- 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
The head of Buell’s column reached Savannah around noon on April 5. Colonel Jacob Ammen, an old acquaintance of Grant, commanded a brigade in the leading division, which was under General William Nelson; and at some time during the afternoon Grant and Nelson stopped at Ammen’s tent to discuss plans. Ammen said his men were not tired and could easily march down to Pittsburg Landing that afternoon, if need be. Grant told him to take it easy, and in his diary Ammen recorded Grant’s words this way: “You cannot march through the swamps; make the troops comfortable; I will send boats for you Monday or Tuesday, or some time early in the week. There will be no fight at Pittsburg Landing; we will have to go to Corinth, where the Rebels are fortified. If they come to attack us we can whip them, as I have more than twice as many troops as I had at Fort Donelson.” Then Grant rode off, saying he had an engagement that evening.
The Union army’s position at Pittsburg Landing seemed strong, even though the five divisions were arrayed rather loosely. The ground was high, the deep creeks protected both flanks, and if the Confederates did attack they would have to come in head-on, in a straight frontal assault. Proper field entrenchments would have made the position invulnerable, but no trenches had been dug-partly because everybody was thinking about offense rather than defense, and partly because professional soldiers just then believed that an army which dug itself in would lose its aggressive touch. Buell and the head of his column were supposed to reach Savannah on Sunday, April 6. Once they arrived things could begin to happen.
The soldiers waited in the Tennessee springtime and admired the budding leaves and the peach-tree blossoms, and bathed in the little streams that ran down to the Tennessee. An Iowa soldier, looking at the innumerable tents scattered through “the delightful Tennessee forest,” felt that this vast camp had the appearance of “a gigantic picnic.” There was a noisy, holiday air over the place. Untrained soldiers kept discharging their muskets in the woods, moved by nothing more than a simple desire to see if the things would go off after a rain, and regimental bands were playing; on the river, a steam calliope on one of the transports brayed out patriotic tunes. That evening, quite unnoticed, Johnston arrayed his men in order of battle, remarking grimly: “I intend to hammer ‘em. I think we will hammer them beyond doubt.” His army was so near that his pickets stood at ease in the dark and enjoyed the music of the Union bands.
Grant’s aide-de-camp, John Rawlins, was awakened early on Sunday morning, April 6. The mail steamer from Cairo reached Savannah at three o’clock, disembarking a passenger who came up the hill from the landing to headquarters—Captain W. S. Hillyer, a member of Grant’s staff who had just returned from a trip down-river. Hillyer’s arrival aroused Rawlins, who found himself unable thereafter to go back to sleep. He got up and dressed with the first light of dawn and went down to Grant’s office to look at the mail.
While Rawlins sorted the mail, Grant himself came into the headquarters office. Headquarters today was to be moved from Savannah to Pittsburg Landing, and orders had been issued the evening before to prepare an early breakfast and to have the horses saddled and ready to be put aboard Grant’s steamer, Tigress , which lay at the landing with steam up.
Grant went through his mail in the office and chatted casually with an Illinois officer who had just returned from leave, and at six o’clock, or a little later, breakfast was announced. Grant and his officers had just begun the meal when the quiet of the spring morning was unexpectedly broken by the sound of dull concussions from far upstream—cannon firing, somewhere in the vicinity of Pittsburg Landing.
Grant sat motionless for a moment, an untasted cup of coffee in his hand. A private soldier detailed for headquarters duty came in from outside to confirm what everyone had sensed: judging by the sound, this was a real fight and not just a skirmish. Grant set his cup down, stood up, and said: “Gentlemen, the ball is in motion. Let’s be off.” Within fifteen minutes, General, staff, clerks, orderlies, and horses were aboard the Tigress , and the steamer was moving upstream. Before the boat left, Grant wrote two hasty notes. One, to General Nelson, said simply: “An attack having been made on our forces, you will move your entire command to the river opposite Pittsburg. You can obtain a guide easily in the village.” The other, addressed to Buell, was slightly more detailed. It read: Heavy firing is heard up the river, indicating plainly that an attack has been made upon our most advanced positions. I have been looking for this, but did not believe the attack could be made before Monday or Tuesday. This necessitates my joining the forces up the river instead of meeting you today, as I had contemplated. I have directed General Nelson to move up the river with his division. He can march to opposite Pittsburg.