Putnam visited Pittsburg Landing to collect forage for the horses in his battery a week later. Along the way he passed a hospital and described the scene to his mother. “I counted ten or twelve dead rebels in one pile who had died of their wounds and were not yet buried. The way they bury is to dig a long ditch about three feet deep and then throw in as many as will cover the bottom, turning their faces downward, and put the dirt in again and turn away as if they had been paying the last offices of respect to a dog, instead of a human being.”

He reflected, “The blood of purer patriots or baser rebels never flowed more freely, or, mingling together in one pool of slaughter, marked a battle field more hotly contested and more nobly won than that of Pittsburg Landing. A Washington lies sleeping beneath the shade of Mount Vernon, but the willows that droop their branches above his grave and keep their vigils above his sleeping ashes, are no more to be honored than the oak that in summer spreads its branches and in fall scatters its leaves above the lonely graves of those who lay buried beneath the soil at Pittsburg Landing.”

Putnam went on to become captain of his battery and served with distinction during the Vicksburg Campaign. He mustered out of the army with his comrades in the summer of 1865 and returned to Ohio. He settled in the town of Lowell, not far from the border of West Virginia. In 1873, Putnam married widower Harriet Brown. She bore six children, and died in 1882 of complications after the birth of her last child, a boy.

Putnam passed away five years later in the National Soldier’s Home in Dayton. He was 48. The cause of his death was attributed to disease contracted in the trenches at Vicksburg.

In 1905, the Ohio Vicksburg Battlefield Commission dedicated 39 monuments and 20 markers to honor the Buckeye State boys who fought in the war. Putnam’s name is prominently engraved on the monument to the battery he commanded.

Carte de visite by D.P. Barr of Vicksburg, Miss.



Brigadier General
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Regtl. Staff Chickamauga 2018
Mar 15, 2013
Wow. What a great sketch of J. F. Putnam and the activity at the Battle of Shiloh. I've always thought of Ambrose Bierce's recollections of the dead and wounded to be some of the most descriptive. But Putnam's vivid descriptions certainly paint a horrifying scene, don't they? @Ole Miss is the host of the Shiloh forum and will definitely want to read this!


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Nov 27, 2018
Chattanooga, Tennessee
That really was a good write up on Putnam. The idea of having to go out and examine the field where the battle's toll was heaped must have been a traumatic experience at the first. I cannot but imagine the other senses of awareness beyond the vision, when having to encounter the whole.

Ole Miss

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Dec 9, 2017
North Mississippi
Truly an amazing story about a small group of guners who stood their ground and protected the Union's far left flank. Though not as heavily engaged as other units, the 8th Independent Battery, Ohio Light Artillery provided the solid artillery battery where needed the most. Very well written and thank you for posting as this man should not be forgotten for his contribution to the Union's victory in this pivital battle

I had posted earier this month a couple of his letters home which provide rich insights of a private in the middle of the one of the ACW's fiercest battles! I recommend reading his letters to get a further insight into this brave soldier