- 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
Grant was placing many troops personally that afternoon. It may be that his biggest single contribution to what was finally classed as a victory was the encouragement he gave to badly beaten troops, simply by his presence and his obstinate refusal to act as if things were going badly. The 15th Illinois, driven from its position, badly mauled when a Union battery took it under fire, minus its field officers and able to muster no more than a hundred men, was led by Grant to a new fighting position. The 8ist Ohio, driven from the area around the hornets’ nest, met Grant and was sent back into the fight; driven back again, the regiment encountered Grant once more and was directed to another place on the firing line. The 11th Iowa, broken and in retreat, managed to re-form; as it did so, Grant rode up and ordered it to counterattack. Later, retiring once more, it again met Grant, and was again ordered forward. He found time to chat with Major William W. Belknap, of this regiment; he asked for his name, and recalled that the Major’s father had been “Colonel Belknap, of the old army,” and added that they had served together as officers in the recent Mexican War.
Briefly, in midafternoon, Grant saw Buell, who had come down from Savannah on a steamboat. The two men talked, and accounts of their conversation conflict, which makes little difference—there was not much for them to say, since the general situation spoke eloquently for itself. Grant wanted Buell’s troops at the earliest possible moment, and Buell would get them to the scene as quickly as he could. Rawlins later insisted that Buell asked Grant what preparations he had made for retreat, and said that Grant replied that he still thought he was going to win; Grant added, according to another account, that if necessary they could make a bridge of boats to the far side of the river and protect it with artillery. The bank above the landing was jammed with stragglers when Buell arrived—5,000 of them, at the least, and possibly more—and Grant believed that the spectacle made Buell feel that the situation was worse than it really was. Buell, for his part, wrote that Grant seemed dull, and he insisted that “there was none of that masterly confidence which has since been assumed with reference to the occasion.” The two men came ashore, mounted, and then went their separate ways. Buell believed that the number of stragglers may have been as high as 15,000, and said that at the top of the bluff all was confusion.
The confusion was genuine enough. Most of the men who huddled in the lee of the bank seemed totally demoralized. Wild rumors were in circulation: the whole army had been surrendered, a Rebel officer had been seen paroling a lot of dismounted Federal cavalry, fugitives were going to build rafts and float down the river all the way to Paducah and safety. Here and there officers made earnest but completely fruitless efforts to rally the men. A member of Grant’s staff, returning to the landing, saw a mounted officer riding back and forth in the crowd, waving a flag and urging the men to come back and fight; the men heard him unmoved, and one was heard to remark, casually: “That man talks well, doesn’t he?”
Late in the afternoon there came a lull, right on the heels of disaster.
The men in the hornets’ nest were still fighting, but by now they were isolated. They had killed General Johnston himself, when that energetic leader exposed himself too bravely in their front, but they had lost contact with the troops to their right and left, and now they were all but surrounded. W. H. L. Wallace undertook to pull his men out, and was mortally wounded; most of his soldiers got away, and went off toward the landing badly disorganized. At one open place, a demoralized crowd heading for the rear was overtaken by a single gun galloping toward the landing; they assumed it was one of their own pieces joining in the retreat. Suddenly the gun wheeled, the gun crew dismounted and unlimbered it, and it began to fire rapidly into the backs of the fugitives: this was part of a Confederate battery, spearheading a new attack. One Federal in the crowd said that the Confederates coolly went on loading and firing, while fugitives continued to scamper past. There were enough Union soldiers present, he said, “to pick up gun, carriage, caisson and horses and hurl them into the Tennessee,” but no one made any effort to capture the gun or silence the gunners.
The hornets’ nest finally caved in. Prentiss had done precisely what he had been told to do—hold on at all hazards—and so had his men, but now the end came. After Wallace’s men left, the little division was surrounded. A long line of Confederate guns plastered the front at close range, and infantry swept past the flanks and got into the rear. Survivors dimly recalled a scene of complete confusion. A Texas colonel recalled that when Prentiss’ lines finally cracked, a Federal officer galloped forward to meet the Confederate line of battle, crying: “Boys, for God’s sake stop firing, you are killing your friends!” He and his horse were shot dead, and the line came sweeping on. Another Federal officer was killed as he rode toward the rear in, of all things, a buggy; then, while the Southerners regrouped for a new assault, there was a general cry of “White flag!” and “Cease firing!” and the uproar of battle died. Prentiss had surrendered, with approximately 2,200 men. With the surrender, a half hour of comparative silence came down on the field.