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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 Federals did not realize it, but conditions in the Confederate army—it was Beauregard’s army now that Johnston was dead—were just about as disorganized as in their own. During much of the battle, effective control of the Confederate attack had been exercised by a group of staff officers from the three Confederate corps, the corps commanders having been thrown out of effective touch with most of their troops. At the time Johnston lost his life, Beauregard had Hardee and a handful of staff officers rounding up stragglers to form improvised battalions to renew the attack on the Federal right—just as Grant, at about the same moment, had men creating similar formations out of disorganized men in his own rear. After Prentiss’ surrender, crowds of Confederates wandered through the hornets’ nest, gaping at the prisoners, picking up souvenirs, and acting as if the battle had ended. At this stage, it is probable that neither army had more than half of its men on the firing line.
The lull came just in time. Grant had his chief of staff, Colonel Joseph D. Webster, assembling all the siege guns and field artillery he could find in a compact line, a quarter of a mile inland from the landing, overlooking a ravine formed by a backwater that came in from the Tennessee; and Webster was working hard at his job—he had fifty guns or more, arranged in a great shallow crescent, and if Beauregard’s troops were going to reach the river they would have to overrun this powerful battery. Off in the woods, Confederate artillery was still firing, and shells were striking around the landing—so many that the ammunition-supply steamer Rocket cast off its lines and steamed downriver to get out of range. Webster’s guns began firing in reply, and the gunboats Tyler and Lexington moved in near the mouth of the backwater and opened fire with their heavy naval guns; the whole, said a staff officer, making “a noise not exceeded by anything I ever heard afterward.” A staff officer at Grant’s side was killed by one of the Confederate missiles.
A newspaper correspondent saw Grant sitting his horse in the midst of all of this, apparently unruffled. News of Premiss’ surrender had spread, and most of the men around the landing were very gloomy, and someone found the nerve to ask Grant if he did not think the situation extremely dark.
“Oh no,” said Grant. “They can’t break our lines tonight—it is too late. Tomorrow we shall attack them with fresh troops and drive them, of course.”
The correspondent, describing this incident, said long afterward that “from that moment I never doubted Grant would be recognized not only as a great soldier but a great man.”
And now, with the fragmented Union army backed up almost to the river’s edge, the long-awaited help arrived. Nelson’s division appeared on the far side of the Tennessee, and steamboats began to bring the men to the landing. They came ashore proudly, with bands playing, through the depressing backwash of stragglers, teamsters, dismounted cavalry, and men whose fighting instincts had evaporated. Some of these seemed to be quite unmoved by the arrival of the fresh troops. Leading his brigade ashore, Colonel Ammen had to crowd through a huge mass of listless soldiers; an earnest chaplain was exhorting these men, “in whang-doodle style,” repeating in frantic voice: “Rally, men, rally and we may yet be savedl O rally, for God and your country’s sake, rally …” No one was paying the least attention, and Ammen broke in: “Shut up, you Goddamned old fool, or I’ll break your head. Get out of the way.” Some of the rear guard took new heart when they saw Nelson’s men marching in. One of Grant’s soldiers wrote that he could never forget the new hope that came to him when he heard Nelson’s bands playing “Hail Columbia,” and he said the men all around him cheered ” ‘till the whole woods on either bank fairly shook for joy.”
The moment of crisis was over. Nelson’s men were assigned to support Webster’s huge battery, General Hurlbut was put to work organizing temporary units of stragglers, the still-unbroken parts of Grant’s army were drawn up to the right, and the artillery opened a stupendous cannonade. The Confederate attack, as a matter of fact, was about over for the day; a brigade or two had got into the ravine in front of the heavy guns and was trying in vain to renew the fight, but Beauregard could see that for the time being his army was utterly fought out, and he was ordering a halt and a general regrouping in preparation for another fight in the morning.