- 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
Sherman’s men got it first. Unluckiest of all the new regiments, on a day when everybody’s luck was bad, was the 53rd Ohio. It got into line, fired two volleys, then heard its colonel howl: “Fall back and save yourselves!” The colonel ran for the rear and cowered behind a log, white-faced; two companies of the 5grd stayed and fought and the rest lit out for the steamboat landing. By the end of the day, scattered portions of this regiment were fighting in three separate Union regiments. The 71st Ohio also lost its colonel, who spurred his horse for the rear the moment the fighting began. In the confusion that followed, the 71st was hit hard by an Alabama regiment and fled in a wild, disorganized stampede. The 6th Iowa, doing its best in its first fight, found that its colonel was drunk. He tried to put the regiment through pointless, impossible maneuvers in the face of a Confederate attack, and was placed under arrest by the brigade commander. (Growing sober a bit later, he took a musket and fought in the ranks of some other regiment as a private soldier.) Sherman’s division was driven back and so was Prentiss’, and when McClernand and Hurlbut got their men in beside them, the Confederate attack seemed to increase in intensity. One of McClernand’s brigadiers said later that his troops lost more men in their first five minutes of action than in all the rest of the day. Now Wallace’s troops were going into action, and by ten in the morning practically all of Grant’s army was strung out in a loose, uneven front, fighting desperately.
Grant went on to see the other divisional commanders. Iowa soldiers in Hurlbut’s division saw him riding up, attended by two or three staff officers. He was wearing a sword, today, and a buff sash; one officer said Grant’s face “wore an anxious look, yet bore no evidence of excitement or trepidation,” and he trotted forward with a leisurely air. Another soldier said Grant was smoking a cigar, seemingly as cool as if he were making a routine inspection, and he believed that the sight reassured the men, who felt that the worst must be over. Grant visited Sherman briefly. Sherman’s horse had been shot, he had a minor wound in one hand, he was covered with dust, and his tie had worked around to the side so that it stuck out under one ear; but this man, who had been so nervous in the early days at Kentucky that he lost his command and was called insane, was cool and at his ease in the heat of actual battle; and when Grant asked how things were going, Sherman said the situation was not too bad, except that he did need more ammunition. Grant told him that arrangements for ammunition had already been made, and cantered off to see Prentiss. When he wrote his memoirs, long afterward, Grant remarked that on this first day at Shiloh “I never deemed it important to stay long with Sherman.” The intimacy that would bind these two men together for all the rest of the war was born this day at Shiloh.
Prentiss had been driven back into an eroded lane that ran parallel with the Confederate front, with a stretch of woodland behind it and a nondescript field overgrown with brambles out in front, and here his raw troops were making a determined stand. W. H. L. Wallace and most of his division joined them here, now or a little later, and the resistance these soldiers put up was so effective that the Confederates were held at bay for five or six hours; they referred to this section, ever after, as the hornets’ nest. Grant told Prentiss to hold his ground at all hazards—an order which Prentiss would obey with dogged fidelity—and cantered off. As Grant and his escort rode past the 5th Ohio battery, the captain of the battery saw his own father riding along as a member of Grant’s cavalry escort.
Once Grant and his staff drew up in an open space, while Grant studied the situation. The fire was heavy, and Captain Hillyer, who never pretended to be the stoical military type, confessed that he and most of the others were in an agony of apprehension. Grant seemed almost to enjoy it, as a man might enjoy being out in the rain on a hot day. One staff officer nudged Hillyer and begged: “Go tell the Old Man to leave here, for God’s sake!” Hillyer shook his head: “Tell him yourself. He’ll think me afraid, and so I am, but he shan’t think so.” At last someone mustered the nerve to ride up and tell Grant: “General, we must leave this place. It isn’t necessary to stay here. If we do we shall all be dead in five minutes.” Grant looked about him, muttered, “I guess that’s so,” and led the cavalcade away.