“At four o’clock in the morning we began the march on the enemy. Each man had forty cartridges, all moving accoutrements and three days’ rations. General Johnston was cheered as he rode by our command and I remember his words as well as if they had been today, ˜Shoot low, boys; it takes two to carry one off the field.”
–Pvt. William E. Bevens, 1st Arkansas“The battle has opened gentlemen; it is too late to change our dispositions. Tonight we will water our horses in the Tennessee River.”
–Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston
During the two days preceding the battle, Union troops on the outskirts of the encampment made numerous sightings of small groups of Confederates. There were even a couple of skirmishes, but the commanders of the two outlying Union divisions, Brig. Gen. William T. Sherman and Brig. Gen. Benjamin M. Prentiss , dismissed the possibility of serious Confederate action. Colonel Everett Peabody, commanding one of Prentiss’s two brigades, was not so sure. A thirty-one-year-old Harvard graduate and successful railroad engineer, Peabody had already gained combat experience during operations in Missouri the preceding fall. This made him an unusual officer in Prentiss’s green Sixth Division. The newest division in the Army of the Tennessee, the Sixth had never maneuvered as a unit. It was in the process of being assembled in its camps about three quarters of a mile east of here out of raw troops sent straight down from their assembly points in the midwest. The green-as-grass 15th and 16th Iowa regiments, who would soon be loading their rifles for the very first time back at Pittsburg Landing, were slated to join Sixth Division later in the day.
Shortly after midnight on the morning of Sunday, April 6, Col. Peabody, acting on his own authority, ordered Maj. James E. Powell of the 25th Missouri to probe forward with three companies of his own regiment and two of the 12th Michigan—less than 400 men. By the time the column moved out, it was past 4:00 a.m. The first half mile was uneventful, as the troops marched through the darkness along an old wagon road. Then, near the southeast edge of Fraley Field, three shots came from Confederate pickets, who quickly made off in the darkness. Powell formed his detachment in skirmish line and advanced into the field. A few minutes after 5:00 a.m. the advancing Federals drew heavy fire from a line of Confederates about two hundred yards ahead, along the west edge of the field. These were the 280 men of the 3rd Mississippi Battalion, commanded by Maj. Aaron B. Hardcastle. A hot fire fight erupted between Powell’s men and Hardcastle’s and lasted for the next hour and fifteen minutes, with dozens of men hit on each side. The two lines at first were visible only by the muzzle flashes of their guns. Then as the morning light began to rise, Powell realized that more numerous Confederate troops were working around his flanks and ordered his command to fall back to the east, toward Prentiss’s camps.
Prentiss, Peabody, and others at the camps had already heard the firing and were making preparations for further combat. Also listening to the sound of gunfire from Fraley Field was Confederate commanding general Albert Sidney Johnston . As he breakfasted on coffee and hardtack that morning in the pre-dawn darkness, his top generals had approached him and, for the second time in as many days, tried to talk him into giving up and going back to Corinth. While Johnston listened patiently, the sound of heavy firing came from Fraley Field. “The battle has opened gentlemen,” said Johnston decisively, “it is too late to change our dispositions.” Then, mounting his big thoroughbred Fire-eater, he added, “Tonight we will water our horses in the Tennessee River.”
Edited with an Introduction by Daniel E. Sutherland. The University of Arkansas Press. Fayetteville, Arkansas 1992.
An illustrated history of the Missouri Engineer
and the 25th Infantry Regiments; together with a roster of
both regiments and the last known address of all that could
be obtained … Ed. and comp. by Dr. W. A. Neal. Published: Chicago, Donohue and Henneberry, printers, 1889.