Union Gen. William H.L. Wallace and his division prepared for morning inspection on April 6, 1862, unaware that fighting at Shiloh was well underway. Then a rumor circulated through the ranks that skirmishers were active in their front.
In the camp of one of Wallace’s regiments, the 12th Iowa Infantry, the men reacted to the news with mixed emotions. Some shrugged it off and continued their morning routine in the fields and woods about their encampment. Others took advantage of the balmy weather to bath in a nearby stream.
In Company B, 2nd Lt. John Herman Borger went about his duties. A Hessian immigrant in his early twenties, he had more military experience than most of the boys in his command. One day back in 1855, soon after he had come to America, he walked into the Brooklyn Navy Yard an immigrant and walked out a Marine.
Borger proved a good Marine. Assigned to the 32-man detachment of Marines aboard the frigate San Jacinto, he and his comrades steamed to China to defend Americans threatened by a war between Anglo-French forces and the Chinese Qing Dynasty. What began as a diplomatic mission ended in bloodshed when Marines and sailors faced enemy fire after they landed along the Pearl River in Guangzhou in 1856. The Americans scored a victory in what became known as the Battle of the Barrier Forts.
Three years later, Borger mustered out as a corporal. Perhaps inspired by wanderlust during his stint in the Marines, he headed to the Midwest and started a new life in Iowa.
The war interrupted his plans.
“I saw that my Country needed me, my services was offered again the second time freely and voluntarily,” Borger later explained. He enlisted in the 12th in the autumn of 1861. The men voted for officers, a common practice among volunteers, and elected Borger second lieutenant.
Borger and the rest of the 12th trained at Benton Barracks in St. Louis. In early 1862, the regiment joined Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s forces in Kentucky. The Iowans participated in Grant’s campaign against Forts Henry and Donelson, and saw their first hostile fire during the capture of the latter place on February 15, 1862.
Two months later at Shiloh, the 12th and three other Iowa regiments, the 2nd, 7th and 14th, formed the Iowa Brigade. Col. James M. Tuttle of the 2nd commanded the brigade. A respected war Democrat, he reported to Brig. Gen. Wallace.
The rumor about Confederate skirmishers that had spread through camp during the early morning of April 6 turned out to be true. Confirmation came in the form of rapid charges of artillery fire. Before long, even the skeptics in camp realized that something big and violent headed their way.
Maj. David W. Reed, who wrote the regimental history of the 12th, observed, “The men had received these convincing impressions, as it were by intuition, and had hurried to camp from various excursions upon which they had gone, and nearly all had their guns in their hands and cartridge boxes on, when the long roll was sounded on the regimental parade ground, and within a very few moments thereafter the whole regiment was in line and soon joined the balance of the brigade as all hurried rapidly to the front.”
The Iowa Brigade, with Col. Tuttle in command, hustled down the Eastern Corinth Road and happened upon an open field. The alert colonel spotted Confederates in the woods on the opposite side. Tuttle moved fast. He immediately formed his Iowans in a solid blue line on high ground along a fence that bordered an old sunken road. The 14th occupied a wooded area on the extreme left. Borger and the 12th lined up to its right. Three companies of the 12th took up a position in the timbers and the remainder faced the open field. To the right of the 12th formed the 7th and the 2nd. As the men scrambled to erect makeshift defenses with whatever they could find, a pair of artillery batteries wheeled into position to support the infantry.
Wallace followed close on Tuttle’s heels with the rest of the division. But before Wallace could bring the men into position, a trio of Confederate brigades descended upon Tuttle’s lone brigade.
The gray troops coming at them were impressed by the sight of the Iowans. William P. Johnston described the view in the biography of his father, Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston, who suffered a mortal wound during the battle. “Here, behind a dense thicket on the crest of a hill, was posted a strong force of as hardy troops as ever fought, almost perfectly protected by the conformation of the ground, and by logs and other rude and hastily-prepared defenses. To assail it an open field had to be passed, enfiladed by the fire of its batteries.”
Alabamians commanded by Col. Daniel W. Adams moved in on Tuttle’s left flank for the kill. They “advanced with great confidence through the timber upon the 12th and 14th Iowa until they were within a few paces of our line, when they encountered such a blaze of fire from the sunken road that they faltered, then fell back to the shelter of a ravine,” reported historian Reed.
The Iowans pursued the retreating Alabamians and ran smack into a brigade of Louisiana troops, who suffered the same fate as the Alabama boys. The Iowans fell back to the relative safety of their original position.
Meanwhile on Tuttle’s right flank, a brigade of Arkansans attacked the 7th and 2nd. They suffered the same fate as the Alabamians and the Louisianans.
Confederate commanders believed the position could be taken and ordered their troops to attack—again and again. Historian Reed counted twelve separate charges during the day. “The 12th, located at the very center of the contested line, had participated in repelling every attack, whether it came through the timber or across the open field.”
Reed described the scene: “The field in its front was so thickly strewn with dead that it could have been walked over without stepping off a dead body; yet there was not a man who had left the regimental ranks except as he had been carried away wounded. Cartridges had been supplied from time to time as needed, and at 5 o’clock P.M. that line, the key to the position, was as firmly held as at 10 o’clock in the morning. And the men of the regiment were as capable of resisting as many more attacks, if they came from the front, as they had been to resist those that had been repeatedly made upon them.”
Somehow, Borger numbered among the fortunate survivors who escaped the carnage and chaos and outlasted the enemy through six brutal hours of combat.
Johnston summed up the Confederate experience, “No figure of speech would be too strong to express the deadly peril of assault upon this natural fortress, whose inaccessible barriers blazed for six hours with sheets of flame, and whose infernal gates poured forth a murderous storm of shot and shell and musket-fire which no living thing could quell or even withstand. Brigade after brigade was led against it. But valor was of no avail.” Rebels nicknamed this area The Hornet’s Nest. Tuttle’s Iowa Brigade become known as the Hornet’s Nest Brigade for its stubborn defense of this position.
The Yankees did not have the same success on other sectors of the battlefield. Grant’s army faced annihilation, and its commanders scrambled to establish a defensive perimeter near Pittsburg Landing along the Tennessee River. Wallace ordered his troops to withdraw after federal forces on either side of his division pulled out. He suffered a mortal wound shortly after he issued the command.
One of Wallace’s aides delivered the withdrawal order to Tuttle. He led the 2nd and 7th regiments out and dispatched a messenger to relay the order to the 12th and 14th.
The messenger and his message did not make it.
Unaware of the fury about to fall upon them, Borger and his comrades continued to fight alongside their West Point educated colonel, Joseph J. Woods. At some point during this critical period, ominous indicators surfaced. Some of the Iowans detected shifting sounds of battle moving behind them. Others observed Union troops falling back on their left and right. But the majority were too occupied with the Confederates in front of them to pay serious attention to the warning signs. “It was only when they heard Colonel Woods’ order ring out, as cooly as if on parade, ‘12th Iowa, about face: forward march!’” that they appreciated the real danger that threatened their existence.
Borger and the rest of the regiment turned and headed for the rear. They only marched a short distance when they happened upon a formidable enemy line blocking the way. Here they realized that the Confederates had surrounded their position.
Undaunted, the Iowans leveled their muskets and blasted away at the foemen that blocked their path. Col. Tuttle, now on the other side with his other two regiments, heard the firing and recognized it as a breakout attempt. He hastily organized a rescue mission. But before he got there the firing had ceased and he knew that the 12th and 14th were lost.
The Confederates consumed the better part of an hour cleaning out the Nest after the larger body of federals withdrew to Pittsburg Landing. Some would later make the case that the stubborn resistance by the Iowans prevented Grant’s army from total destruction.
Historian Reed noted, “As the sun was setting on the army they had saved, these gallant men threw down their arms and surrendered themselves prisoners of war.”
While Grant’s forces took advantage of precious minutes to strengthen their new position, Borger and 381 of his fellow Iowans in the 12th began their ordeal as prisoners of war. They traveled by foot and rail to Mobile, Alabama, where the men were separated. Captains and officers higher in rank were imprisoned in Selma. Borger and other lieutenants were sent with the rank and file to various prison camps in the state.
Back in Iowa, families and friends struggled with their emotions. According to the April 18, 1862, Cedar Falls Gazette, “We have been passing tedious and anxious days, longing for news from our own brave sons, and at last we have commenced to get meagre reports of the important part they played in that sanguinary conflict. Almost the first report we hear from them is ‘The Iowa troops fought like Tigers!’”
The home folks might have known that their sons, husbands and fathers faced the privations of prison life with the same courage exhibited in the Hornet’s Nest. Pushed beyond the brink of endurance in Southern camps, about 80 men—roughly a quarter of those captured—died in captivity.
One of soldiers in the 12th, David B. Henderson of Company C, stated after the war that they “went to rot and die in the prison hells of the South.”
Borger noted that his captors “through us down in Southern hell.” He managed to survive the horrors of prison life. After a few months in Alabama, he and the other lieutenants were sent to a prison camp in Madison, Ga., where they reunited with other officers captured at Shiloh.
Borger gained his release in October 1862 after six long months. He returned to the 12th with a promotion to first lieutenant. In the summer of 1864, he suffered a bout of sunstroke that left him sightless in his right eye and suffering chronic headaches. Still, he remained with the regiment until it mustered out of the service when its three-year term of enlistment expired in the fall of 1864.
His health compromised, Borger settled in the Chicago suburb of Addison and made another go at life. He married a German immigrant, Louise, and went to work as a mail carrier. The physical demands of the job proved too much and he stopped working. He applied for a pension in 1880, but died before the government approved it. Doctors declared consumption contracted during his army service as the cause of his death at about age 44. Louise and a 17-month old daughter, Elfriede, survived him. Louise eventually received a widow’s pension.
In the spring of 1882, a year after Borger died, survivors of the regiment held their second reunion. One of its number paid tribute to those who had passed. “Time with his ruthless hand, has made sad inroads in our ranks, and many an anxious inquirer after some old friend is met to-day with the crushing reply, dead. We hope that there are many parades in store for our association, but our own good sense tells us that the time is not far distant when the last remaining member of our regiment must answer to the call of ‘lights out.’ Then let us hope that when our reveille is beaten in the camp of the great Hereafter, that we may meet with hearts true and loyal, as they were when we went forth to fight our country’s battles.”
References: Reed, Campaigns and Battles of the Twelfth Regiment; John H. Borger pension record, National Archives; Johnston, The Life of Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston; First Reunion of the 12th Iowa V.V. Infantry.
Ronald S. Coddington is Editor and Publisher of MI.