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Stanley at Shiloh: An Improbable Indiana Jones
By Walter Giersbach

The early days of April 1862 didn't turn out well for Henry Morton Stanley. A few months into his enlistment in the Dixie Greys—the 6th Arkansas Regiment—found the young man marching toward the disastrous Battle of Shiloh. This would set him on a course he couldn't have imagined.

Stanley wasn't his real name, nor was he an American—just an Englishman from Wales who liked to read and write and happened to find himself in Arkansas when war broke out. Joining the Dixie Greys came as much from the lure of adventure as patriotism. Then, on the morning of April 7, he found himself virtually the only soldier in gray facing a sea of bluecoats. His fight at Shiloh was over when a Yank shouted, "Down with that gun, Secesh, or I'll drill a hole through you!"

It was an ignominious beginning for a man who became one of the 19th Century's greatest adventurers and explorers—the man who trekked through America, sailed the West Indies, entered the heart of Africa and uttered the words, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume."

A Stranger in a Strange Land

The man known as "Henry Morton Stanley" was born on June 10, 1840, in Denbigh, Wales, son of Elisabeth Parry and a farmer John Rowlands who died three years later. (From Stanley's autobiography, it appears he was born in 1842, but 1840 is the usually accepted date.) He was christened "John Rowlands, Bastard." [1]

Abandoned by his mother, Henry was brought up by his maternal grandmother and then boarded out by his mother's brothers at half a crown weekly. By 1847, at the age of six, he was taken to the St. Asaph Union workhouse led by a tyrant schoolmaster named James Francis. An investigative commission reported in 1847 that male adults there "took part in every possible vice." [2]

Surprisingly, young John got a fair education. Over the next nine years he turned into a voracious reader. An incident at age 15—he thrashed the headmaster—made young Rowlands escape from school to his paternal grandfather. Unfortunately, the well-to-do farmer refused to help him. A cousin, master of a national school at Brynford, took him in as a pupil teacher. Then, a year later, Rowlands was sent to Liverpool to live in poor circumstances with an uncle.

Time moved quickly, and Rowlands worked first at a haberdasher's and then a butcher shop before shipping out to New Orleans as a cabin boy on the American packet ship Windermere. He was just 19 years old.

"J. Rolling" stepped ashore in the new world in 1859 and began work with a merchant and cotton broker named Henry Morton Stanley. His employer and mentor adopted the young man, intending to set him up in a mercantile career in Stanley's country store near Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Rowlands or "Rolling" took on the name of his employer. Alone in a new state, the young man was again "orphaned" when the adopted father died, leaving no provision for the boy. [3]

At the outset of the war, men were inflamed with passion, Stanley recalled in his journal. But emotional as the men and youths were "the warlike fire that burned within their breasts was as nothing to the intense heat that glowed within the bosoms of the women. No suggestion of compromise was possible." [4]

Enrollment began under Captain L.G. Smith, a plantation owner. Penny Mason, from another plantation was to be a first lieutenant, and a Mr. Lee, nephew of Robert E. Lee, was second lieutenant. A Dr. Goree invited Stanley to join in the enlistment, mentioning, "We shall see what we can do for you when you come back"—perhaps indicating that a young lady who had caught Stanley's eye would be waiting.

The young troops sailed in July 1861 on the steamer Frederick Notrebe up to Little Rock where the Dixie Greys were sworn in, armed with flintlock muskets and knapsacks and attached to the 6th Arkansas Regiment. The regiment saw little action, going from Columbus to Cave City on Nov. 26, and remaining there until the following February when Fort Donelson was lost.

Adventure Finally Beckons

The Civil War is writ large in terms of battles, strategy and politics, but its human dimension often is made clear by the events of a single man like Stanley.

Stanley's regiment, the 6th Arkansas of Brigadier General Thomas C. Hindman, received orders on Apr. 2, 1862. General Albert Sidney Johnston and his second in command P.G.T. Beauregard needed to attack before General Grant could bring overpowering forces to bear. The army was to march north from Corinth, Mississippi, to engage General Grant's troops on the Tennessee River, using the element of surprise before the Union Major General Don Carlos Buell's Army of Ohio could reinforce Grant.

Two days later, they set out, leaving their knapsacks and tents behind. Two more days of cold rations and sleeping on the damp ground brought them on Apr. 6 to a formation along a three-mile front. They were at the Shiloh Meeting House, a one-room, log church. The enemy, in the form of General Grant, was nine miles downriver, at Savannah, Tennessee, waiting for Buell to bring fresh troops from Nashville. Ahead, Sherman's troops were drilling, camping, cooking—and waiting.

Hungry and cold, the brigade waited for the wet Sunday dawn. The 800 or more officers and men were sandwiched between the 2nd Brigade of Patrick Cleburne and 1st Brigade of A.H. Gladden.

22-year-old Stanley turned to Henry Parker, a home-town friend. The 17-year-old Parker directed Stanley's attention to a patch of violets at their feet, saying, "It would be a good idea to put a few into my cap. Perhaps the Yanks won't shoot if they see me wearing such flowers, for they are a sign of peace."

"Capital. I will do the same," Stanley responded. To the laughter of their comrades, they picked violets in the half light. The woods, he wrote, would have been a grand place for a picnic.

Orders came down the line and the troops loaded their muskets. Stanley reports, "Our weapons were the obsolete flintlocks and the ammunition was rolled in cartridge paper, which contained powder, a round ball, and three buckshot. When we loaded we had to tear the paper with our teeth, empty a little powder in the pan, lock it, empty the rest of the powder into the barrel, press paper and ball into the muzzle, and ram home."

The orderly sergeant called roll and the Dixie Greys moved out.

"Before we had gone five hundred paces," Stanley says, "our serenity was disturbed by some desultory firing in front." The time was 5:15 a.m.

"Stand by, gentlemen," Captain Smith ordered. The firing became brisker as the line moved forward. A sharper rattle of muskets from the Union Army brought the comments, "That's the enemy waking up."

"Within a few minutes, there was another explosive burst of musketry, the air was pierced with many missiles, which hummed and pinged sharply by our ears, pattered through the treetops and brought twigs and leaves down on us."

"Those are bullets," Henry Parker said in awe. Two hundred yards further, a "dreadful roar" of muskets broke out from the brigade on one side. The Dixie Greys charged forward, firing and reloading.

"I tried to see some living thing to shoot at," Stanley wrote. "I, at last, saw a row of little globes of pearly smoke streaked with crimson…from a long line of blue figures in front." In contrast to the violets and spring grass Stanley noted earlier, the air was filled with "an appalling crash of sound" that "suggested a mountain upheaved, with huge rocks tumbling and thundering down a slope, and the echoes rumbling and receding through space. All the world seemed involved in one tremendous ruin."

The Dixie Greys continued to advance, fire, and reload as the bluecoats slowly withdrew. Through the smoke, it was impossible to accurately pick a target, but bullets did find their marks on both sides.

Stanley heard the order, "Fix bayonets! On the double quick!" The Dixie Greys charged, thousands screaming in a way that "drove all sanity and order from among us." The bluecoats fell backward, retreating from their encampment. [5]

There was a momentary lull in the battle as General Benjamin Prentiss's division of Grant's Union Army of the Tennessee was routed. The Dixie Greys then raced on in a human tide, running up against the second line of Union tents. They seemed to have victory firmly clenched in their teeth, eager to avenge the Union victories at Forts Henry and Donelson and the loss of territory in Kentucky and Tennessee. [6]

The Dixie Greys saw the second Union encampment just as they were greeted by a storm of cannon and musket fire. Confusion in Confederate battle lines on this sunken road, called "The Hornet's Nest," had allowed Union forces to regroup. The brigade was ordered to lie down and take cover, with Stanley crawling behind a fallen log. Next to him, a man raised his head, Stanley wrote in his diary. "I turned to him, and saw that a bullet had gored his whole face and penetrated into his chest. Another ball struck a man a deadly rap in the head, and he turned on his back and showed his ghastly white face to the sky."

A boy's voice cried out, and Stanley looked down. "Oh, please stop, please stop for a bit. I have been hurt and can't move." Henry Parker was standing on one foot and staring at his other foot which had been smashed. [7]

Seeing the brigade banner waving 60 yards to the front, Stanley and his fellow soldiers rose, screaming, "Let's give them hell, boys" and "Plug them plum center, every time!"

At about 10 a.m., feeling "the glorious joy of heroes," they rushed through the second encampment. Stanley, exhausted, then fell to the ground. Something had also struck him in the belt buckle. He dug in his haversack for food. Half an hour later, he headed north in the direction of his regiment, stepping over or aside from the bodies lying everywhere. "Glory" now sickened Stanley with "its repulsive aspect, and made me suspect it was all a glittering lie."

At one o'clock, Stanley caught up to his regiment as they attacked a concentration of Union soldiers. The battle grew very hot by three o'clock as they pressed toward the Tennessee River. By four o'clock, Stanley could only long for rest. While both sides were firing more accurately, the Union was now aided by gunboats firing huge projectiles into the trees.

At five that afternoon, after capturing a large camp, Stanley's unit was finally allowed to retire to tents and sleep.

Success Turns to Bitter Defeat

He awoke to a pre-dawn breakfast of biscuits and molasses. Confederate General Sidney Johnston, their senior officer and Jefferson Davis's choice as top commander in the West, had been killed. The word was that reinforcements would not arrive for many days. Worse, the day would not be good if Union General D.C. Buell with 20,000 Union troops had joined the battle.

Stanley fell into company formation, noting only about 50 Dixie Greys remained. No one was in condition to repeat the previous day's achievements. Still, Stanley moved actively, remembering his Captain Smith saying pointedly, "Now, Mr. Stanley, if you please, step briskly forward." Being personally singled out this manner sent the sensitive young man rocketing ahead.

The troops moved carefully, skirmishing and advancing on their enemy. They ducked between what cover they could find, seeking targets, then would run forward to another shelter. Stanley, at one point threw himself into a hollow. Trouble!

"I became so absorbed with some blue figures in front of me," he wrote, "that I did not pay sufficient attention to my companion Greys. I assumed that the Greys were keeping their position, and never once thought of retreat, but to my speechless amazement, I found myself a solitary grey in a line of blue skirmishers. My companions had retreated! The next I heard was, ‘Down with that gun, Secesh, or I'll drill a hole through you! Drop it quick.'"

His challengers, a half dozen men, belonged to General Buell. As Stanley was marched into the ranks of the Yankees, he tried to remember he was a noble Confederate soldier. The troops marching past him to the front shouted, "Where are you taking that fellow to? Drive a bayonet into the ____." From their voices, he recognized German accents. A few rushed forward with lowered bayonets. But, "before their bayonets reached me, my two guards, who were ruddy-faced Ohioans, leveled their rifles and shouted, ‘Here! Stop that, you fellows. He is our prisoner.'" [8]

On April 8, Stanley and other prisoners were loaded on a steamer to St. Louis, and from there by train to Camp Douglas on the outskirts of Chicago. The war had ended for Stanley, it seemed, but he was wrong.

Shiloh has been called "the greatest battle ever fought on the American continent, up to that date." The Union Army lost 13,000 men, the Confederates 10,000. The Confederates' major bid to reclaim western Tennessee had failed. [9]

A Second Chance for Freedom

If the South had its Andersonville, fabled for its horrifying conditions and mortality rate, the North had the notorious Camp Douglas. Camp Douglas was located on a piece of land at Chicago's 31st Street and Cottage Grove Avenue. The tract had been donated by the estate of Stephen A. Douglas, and later became the first site of the University of Chicago. The first Confederate prisoners—more than 7,000 from the capture of Fort Donelson in Tennessee Feb. 16 —had arrived. Before the end of the war, 6,000 Confederate prisoners (there's some dispute over the exact number) died there.

Unlike other Northern prison camps, Douglas was distinguished by high mortality, extreme acts of cruelty and a low official count of prisoners. Death came from overcrowding, unhealthy living conditions, ineffective medical treatment, inadequate food, and brutality. [10]

Late in 1862, there were 8,962 prisoners under the command of just 900 guards. Some 200 men were crowded into barracks averaging 70 by 25 feet. Later, tents were pitched, with little protection against winter blizzards. Latrines were left open, so rain washed raw sewage into the drinking water. Wooden floors were removed so prisoners couldn't tunnel out, and vermin infected the dirt floors. Rats and mice were so commonplace that inmates recollected catching them to making "rat pies." When cholera and smallpox erupted, free medicine sent up from the South was withheld as "contraband." Food was restricted to reduce cost and retaliate against Southern victories.

The Chicago Tribune wrote on Sept. 22, 1862, "It is no wonder they died so rapidly. It is only a wonder that the whole eight thousand of the filthy hogs did not go home in pine boxes instead of on their feet." [11]

The guards' cruelty—for example, bayoneting men standing at the deadline to urinate—was unspeakable. The milder tortures were to shoot prisoners who moved too slowly or hang them by their feet to encourage them to take the "oath of the United States."

This was the Hell that Henry Morton Stanley entered. In a matter of days, he was wracked by fever and taken to the hospital. It was just two months, on June 4, before the young Arkansan was released by taking the oath and enlisting in the Union artillery. He was back in the war again! [12]

But dysentery caught at Fort Douglas followed Stanley. Just a few days into his new enlistment found him wracked by fever. He worked to disguise it, believing the Union officers would think him shirking. He was hospitalized again as his unit reached Harper's Ferry. On June 22, he was discharged out of the service.

But could freedom be any less appealing? He writes, "I had not a penny in my pocket; a pair of blue military trousers clothed my nethers, a dark serge coat covered my back, and a mongrel hat my head. I knew not where to go. The seeds of disease were still in me, and I could not walk three hundred yards without stopping to gasp for breath."

Hagerstown is 24 miles from Harper's Ferry, but it took Stanley a week to reach a farmhouse halfway there. A farmer allowed Stanley to rest in an out building. When he awoke several days later he found himself on a mattress, clothed in a clean cotton shirt and his face and hands washed. A farmhand named Humphrey had saved his life.

Stanley stayed on the farm until the middle of August, when the farmhand drove him to Hagerstown and paid for his rail ticket to Baltimore by way of Harrisburg.

Another Turning Point

Stanley's journals end here, although he left notes that were compiled later by his wife. He turned from one job to another to survive during this period, "harvesting in Maryland" or working on an oyster schooner. In November 1862, he sailed on the E. Sherman back to Liverpool. He arrived home in Denbigh, Wales, recalling that he was "very poor, in bad health and in shabby clothes." But he was proud, he said, "buoyed up by a hope of being able to show what manliness I had acquired." [13]

Instead, he was told by his mother that "I was a disgrace to them in the eye of their neighbours, and they desired me to leave as speedily as possible." This rejection affected him deeply. He was characterized by those who knew him as being sensitive, affectionate and reflective—the kind of person who would pick flowers before a battle—but henceforth, Stanley practiced self-suppression and reserve.

With a will to survive and motivated still by a sense of adventure, he returned to America soon afterwards. Through the balance of 1863 and into the new year he served on one ship after another, sailing to the West Indies, Spain and Italy.

Adventure often sought him out, as shown by a two-line entry in his journal: "Wrecked off Barcelona. Crew lost, in the night. Stripped naked, and swam to shore. Barrack of Carbineers…demanded my papers!"

Following whatever siren's call, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy in August 1864, serving on the receiving ship North Carolina, and then the Moses S. Stuyvesant as "ship's writer." This seemed to be the first sign that he was cut out to be a correspondent and news analyst. He couldn't have been in a better position to file his first story as an observer of the first and second Federal attacks on Fort Fisher, N.C. He also witnessed General Butler's attack on the port in December 1864 and, a year later, General Terry's bombardment and attack.

According to one story, during this enlistment he jumped overboard and swam 500 yards, tying a rope to a captured steamer while exposed to shots and shell from a 10-gun battery. He received a promotion for this feat of courage. [14]

Stanley wrote his accounts in a "lucid and vigorous style," and was overjoyed "to have his letters welcomed by newspapers, and given to the world." [15]

Then the war ended in April 1865 and the adventure stopped. Or would it?

Stanley left the Navy, but the story of an improbable "Indiana Jones" continued. Over the following year his journals mention "St. Joseph, Missouri, – across the Plains, – Indians, – Salt Lake City, – Denver, – Black Hawk, – Omaha."

Henry Morton Stanley had discovered two professions: newspaper correspondent and adventurer. His career would eventually take him on a 700-mile trek to the interior of Africa searching for Dr. Livingstone.

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Show Notes

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© 2024 Walt Giersbach

Written by Walter Giersbach.

About the Author:
Walter Giersbach’s fiction has appeared in a score of online and print publications. He also writes extensively on American history, with 10 pieces published in Military History Online. Two volumes of short stories, Cruising the Green of Second Avenue, published by Wild Child (www.wildchildpublishing.com) were available from online retailers until his publisher ceased operations. He served for three decades as director of communications for Fortune 500 companies, helped publicize the Connecticut Film Festival, managed publicity and programs for Western Connecticut State University’s Haas Library, and moderates a writing group in New Jersey.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MilitaryHistoryOnline.com.

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