- 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
Now and then there would be a brief lull somewhere along the front, but these breathing spells never lasted long nor spread all along the line. Morning wore away, and afternoon came, and the fight went on unabated. The tough knot of resistance at the hornets’ nest remained, despite repeated Confederate attacks, but elsewhere the Union lines were crowded back steadily; by the day’s end, McClernand noted that his division had occupied eight separate battle lines between dawn and dusk. Beaten men kept drifting to the rear, and when they met fresh troops coming up they would cry that their regiments had been destroyed and that this was the Bull Run story all over again. One regiment that was moving toward the firing line passed the 4151 Illinois, which had been badly shot up, and the Illinois colonel called out to the new troops: “Fill your canteens. Some of you will be in hell before night and you’ll need water.” A battery in Sherman’s division had to limber up and retreat in a hurry, and one gun, swinging around, locked itself around a green tree, the trunk jammed in hard between wheel and gun barrel. All the gunners fled, on foot, except for the drivers who rode the six horses attached to the gun; these, lying flat on the animals’ necks, too frightened even to look around, flogged their steeds unmercifully, and the poor beasts bucked and pawed the ground and did their unavailing best to gallop; and other soldiers, themselves beset by panic fear, looked on and howled with sudden laughter at the sight. Cannoneers from some other battery at last came over and got the gun clear. As men from the f’f6th Illinois fled up a narrow ravine the advancing Confederates overtook them, lined both sides of the ravine, and shot as fast as they could load and fire. A survivor of this unhappy regiment wrote that the Confederates were right on top of them—“It was like shooting into a flock of sheep”—and a Mississippi major who had taken part in the assault reflected afterward: “I never saw such cruel work during the war.”
In the violence of battle, bizarre things happened. Many men ran from Prentiss’ line in the hornets’ nest; some of them, regaining a little nerve, crept back to the fight, and the boldest took a place behind a stout tree on the firing line. Others followed him, and in no time a grotesque tail of thirty or forty men, each clutching the waist of the man in the front of him, swayed out behind that tree, while a distracted company officer, unable to control either himself or his men, paced insanely back and forth from end to end of this line. In W. H. L. Wallace’s division, six men were lined up in single file behind one six-inch sapling, each one firing past the ones in front of him, the blast from their muskets scorching and almost deafening the man at the head of the line. A sixty-year-old private in the gth Illinois refused to retreat when his regiment went to the rear, falling in with another unit and fighting there, doing the same when this regiment fell back; that evening, rejoining his comrades, he displayed notes signed by several captains and one colonel, certifying that he had been fighting and not straggling. Amid heavy fighting, an Iowa private, told that his brother had been killed, asked: “Where is he?” A comrade pointed to the body, which lay not far away. The lowan, who had been in the act of loading, walked over, musket muzzle in one hand, ramrod in the other. He bent, saw that his brother was dead, then put the butt of the musket beside the dead man’s head, finished loading, and fired. He stayed there as long as his regiment held its position, loading and firing beside his brother’s body. One soldier saw a comrade, hit by a bullet that did not even break his skin, fall to the ground and writhe in wild agony, grasping at leaves and sticks with frantic hands; and he realized that a thing he had been told by a veteran was true-that a spent bullet could cause more immediate pain than a serious wound.
It went on for hour after hour, and the Union army was driven back, closer and closer to the high ground above the steamboat landing—all except the hard core in the hornets’ nest, which seemed immovable. Grant visited Prentiss here, late in the afternoon, when the hornets’ nest was a blunt salient jutting far out in front of the rest of the line; again he told Prentiss to hold his ground, and rode off to patch up the sagging remainder of the battle line as best he could. He saw Colonel A. L. Chetlain, dismounted and pale from a recent illness, with his badly battered iath Illinois, coming back out of action; placed the regiment in support of a battery; told Chetlain to go back to the landing and lie down—“You ought not to have come out today”; and then dropped a word of encouragement. “I think they have done all they are going to do,” he said. “We have fresh troops coming, and tomorrow we’ll finish them.” Yet the fresh troops did not arrive, neither Lew Wallace’s division—both Rawlins and McPherson had been sent to hurry it along—nor Buell’s men from Savannah, and they were neede’f9 desperately.