By Dale Thomas
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2001, 2008, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in the winter of 2001.
I did not have any ancestors who fought in the Civil War since they were still back in Europe, but my wife, Lea, had a great grandfather, John J. Babbitt, who served three years in the 50th Illinois. A farmer living in St. Augustine, Illinois, Babbitt was twenty years old when he and his uncle, along with a number of cousins, volunteered on September 24, 1861. After less than a month of training in Quincy, Illinois, the Regiment crossed the Mississippi River and began operations against guerrillas in Missouri that continued until late January of 1862. In February, the 50th Illinois was reassigned and ordered to Tennessee where it saw action at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson and then took part in the occupation of Clarksville and Nashville. At the end of March, the Regiment was sent by river boat to Pittsburg Landing.
During the morning and early afternoon of April 6, the 50th Illinois fought on the left flank of the Federal line about 700 yards east of the Peach Orchard where General Albert Sidney Johnston was mortally wounded. After the Federal retreat toward the Tennessee River, Colonel Sweeny, Babbitt’s brigade commander, was ordered to occupy another position, Grant’s Last Line, which ran from above Dill Branch Ravine to the river.
The 50th Illinois held ground between the 36th Indiana and 11th Iowa, five hundred yards from Pittsburg Landing where most of the Federal shirkers had fled in terror. The Confederates attacked until the approach of dusk. James Chalmer’s brigade of Mississippians made the last charge and came within a hundred yards of Stone’s Missouri artillery. A private in the 50th Illinois later recalled: “As soon as they reached the top of the hill in front, the batteries opened upon them, and such a cannonading I never heard before. It completely checked the rebels.”
In 1882, Babbitt applied for a disability pension. His former company commander, Captain S. W. King, wrote a letter confirming the disability:
State of Illinois, county of Hancock. John J. Babbitt, Co. G, 50th Illinois…. On the 6th of April at or near Pittsburg Landing, state of Tennessee, said soldier incurred deafness in his left ear almost totally and partial in his right ear. And that said deafness continued up to the time of his discharge as I could very plainly discover from my association and conversing with him. The circumstances attending the contracting of said deafness was as follows. The regiment and company to which said soldier belonged was placed in position to support… a Missouri battery. We were placed very close to the battery. The Rebels charged on it several times. The firing was very rapid and intense, both artillery and small arms. From firing and cannonading, said soldier contracted deafness as above stated and so stated to me at the time and different times afterwards and was plainly discoverable during the remainder of his time in the service.
Last August, more than 138 years after the battle, my son, Geoffrey, and I toured Shiloh National Military Park. We found the hill where the 50th Illinois had fought until sunset of the first day. Today it is an open area near the Visitor’s Center. A marker outlined the events of that terrible afternoon:
50th ILLINOIS INFANTRY, SWEENY’S (3d) BRIG.,
W. H. L. WALLACE’S (2d) DIV., ARMY OF THE TENNESSEE.
At 4.30 P.M. April 6, 1862
This regiment formed 50 yards in front of this place and held that position
one hour and then fell back here, to the support of Stone’s battery,
and remained in line Sunday night.
After walking in the cemetery among the tombstones lined up like soldiers in ranks, we drove down to the Tennessee River and later took the Hamburg – Savannah Road to the Johnston Monument. Then we went on foot in search of the place where Geoff’s ancestor had faced the overwhelming Rebel attack on that long ago Sunday morning in April. As it had been in 1862, the hilly terrain was overgrown and difficult to traverse. Markers were scattered about the area. After half an hour of fighting tree branches and insects, we came upon a large stone monument, partially illuminated by sunlight filtering through the thick canopy of leaves. Somehow, we knew this was the one —
ILLINOIS, 50th Infantry went into position on this line about
10:30 A.M., April 6, 1862, and held its ground until about 2:00 P. M., when the Regiment retired toward the Landing. Its loss in the battle was 12 men killed; 2 officers and 66 men wounded; 4 men missing; total 84.
Walking back to the car, we talked about John J. Babbitt, who was five years younger than Geoff at the time of the battle. After Shiloh, Babbitt took part in the siege and battle of Corinth, Mississippi and suffered wounds at Resaca, Georgia. At the time of his discharge in September of 1864, he was a corporal in the color guard of the 50th Illinois. Two years after the war, he married Lizzy Abell, whose parents had known Lincoln when they lived outside of New Salem. Babbitt later became a lifetime member of the Grand Army of the Republic.
As we drove north to Illinois, I wondered what my life would have been like if John J. Babbitt had been killed at Shiloh. Geoff sitting next to me, and another son, Scott, back in Ohio, would not be there since my wife, Lea, would never have been born. Then I thought of a passage from Shakespeare’s Henry V:
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day.