- 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
There was a great deal for the commanding general to do, and Grant promptly set about it. The volume of firing warned that the men up front would need ammunition, and Grant put his staff to work to organize an ammunition train so that there might be a steady supply of cartridges. The job was intricate: the Union Army’s weapons had not yet been standardized, and in Sherman’s division alone cartridges of six different calibers had to be supplied. Another staff officer was sent downstream on the Tigress , with orders for Lew Wallace to bring up his division as fast as possible. Something had to be done about the stragglers, and Grant seized two Iowa regiments which, having disembarked a few minutes earlier, were lined up on the bluff awaiting orders; as soon as they had been given ammunition they were to form across the roads a little way from the landing and halt all fugitives, holding themselves ready at the same time to obey further orders. The colonel of one of these regiments, James T. Reid of the 15* Iowa, looked blank when Grant gave him these instructions, and Grant had to identify himself with the remark: “I am General Grant.” Then, having sent most of his staff off on various tasks, Grant set out for the front to see for himself what was happening.
What was happening was both simple and complex, confusing in its innumerable details but appallingly clear in its general drift. This was not one battle but a vast number of intense and bewildering small battles, each one overlapping with its neighbors and yet strangely isolated, the only true pattern coming from the inexorable application of overwhelming force on a loose battle line which had come into being without any central direction but solely in response to immense pressure. Of the five Federal divisional commanders involved, only one had been a professional soldier. The two divisions which had been hit first and hardest and which, on Grant’s arrival, had been fighting the longest, contained few regiments that had ever fought before. Reinforcements had gone forward, not in response to any general plan, but simply because officers at the front were calling desperately for help. Fugitives from the combat area were coming to the rear almost as fast as the new troops were going forward; as the two tides flowed past and through each other, Grant lost forever the belief that he had held thus far—that the ordinary soldiers of the Confederacy were halfheartedly serving a cause that never fired their inmost loyalties. The one unmistakable fact, now, was that these ordinary soldiers of the Confederacy—no better trained and no more experienced than Grant’s own men—were fighting with a sustained fury and were giving his army the worst of it. His immediate and most pressing task was to stave off unredeemed disaster.
Grant went first to W. H. L. Wallace, commanding what was supposed to be the reserve division, and got from him a sketchy picture of what had happened so far.
At dawn, the Union army had been grouped loosely in preparation for a march on Corinth. Up in front, nearest the Confederates, were the divisions of Sherman and Prentiss, with McClernand’s and Stephen A. Hurlbut’s divisions lined up back of them and Wallace’s division in the rear. At three in the morning, Prentiss—no professional, but a stout fighter with combat experience in the Mexican War—had sent three companies from the 25th Missouri out on a long reconnaissance. These soldiers, groping past the Federal picket line, and drifting to the right, in front of Sherman’s division, had bumped into Confederate skirmishers at five o’clock, or thereabouts. They had attacked at once, and before long Prentiss had sent other Missourians forward to support them. Meanwhile, Sherman’s 77th Ohio had also gone forward on the prowl, and it too had kicked up a fight with unidentified Rebels in the murky woodlands. (One of the many oddities about this battle was that it began with Federals attacking Confederates.) The advance elements had fought hard for a short time, and then the Confederate offensive had begun to roll, and ever since then the men in blue had tried desperately to hold on to what they had.
Sherman was on the right. Prentiss was to his left, not in immediate contact, and isolated on Prentiss’ left was a lone brigade from Sherman’s division, three midwestern regiments under Colonel David Stuart. Albert Sidney Johnston was attacking with his entire army, less three brigades held back as reserve, an army massed in three consecutive battle lines, each line following closely behind the one ahead: a defective tactical arrangement because it meant that Confederate troops would be hopelessly scrambled once the fighting became intimate, but a powerhouse nonetheless because it put more than 30,000 men in a broad mass to attack little more than a third of their own number.