- Historic Sites
Grant At Shiloh
Surprised and almost overwhelmed, he stubbornly refused to admit defeat. His cool conduct saved his army and his job
February 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 2
Once Webster’s bombardment got into full voice it was stupendous. The 81st Ohio was in position a little in front, and men said the thunderous discharges behind them knocked their hats off. One soldier wrote that the concussion almost broke his neck, and inflicted the sharpest pains he felt in all the war: “Guns pounded away all night long. The sensation at every shot was that of being lifted two feet and slammed down with a good healthy whack.” Two weeks later, he said, his ears still “played me all sorts of pranks and tricks,” and the ordinary creaking and clicking of wagon wheels sounded like volleys of musketry. In the 6th Iowa, also drawn up close to the guns, the violent concussion drew blood from men’s noses and ears, and gave permanent injury to some soldiers’ hearing. Out in the river, the Lexington and the Tyler continued to slam in their eight-inch shells, firing down the length of the supposed location of the Confederate battle line. Since this line was withdrawn, they did little actual damage, but they were ordered to keep on firing at intervals throughout the night so as to keep the exhausted Southerners from sleeping. After dark a heavy rain began to fall, with intermittent thunder and lightning, the rolling crash of thunder mingling with explosions from the guns, red flames from the massed batteries streaking out in the wet darkness; one Federal veteran probably spoke for everyone in both armies when he wrote of it as “a weird, wearisome and wrathful night.”
The danger had passed, but not everyone was ready to recognize the fact. A surgeon in the 55th Illinois, which had been drawn up in support of the line of guns, found Grant nearby and ventured to remark: “General, things are going decidedly against us today.” Grant told him: “Not at all, sir. We are whipping them there now.” The doctor, with some reason, felt that not another man in the army would have said that just then. In the midst of the rain, a staff officer found Grant and others grouped around a smoldering fire of straw. McPherson rode up, after inspecting the lines, and Grant greeted him with a cheerful “Well, Mac, how is it?” McPherson was not encouraging; at least a third of the army was out of action, he said, and all the rest were disheartened. Grant said nothing, and McPherson sought to prompt him by asking: “General Grant, under this condition of affairs, what do you propose to do, sir? Shall I make preparations for retreat?” Grant snapped back: “Retreat? No. I propose to attack at daylight and whip them.”
Nelson’s division was over the river now, and more of Buell’s troops were coming up on the other side, waiting to be ferried across; and finally, the lost division of Lew Wallace came marching up, to take position on the right. Wallace had had a miserable day. Some of Grant’s impatient staff officers felt that he had been inert and slothful, but apparently the man had simply been misled by a complete misunderstanding about the roads he was supposed to take. He had marched his division off on a wrong road under this misunderstanding, had been forced to make a laborious countermarch, and was now reaching the scene many hours too late, his great day of opportunity gone forever—if his division could have come in early in the afternoon, on the Confederate flank, it would almost certainly have brought about a smashing Union victory. Not until near the end of his own life would Grant come to see that Wallace had been much more sinned against than sinning that Sunday at Shiloh.
It was a horrible night for everyone—a night of black darkness, insistent rain, jarring noise, and acute physical discomfort. Thousands upon thousands of men had been wounded, and the ones who had not been hurt were completely exhausted and had no chance to get a decent rest. Grant tried to make a go of it lying under a tree on the bluff near the landing, but the pain in his injured ankle kept him awake, and along toward midnight he hobbled off to the log house that was supposed to be his headquarters. It had been put into service as a hospital, and was full of moaning, wounded men with many more lying outside awaiting attention; after one look at all of this, Grant went back into the rain. Years later, recalling all of it, he wrote: “The sight was more unendurable than encountering the enemy’s fire, and I returned to my tree in the rain.”
Late that night tough Sherman came to see him. Sherman had found himself in the heat of the enemy’s fire that day, but now he was licked; as far as he could see, the important next step was “to put the river between us and the enemy, and recuperate,” and he hunted up Grant to see when and how the retreat could be arranged. He came on Grant, at last, at midnight or later, standing under the tree in the heavy rain, hat slouched down over his face, coat-collar up around his ears, a dimly-glowing lantern in his hand, cigar clenched between his teeth. Sherman looked at him; then, “moved,” as he put it later, “by some wise and sudden instinct” not to talk about retreat, he said: “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?”
Grant said “Yes,” and his cigar glowed in the darkness as he gave a quick, hard puff at it. “Yes. Lick ‘em tomorrow, though.”
So ended Sunday, April 6, at Pittsburg Landing.