There is a saying that a person can be “as stubborn as a mule.” It refers to an obstinate person, one who refuses to be moved. Although stubbornness is often thought of as a vice, there are certainly times when it can actually be a virtue. In one of the early battles of the Civil War, there was a Union officer who occupied a critical position and refused to allow the Confederates to drive him from it. He and his soldiers held their position against repeated Confederate attacks. His name was Stephen A. Hurlbut. This is the story of how he steadfastly, even stubbornly, defended the Peach Orchard at the 1862 Battle of Shiloh.
Stephen Augustus Hurlbut demonstrated early on a desire to chart his own course in life without conforming to the expectations of others. Though he was a native of Charleston, South Carolina, born in late 1815, his parents were not Southern aristocrats but rather Northerners with staunchly nationalist views. He became a lawyer and, mirroring his parents’ nationalist perspective, formed a close friendship with James L. Petigru, one of Charleston’s leading unionists and the chief opponent of states’ rights spokesman John C. Calhoun. He joined the Whig Party, a forerunner of the Republican Party, rather the Democratic Party like most South Carolinians. He left South Carolina in 1845 and resettled in Illinois where he continued to serve in the Whig Party until 1856 when he joined the new Republican Party. He campaigned hard for Abraham Lincoln’s election as president in November 1860, then watched as his native South Carolina seceded in December. Believing war between the North and South was imminent, Hurlbut determined to leave politics for the army.
Stephen Hurlbut’s service in the Civil War showed him to be stubbornly committed to crushing the “rebellion,” as Northerners called it. A trusted colleague of Lincoln’s, he first tried to avert war by serving as the President’s envoy to Charleston, but his efforts ended fruitlessly when the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. Hurlbut immediately joined the Union army, and in June President Lincoln appointed him a brigadier general over volunteers from Illinois and Iowa. In command of a brigade, he marched south into Missouri to protect the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad against Confederate guerrillas. Hurlbut denounced the guerrillas as traitors and arrested those suspected of being Confederate sympathizers. Despite pursuing the guerrillas across northeast Missouri, he was never quite able to corner and destroy them. In early 1862, he left Missouri to join the new Army of the Tennessee as commander of the army’s Fourth Division. As part of Ulysses S. Grant’s command, he marched his division towards the Confederate rail hub of Corinth, Mississippi. In early April he camped at Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River twenty miles north of Corinth in the vicinity of a small wooden church known as Shiloh. There, in a matter of days, Steven Hurlbut would help save the Union army from total destruction.
By the evening of April 5, 1862, Brigadier General Stephen Hurlbut began receiving reports of significant movements just to his front. The day before, April 4th, he had heard the sounds of battle coming from the woods near his headquarters on the extreme left flank of the Union army. He had ordered his troops to fall into formation and to advance forward. As he moved towards the sound of battle, however, General William Tecumseh Sherman informed him that it was only a cavalry skirmish, and he needed to return to camp immediately. Hurlbut reluctantly obeyed the order, but it was a mistake that the Union army soon paid for. Just before dawn on April 6th, Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston, probably the South’s finest battlefield commander at the time, unleashed his forty-four thousand men against the forty thousand Union troops who were just waking up and preparing breakfast. The Confederates achieved such surprise that most Union soldiers simply ran for their lives and did not even attempt to put up a fight. Not all Union forces did so however. The troops commanded by Hurlbut refused to retreat, and the general himself led by example. He mounted his horse and began issuing orders to his brigade commanders. He even sent one of his brigades to help General Sherman’s forces and then personally led the remainder of the division into the Peach Orchard to bolster the position held by Brigadier General Benjamin Prentiss. Once Hurlbut had reached the edge of the Peach Orchard, he refused to be moved by the enemy.
As the Confederates pushed through the Peach Orchard, Hurlbut formed a new defensive line along the edge of it to repulse the Confederate attack. General Prentiss linked up with Hurlbut and extended the Union line along a sunken wagon road, soon to earn the name “the Hornets’ Nest,” so called because of the non-stop “buzz” of rifle and musket fire. Both men’s attention was fixed on the sight of Confederate forces marching towards them. Sitting tall in the saddle in a resplendent uniform, Hurlbut ordered his artillery to fire on the advancing Confederates. Then he began to ride down the line of infantry to encourage his troops. He was so focused on his task he barely noticed an artillery round that exploded only ten feet from him or a rifle shot that struck a tree beside his head. Concerned for his safety, a staff officer told him to get down, but Hurlbut replied that “we generals must take our chances with the boys.” Suddenly, he saw Texas troops approaching. He ordered his soldiers to wait until the Texans were only three hundred yards away and then deliver a withering barrage of musketry. His troops followed his orders, and nearly two hundred Texans fell dead or wounded. Another of his regiments attacked a large body of Confederates and drove them back. Attack after attack came on. His spirited defense provided protection to the east flank of the Union army, but he could see that Confederate forces were close to overrunning his position.
At 2:30 in the afternoon, General Hurlbut watched as Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston gathered his forces for a final assault that would attempt to drive Hurlbut’s division from the Peach Orchard. As Johnston readied his men for the attack, he told those around him that “General Hurlbut seems to be mighty stubborn” and that Confederate forces would have to use the bayonet to drive them out. Hurlbut was indeed stubborn, but even stubbornness could not prevent overwhelming Confederate forces from breaking his lines. With no other alternative, Hurlbut ordered a tactical retreat. As he and his soldiers withdrew towards Pittsburg Landing, however, one of his soldiers turned and fired a shot that hit General Johnston in the femoral artery. The Confederate general bled to death in minutes, extinguishing one of the South’s brightest stars. Meanwhile, Hurlbut and his division reached Pittsburg Landing where they formed up along a wooded ridge. There they remained as the Confederates launched several more assaults before halting for the night. Hurlbut used the lull to strengthen his position. As dawn broke on April 7th, Grant came up to Hurlbut and ordered him to take up his position on the flank as the Union troops launched a counterattack. He and his division then went on the offensive to drive the Confederates back to Corinth. During the fighting, Hurlbut had a bullet graze his arm and had a horse shot from under him. Once the Confederates withdrew, his troops returned to their camps. General Hurlbut had performed with distinction at Shiloh. His obstinate refusal to surrender the Union flank without a fight may well have saved the day. General Grant understood this when he personally praised him for his key role in preventing the Union army’s annihilation.
Following his efforts at Shiloh, Stephen Hurlbut continued to fiercely engage the Confederate forces. He participated in the campaign to capture Corinth, Mississippi, and in October 1862, he fearlessly led his division into battle against the Confederates in the Battle of the Big Hatchie River. In reward for his service, he was promoted to major general and given command of the new Sixteenth Corps. He and his corps were stationed in Memphis, Tennessee until early 1864, at which time he was placed in command of the Army of the Gulf in New Orleans, Louisiana. In both cities, he followed orders to crack down on cotton smugglers. He arrested inhabitants and seized their property. His actions alienated many residents, and he was accused of drunkenness and war profiteering. Despite the charges, his superiors, especially General Grant and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, refused to take any disciplinary action against him. They chose instead to muster him out of the Army in June 1865 at the end of the war. He returned home to Illinois to pursue politics once again.
As he settled into postwar life, Hurlbut continued to serve his country in a variety of roles. In 1866 he gained election to the Illinois House of Representatives where he supported the construction of a new statehouse. A few years later in 1873, he won election to the U.S. House of Representatives where he became involved in civil service reform. He also served his country outside the U.S. as a diplomat. First he served President Grant as U.S. Minister to Colombia. While there he attempted to negotiate a treaty that would allow the U.S. to develop a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. He served President James Garfield much the same way as the ambassador to Peru, helping to negotiate an end to the war which Peru was waging with Chile. It was in Lima that he died on March 27, 1881 of a massive heart attack. He dutifully served the Union in whatever task he was assigned, always with the tenacious character for which he was known.
Stephen Hurlbut’s life serves as a good example of taking a personal trait that is oftentimes considered a negative and turning it into a positive. Most consider stubbornness to be a desire to remain entrenched in one’s position or attitude, refusing to consider any alternative. On April 6, 1862 at the Battle of Shiloh, Stephen Hurlbut proved otherwise. He showed that a refusal to be moved is sometimes what it actually takes to win. Without his determination to hold his position no matter what, the Confederate army might have destroyed Grant’s army and turned the tide of the war in the West. Instead, Hurlbut held his division together and forced the enemy to devote precious time and resources in overpowering the threat facing them. Hurlbut and his men may have been driven back temporarily, but in actuality, it was his stand that helped precipitate the Union’s ultimate victory in that key battle. Stephen Hurlbut dug in his heels and refused to be moved — “as stubborn as a mule.”