The First Battery of Minnesota Light Artillery played a critical role in the first major battle of the Civil War. The performance of its officers and men at Shiloh and elsewhere in the Western Theater gave rise to an enviable service record and added to the young state's prestige.
The First Battery of Minnesota Light Artillery mustered into United States service at Fort Snelling on November 21, 1861. Shortly afterward, the battery was ordered to Benton Barracks in St. Louis. From there they moved to the St. Louis Arsenal in January, 1862. Here the officers and men received their guns: two twelve-pound howitzer smoothbores and four six-pound James rifles.
By April 1862 the First Battery had moved to Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee. Early on the morning of April 6, Confederate troops surprised the Union forces. The Battle of Shiloh (which Southerners called Pittsburg Landing) had begun. The battle pitted General Albert Sidney Johnston's forty-four thousand Confederates against General Ulysses S. Grant's thirty-nine thousand Federal forces. The First Minnesota Battery formed part of General Benjamin M. Prentiss's division.
The First Minnesota Battery moved forward with the rest of its division. It deployed without infantry support and quickly suffered one man killed and two mortally wounded. There was much excitement. The trail of one of the six-pounders was broken, disabling the gun. The remaining gun of the section became fouled, a projectile jamming halfway down the tube when ramming. One of the six-pounders rejoined the battery after the battle.
Around the same time, Captain Munch's horse was killed. While removing the saddle, Munch was shot in the thigh and left the field. Lieutenant William Pfaender took command of the remaining guns.
By early afternoon General Prentiss had formed a new line, anchored by the four serviceable guns of the First Minnesota Artillery plus a Missouri Battery. For more than three hours, this line withstood repeated Southern attacks, possibly as many as a dozen. Both sides suffered severe casualties. Confederate manpower finally won the position. The Southerners dubbed it the "Hornets' Nest."
The Union forces retreated to the banks of the Tennessee River. Many thought all was lost. Then they were reinforced by General Don Carlos Buell's thirty-six thousand troops. The battle was renewed on April 7, and the Union forces finally prevailed. The Minnesotans did not take part in the April 7 battle.
At the end of April, the battery proceeded to Corinth, Mississippi, and spent the next six months laying siege to the town. They played a small role in the Battle of Corinth (October 3–4), a Union victory.
The next major campaign for the Minnesotans came in the spring of 1863. From May 18 to July 4, they took part in the Siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi. The men claimed that one section of the battery fired the first rounds of the siege. During the six weeks that followed, the battery fired more than four thousand rounds of ammunition. The men remained on duty at Vicksburg until April, 1864. During this time, their armament was replaced with three-inch Ordinance Rifles.
By late May, 1864, the battery was stationed at Huntsville, Alabama. There it became part of Francis P. Blair's Seventeenth Corps. Joining General William T. Sherman's army, the battery then took part in the Atlanta Campaign from June to September. During the Battle of Atlanta on July 22, the battery sat idle until late in the engagement, when it accurately fired at and silenced a Confederate battery. On August 14, while in front of Atlanta, Lieutenant William Koethe, who had enlisted as a private at age twenty-one, was killed instantly when a bullet passed through his heart.
Next came the March to the Sea in November and December. After an eleven-day siege, the battery marched into Savannah, Georgia, where it spent Christmas. As the war neared its end, the First Minnesota Artillery took part in General Sherman's Campaign of the Carolinas. On March 3, 1865, at Cheraw, South Carolina, they silenced a Confederate battery so effectively that their corps commander, General Blair, presented one of the captured Confederate guns to the battery.
Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered his army to that of General Sherman on April 26 near Durham, North Carolina. With the war over, the First Minnesota Artillery eventually made its way to Washington, D.C. Here the men took part in the Grand Review of the troops on May 24. The officers and men made their way back to St. Paul, where they were mustered out of service on Sunday, July 1, 1865.
Board of Commissioners. Minnesota in the Civil and Indian Wars, 1861–1865. 2 vols. St. Paul: Pioneer Press Company, 1891.
Dyer, Frederick H. A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion. Des Moines: Dyer Publishing Company, 1908.
Faust, Patricia L., ed. Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper Perennial, 1991.
Minnesota-Shiloh Monument Commission. Report of the Minnesota-Shiloh Monument Commission: To the Governor of Minnesota: Including Ceremonies of Dedication of Memorial to the First Battery Minnesota Light Artillery, in the Shiloh National Military Park, April 10, 1908. [Minnesota: The Commission, 1908].
William Z. Clayton Papers, 1862–1946 (bulk 1862–1864)
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
Description: The bulk of the collection consists of letters Clayton wrote home during the First Minnesota Light Artillery's service.
United States War Department. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. 70 vols. in 128 parts. Reprint, Harrisburg, PA: National Historical Society, 1971. Series 1, vol. 10, part 1.
Witham, George F. Shiloh, Shells and Artillery Units. Memphis, TN: Riverside Press, 1980.
On April 6-7, 1862, the First Minnesota Light Artillery plays an important role in the Union victory at the Battle of Shiloh (Pittsburg Landing), Tennessee. Two sections (four guns) help repel repeated Confederate assaults for several hours at the famous "Hornets' Nest."