February 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 2
Surprised and almost overwhelmed, he stubbornly refused to admit defeat. His cool conduct saved his army and his job
For a time early in the spring of 1862, it seemed that Union armies were about to destroy the Confederacy in the west. A hitherto inconspicuous officer named U. S. Grant had, in close succession, captured the two major Rebel strongholds in Tennessee, Forts Henry and Donelson; an aggressive follow-up might well have overwhelmed the badly disorganized Confederates. But the Union high command hesitated, and a fine opportunity was wasted. Grant was ordered south toward the important railhead at Corinth, Mississippi, on an expedition that was little more than a reconnaissance action; then he was briefly held back by an unfounded charge of insubordination. Meanwhile the Confederate commander, Albert Sidney Johnston, gathered his scattered forces and prepared for a sudden and devastating counterthrust at Grant’s unsuspecting army, which was bivouacked along the banks of the Tennessee River at Pittsburg Landing. In the battle that was to take place around a rural meetinghouse nearby called Shiloh Church, the Union advantage in the west was nearly lost—and with it, the promising future of U. S. Grant. The story of this crucial moment in his life is taken from Grant Moves South , a continuation by Mr. Catton of the late Lloyd Lewis’ projected multivolume biography, which began with Captain Sam Grant . It will be published this month by Little, Brown. The photograph at left, taken by Brady about a year after Shiloh, is one of a set of wet plates found in an upstate New York barn in 1949.
When March began, the Confederacy was facing nothing less than destruction of its power in the west. It reacted with great vigor—Richmond could see, as clearly as anyone else, that the loss of the Mississippi must ultimately be fatal—and reinforcements were summoned, even at the cost of stripping the seacoast of defenders who were badly needed where they were. Five thousand troops were sent to Corinth, on the north border of the state, from New Orleans, and Braxton Bragg was rushed up with 10,000 more from the Gulf Coast; but it took time to move these troops, just as it took time for P. G. T. Beauregard and Leonidas Polk to come down from Columbus in Kentucky, and for Albert Sidney Johnston and W. V. Hardee to move down from Murfreesboro in Tennessee, and by any logical appraisal of the situation the Confederacy did not have time enough. But in the end it was given forty-nine days—seven weeks, from the fall of Fort Donelson to the opening day of Shiloh—and this was just time enough.
By the end of March, Johnston had between forty and forty-five thousand men at Corinth, with able lieutenants to lead them. Twenty-five miles away, across the Tennessee line, was Grant, with a slightly smaller army; coming down from Nashville was Don Carlos Buell, with an army about the size of Grant’s. Johnston’s only chance was to beat Grant before Buell arrived, and when April began he undertook to do this. His army had been hastily put together, most of his soldiers had never been under fire before and were imperfectly trained, and staff organization was so poor that, when the advance began, the different divisions got into one another’s way, straggled all over the landscape, and made such bad progress that Beauregard, in despair, wanted to cancel the whole operation, on the logical ground that such a stumbling, disorganized offensive could not possibly succeed. But Johnston’s mind was made up. He muttered grimly, “I would fight them if they were a million,” and he drove his men on toward Pittsburg Landing.
So a Confederate army, which had been considered too weak and dispirited to do anything better than await destruction, was about to launch a sudden, shattering offensive; and in the ironic chance of war the offensive was to strike the one Union Army commander in Tennessee who, in the campaign now approaching its surprising climax, had been trying without success to bring on a fight. Striking him, it would find him unready—as if the hoped-for battle were inconceivable unless it were imposed by him on his opponent. Grant had learned much in war’s brutal school, but his military education was still incomplete. Now he was about to learn a great deal more—at prodigious cost to himself and to some thousands of young men who, without quite realizing it, had joined the Union Army in order to pay for his education.
Grant was developing as a military realist. The war had taught him a few good lessons: that when untrained armies face each other, neither general gains by deferring a fight until the training of his own men is perfected; that in any hard battle there comes a time when both armies are ready to quit, and that the one which can nerve itself for one more attack at such a time is very likely to win; that troop morale is better in an active campaign than in training camp; that war means fighting, so that feints and demonstrations accomplish little, and the real object of a campaign is not to make the enemy retreat but to destroy him root and branch.
These were good things to learn, and in learning them Grant had done little more than sharpen his naturally aggressive instincts. But he had the defects of his qualities, and experience had not yet applied a corrective. He underestimated both the fighting heart and the initiative of his enemy, believing that a Confederate army in his front was likely to be very passive, and in his devotion to the offensive he was likely to overlook defense. Apparently he was only slightly impressed by the possibility that the enemy might strike first.
A newspaper correspondent assayed the headquarters feeling correctly when, at the end of March, he wrote that there would be a big fight just as soon as Buell’s army arrived: “Within two weeks, measures will have been accomplished that will render retreat by the Rebel army at Corinth impossible.” Writing to his wife, Grant said that “a big fight may be looked for some place before a great while,” and added that he believed this would be the last big battle in the west.
Like a great many of his soldiers, Grant had been unwell. Whether, as the men believed, the water supply around Shiloh was contaminated, or whether the standard diet of fried pork and hardtack was having its natural effect, there was a great deal of camp diarrhea, which Grant in a letter referred to as “Dioreah” and which the rank and file commonly mentioned derisively as “the Tennessee quickstep.” Grant recovered from this malady, but shortly thereafter he received a painful injury to his leg. On the evening of April 4, Confederate cavalry jumped a picket post on the Corinth road a few miles from the landing, and Grant rode out to see about it. Returning with W. H. L. Wallace and Colonel James B. McPherson, he found the night so impenetrably dark (a heavy rain was coming down) that there was nothing any rider could do but trust to his horse to stay on the road. Grant’s horse lost his footing and fell in the mud, pinning Grant’s leg under him and wrenching his ankle severely. Grant’s boot had to be cut off, and for the next day or two he needed crutches when he walked.
Grant believed that as soon as Buell’s men arrived, the advance could begin. His own army contained six divisions, the newest of which had been made up from six green regiments that had just reached camp; its command went to Brigadier General Benjamin M. Prentiss. Five divisions, with a total of possibly 37,000 men, were camped on high ground between the creeks near Pittsburg Landing. The sixth, Lew Wallace’s division of 7,500, was stationed on the western bank of the Tennessee at Crump’s Landing, half a dozen miles downstream. There had been increasing contacts with aggressive Confederate patrols in the last few days, and these aroused a suspicion that some sort of attack on Wallace’s men might be brewing. Brigadier General William Tecumseh Sherman had been alerted to be ready to send help if necessary, but the general assumption was that the Rebels meant no particular harm along the main Federal front. One Federal explained, long afterward, that “the almost absolute necessity that no battle should be fought before the arrival of Buell’s army seemed to forbid scouting or anything that might appear aggressive,” and Sherman said much the same thing when an officer on outpost duty told him he had seen Rebel infantry not far beyond the Union lines. “I have got positive orders,” Sherman told him, “to do nothing that will have a tendency to bring on a general engagement until Buell arrives.” To Colonel J. J. Appler of the 53rd Ohio, Sherman was more snappish. Appler formed his regiment in line and sent word to Sherman that the enemy was in sight; for his pains he got the reply, “Take your damn regiment back to Ohio. There is no enemy nearer than Corinth.”
Sherman did notify headquarters that there was plenty of contact with Rebels on his front, and on the afternoon of April 5 Grant went to the front to see for himself. Everything seemed to be fairly quiet—undeniably there was a good deal of Confederate activity not far off, but it seemed to be mostly reconnaissance parties-and Grant accepted Sherman’s appraisal. When he returned to his headquarters at Savannah, Tennessee, Grant wired to Major General Henry W. Halleck who commanded the Union armies in the west: I HAVE SCARCELY THE FAINTEST IDEA OF AN ATTACK (GENERAL ONE) BEING MADE UPON US, BUT WILL BE PREPARED SHOULD SUCH A THING TAKE PLACE . After the battle had taken place, Grant admitted that his outposts had been skirmishing freely with Confederate patrols for two days: “I did not believe, however, that they intended to make a determined attack but were simply making reconnaissances in force.”
The head of Buell’s column reached Savannah around noon on April 5. Colonel Jacob Ammen, an old acquaintance of Grant, commanded a brigade in the leading division, which was under General William Nelson; and at some time during the afternoon Grant and Nelson stopped at Ammen’s tent to discuss plans. Ammen said his men were not tired and could easily march down to Pittsburg Landing that afternoon, if need be. Grant told him to take it easy, and in his diary Ammen recorded Grant’s words this way: “You cannot march through the swamps; make the troops comfortable; I will send boats for you Monday or Tuesday, or some time early in the week. There will be no fight at Pittsburg Landing; we will have to go to Corinth, where the Rebels are fortified. If they come to attack us we can whip them, as I have more than twice as many troops as I had at Fort Donelson.” Then Grant rode off, saying he had an engagement that evening.
The Union army’s position at Pittsburg Landing seemed strong, even though the five divisions were arrayed rather loosely. The ground was high, the deep creeks protected both flanks, and if the Confederates did attack they would have to come in head-on, in a straight frontal assault. Proper field entrenchments would have made the position invulnerable, but no trenches had been dug-partly because everybody was thinking about offense rather than defense, and partly because professional soldiers just then believed that an army which dug itself in would lose its aggressive touch. Buell and the head of his column were supposed to reach Savannah on Sunday, April 6. Once they arrived things could begin to happen.
The soldiers waited in the Tennessee springtime and admired the budding leaves and the peach-tree blossoms, and bathed in the little streams that ran down to the Tennessee. An Iowa soldier, looking at the innumerable tents scattered through “the delightful Tennessee forest,” felt that this vast camp had the appearance of “a gigantic picnic.” There was a noisy, holiday air over the place. Untrained soldiers kept discharging their muskets in the woods, moved by nothing more than a simple desire to see if the things would go off after a rain, and regimental bands were playing; on the river, a steam calliope on one of the transports brayed out patriotic tunes. That evening, quite unnoticed, Johnston arrayed his men in order of battle, remarking grimly: “I intend to hammer ‘em. I think we will hammer them beyond doubt.” His army was so near that his pickets stood at ease in the dark and enjoyed the music of the Union bands.
Grant’s aide-de-camp, John Rawlins, was awakened early on Sunday morning, April 6. The mail steamer from Cairo reached Savannah at three o’clock, disembarking a passenger who came up the hill from the landing to headquarters—Captain W. S. Hillyer, a member of Grant’s staff who had just returned from a trip down-river. Hillyer’s arrival aroused Rawlins, who found himself unable thereafter to go back to sleep. He got up and dressed with the first light of dawn and went down to Grant’s office to look at the mail.
While Rawlins sorted the mail, Grant himself came into the headquarters office. Headquarters today was to be moved from Savannah to Pittsburg Landing, and orders had been issued the evening before to prepare an early breakfast and to have the horses saddled and ready to be put aboard Grant’s steamer, Tigress , which lay at the landing with steam up.
Grant went through his mail in the office and chatted casually with an Illinois officer who had just returned from leave, and at six o’clock, or a little later, breakfast was announced. Grant and his officers had just begun the meal when the quiet of the spring morning was unexpectedly broken by the sound of dull concussions from far upstream—cannon firing, somewhere in the vicinity of Pittsburg Landing.
Grant sat motionless for a moment, an untasted cup of coffee in his hand. A private soldier detailed for headquarters duty came in from outside to confirm what everyone had sensed: judging by the sound, this was a real fight and not just a skirmish. Grant set his cup down, stood up, and said: “Gentlemen, the ball is in motion. Let’s be off.” Within fifteen minutes, General, staff, clerks, orderlies, and horses were aboard the Tigress , and the steamer was moving upstream. Before the boat left, Grant wrote two hasty notes. One, to General Nelson, said simply: “An attack having been made on our forces, you will move your entire command to the river opposite Pittsburg. You can obtain a guide easily in the village.” The other, addressed to Buell, was slightly more detailed. It read: Heavy firing is heard up the river, indicating plainly that an attack has been made upon our most advanced positions. I have been looking for this, but did not believe the attack could be made before Monday or Tuesday. This necessitates my joining the forces up the river instead of meeting you today, as I had contemplated. I have directed General Nelson to move up the river with his division. He can march to opposite Pittsburg.
The note is interesting for its bearing on the puzzling question: Precisely what had Grant been expecting in the way of enemy action? This morning he was writing, “I have been looking for this”; the afternoon before he had assured Halleck that he anticipated nothing like a general attack on his position. Apparently he did feel that Lew Wallace’s force might be attacked, and he may have taken this morning’s gunfire for confirmation of that suspicion. He had warned both Sherman and W. H. L. Wallace that an attack at Crump’s Landing seemed quite likely and that both men should be prepared to reinforce that spot at a moment’s notice. Saturday night he had had Colonel McPherson-who had become one of his most trusted staff members-stay with W. H. L. Wallace at Pittsburg Landing, the significance of this being that this division was the reserve, held ready to reinforce any trouble spot in case of need. Both Sherman and Prentiss, who had the forward line, sent out patrols very early Sunday morning, to see what might lie in front of them. McPherson wrote that “it was well known that the enemy was approaching our lines,” and on Saturday Grant had notified Halleck that the Confederates in and around Corinth were present in great strength. He believed that Johnston had 80,000 men with him, and he suspected that some of these were arrayed along the line of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, which ran from Corinth up to the recently evacuated Confederate stronghold at Columbus-ideally situated, if his suspicion were correct, to strike the Union flank at Crump’s Landing. Clearly enough, Grant had believed that some sort of fight might soon be thrust upon him; the one thing he had not anticipated was what was actually happening-a massive drive on his front by the entire Confederate army.
The Tigress went up the river, the sound of cannon and musket fire coming in more and more clearly, and somewhere between 7 and 7:30 A.M. the steamer closed in by the bank at Crump’s Landing, next to Lew Wallace’s headquarters boat. Wallace was on deck waiting, and Grant leaned over the railing of his own boat and called out his orders: Wallace was to hold his division ready to march on receipt of orders, and he was also to send patrols out to the west to see whether the Confederates were moving toward him as well as toward the troops around Shiloh Church. Wallace agreed. He was an ambitious man, deeply wanting to win fame as a soldier. What would happen in the next twenty-four hours would put military fame out of his reach, although fame at last would be his: Ben Hur would come out of the brain that could not quite create victory in battle. To the end of his days he would try to explain the baffling things that went wrong on this sixth of April. So far, none of them had gone wrong, and Wallace faced the day with confidence. The Tigress swung away from the bank and went upstream, and at eight o’clock or a little later nosed into the bank at Pittsburg Landing. Grant got on his horse and went ashore, to ride straight into the middle of the great Battle of Shiloh.
At the moment of going ashore, it was evident that an enormous fight was going on and that it was not going well for the Union army.
Off to the southwest—not two miles away, and obviously drawing closer—there was a tremendous noise of battle, continuous racket of rifle fire, heavy thud of artillery, the sound of thousands of men shouting. Smoke was drifting up from the woods, and a dismaying crowd of stragglers, weaponless and winded, was knotting up on the hillside that went from the river to the high ground; panicky men, disorganized and unmanned, who had been shoved unready into their first battle and who had gone for the rear in wild desperation, officers of rank among them. There were hordes of stragglers in the rear of every army in every battle in the Civil War, but Shiloh was the one battle that put them on display: a man running from the battle area here was in effect a man running down a funnel, for even the dullest fugitive could see that the only road to safety was the road to the steamboat landing, and men who in any other fight would be drifting across square miles of open country were packed in a solid mass, cowering under the lee of the bluff above the river. They were beginning to assemble, now, with the day hardly more than begun, and they would continue to assemble all day long, pathetic evidence that troops with inadequate training and no battle experience whatever had been called on to stand up to one of the worst combats of the entire war.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Once Webster’s bombardment got into full voice it was stupendous. The 81st Ohio was in position a little in front, and men said the thunderous discharges behind them knocked their hats off. One soldier wrote that the concussion almost broke his neck, and inflicted the sharpest pains he felt in all the war: “Guns pounded away all night long. The sensation at every shot was that of being lifted two feet and slammed down with a good healthy whack.” Two weeks later, he said, his ears still “played me all sorts of pranks and tricks,” and the ordinary creaking and clicking of wagon wheels sounded like volleys of musketry. In the 6th Iowa, also drawn up close to the guns, the violent concussion drew blood from men’s noses and ears, and gave permanent injury to some soldiers’ hearing. Out in the river, the Lexington and the Tyler continued to slam in their eight-inch shells, firing down the length of the supposed location of the Confederate battle line. Since this line was withdrawn, they did little actual damage, but they were ordered to keep on firing at intervals throughout the night so as to keep the exhausted Southerners from sleeping. After dark a heavy rain began to fall, with intermittent thunder and lightning, the rolling crash of thunder mingling with explosions from the guns, red flames from the massed batteries streaking out in the wet darkness; one Federal veteran probably spoke for everyone in both armies when he wrote of it as “a weird, wearisome and wrathful night.”
The danger had passed, but not everyone was ready to recognize the fact. A surgeon in the 55th Illinois, which had been drawn up in support of the line of guns, found Grant nearby and ventured to remark: “General, things are going decidedly against us today.” Grant told him: “Not at all, sir. We are whipping them there now.” The doctor, with some reason, felt that not another man in the army would have said that just then. In the midst of the rain, a staff officer found Grant and others grouped around a smoldering fire of straw. McPherson rode up, after inspecting the lines, and Grant greeted him with a cheerful “Well, Mac, how is it?” McPherson was not encouraging; at least a third of the army was out of action, he said, and all the rest were disheartened. Grant said nothing, and McPherson sought to prompt him by asking: “General Grant, under this condition of affairs, what do you propose to do, sir? Shall I make preparations for retreat?” Grant snapped back: “Retreat? No. I propose to attack at daylight and whip them.”
Nelson’s division was over the river now, and more of Buell’s troops were coming up on the other side, waiting to be ferried across; and finally, the lost division of Lew Wallace came marching up, to take position on the right. Wallace had had a miserable day. Some of Grant’s impatient staff officers felt that he had been inert and slothful, but apparently the man had simply been misled by a complete misunderstanding about the roads he was supposed to take. He had marched his division off on a wrong road under this misunderstanding, had been forced to make a laborious countermarch, and was now reaching the scene many hours too late, his great day of opportunity gone forever—if his division could have come in early in the afternoon, on the Confederate flank, it would almost certainly have brought about a smashing Union victory. Not until near the end of his own life would Grant come to see that Wallace had been much more sinned against than sinning that Sunday at Shiloh.
It was a horrible night for everyone—a night of black darkness, insistent rain, jarring noise, and acute physical discomfort. Thousands upon thousands of men had been wounded, and the ones who had not been hurt were completely exhausted and had no chance to get a decent rest. Grant tried to make a go of it lying under a tree on the bluff near the landing, but the pain in his injured ankle kept him awake, and along toward midnight he hobbled off to the log house that was supposed to be his headquarters. It had been put into service as a hospital, and was full of moaning, wounded men with many more lying outside awaiting attention; after one look at all of this, Grant went back into the rain. Years later, recalling all of it, he wrote: “The sight was more unendurable than encountering the enemy’s fire, and I returned to my tree in the rain.”
Late that night tough Sherman came to see him. Sherman had found himself in the heat of the enemy’s fire that day, but now he was licked; as far as he could see, the important next step was “to put the river between us and the enemy, and recuperate,” and he hunted up Grant to see when and how the retreat could be arranged. He came on Grant, at last, at midnight or later, standing under the tree in the heavy rain, hat slouched down over his face, coat-collar up around his ears, a dimly-glowing lantern in his hand, cigar clenched between his teeth. Sherman looked at him; then, “moved,” as he put it later, “by some wise and sudden instinct” not to talk about retreat, he said: “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?”
Grant said “Yes,” and his cigar glowed in the darkness as he gave a quick, hard puff at it. “Yes. Lick ‘em tomorrow, though.”
So ended Sunday, April 6, at Pittsburg Landing.
Two exhausted armies pulled themselves out of the mud at dawn on Monday, April 7, stumbled into line, and made ready to go on with the battle. There really was no need for any more fighting, because the ultimate decision had already been reached. Johnston and Beauregard had had one slim chance to cancel all that the Federals had won at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, one desperate hope to restore the balance that had been upset during the winter, and they had come within a hand’s grasp of seizing it. But when the night and the storm came down on April 6, with Webster’s great row of guns pounding the thickets and ravines, with Buell’s soldiers shouldering their way through the fugitives on the riverbank, and with Lew Wallace’s men marching across the Owl Creek bridge, the business was settled. There might be more killing, with much bloodshed and agony to be drawn from young men not yet hurt, but for the Confederates, the moment when the main current of the war could be reversed had passed.
The opposing armies had paid a dreadful price for what had been done on the first day. General Johnston was dead, W. H. L. Wallace was dying, Prentiss was a prisoner, and fully 17,000 of other ranks had been killed, wounded, or captured. There had been immense losses from straggling, and probably no more than half of the men who had taken up their muskets Sunday morning were in line ready to fight on Monday. The concentrated fury of the fighting had been appalling, and it left its mark for all the rest of the war. The southern novelist George W. Cable was to write sadly that New Orleans “had never really been glad again after the awful day of Shiloh,” and a Union veteran said that the most any Union soldier could say of any later fight was: “I was worse scared than I was at Shiloh.”
The Federal army had all of the advantage today. Beauregard was able to muster no more than 20,000 infantry, and every man had fought hard the day before; nor had any man had a decent sleep on Sunday night. Grant’s veterans were no better off, but reinforcements were on hand. On his left, Grant had Buell’s men; Nelson’s division, and that of Brigadier General Alexander McD. McCook; and two brigades from the division of Brigadier General Thomas L. Crittenden. These soldiers were bone-tired from a forced march. McCook’s division had hiked thirty miles on Sunday, had been ferried across the river at midnight, and had stood in the mud in pelting rain most of the rest of the night, so miserably uncomfortable that one veteran remembered that night as the worst of his entire three years’ service. But they had not fought, their organization was complete, and they considered themselves the saviors of Grant’s army and accordingly were somewhat cocky. On the right of Buell’s troops were three battered divisions from Grant’s army-Hurlbut’s, McClernand’s, and Sherman’s —and on the right flank was Lew Wallace’s unfought division. Grant’s orders were to attack at dawn, and as the gray light streaked the sodden fields and thickets, the big line began to roll forward.
Grant rode over to see Wallace just before the attack began. He looked fresh and unworried, and when he said “Good morning,” he did not sound like a man who had been within inches of a disastrous defeat twelve hours earlier; looking back long afterward, Wallace put into words a thought that struck many men, at various times—“If he had studied to be undramatic, he could not have succeeded better.”
Overpowered they might be, but the Confederates were very stubborn about giving up the ground they had won. In the main, it was like Sunday’s battle, a soldiers’ fight, a tangled series of desperate small combats all going on at once; as Lew Wallace said before the battle ended, “the two armies as a general thing degenerated into mere fighting swarms”; tactical formations and maneuvers were forgotten, and in advance or retreat only one rule prevailed—“to watch the flag and stay with it.” The Confederates slowly gave ground, but until the middle of the day things were fairly even. Then the Federal advantage in numbers began to tell; by two in the afternoon the Confederate front was ready to cave in, and when one of Beauregard’s staff came to the General, in the rear of Shiloh Church, and suggested that it was time to retreat, Beauregard said that he had the same idea: “I intend to withdraw in a few moments.” Rear-guard lines were set up, the Confederates began to pull away, and Grant, sensing the change, picked up two regiments, formed them in line of battle, and led them forward for one final blow. Reaching a proper vantage point, he ordered the men to charge, and it seemed to him that this broke the last enemy resistance.
But the Confederates were leaving anyway, and after the most perfunctory of pursuits the Federals let them go with blessings on them. No one in Grant’s army wanted to keep in touch with these foes any longer than the law required. Buell was not the man to crowd anybody, and Beauregard got his shattered army off on the muddy roads toward Corinth.
From this distance it seems clear that the great missed opportunity at Shiloh was the failure to press the retiring Confederates pitilessly during the twenty-four hours following Beauregard’s withdrawal. The Union army was worn out, and its command arrangements were very imperfect; but the Confederates’ plight was desperate. They were, in short, ready to be had, and a driving chase down the muddy roads to Corinth might have knocked them out of the war for good. Braxton Bragg, who was one of the most dour pessimists in either army but who nevertheless had a clear military eye, wrote to Beauregard on the morning after the battle: “If we are pursued by a vigorous force we will lose all in our rear. The whole road presents the scene of a rout, and no mortal power could restrain it.”
One solid blow on April 8 could have shattered the Confederate army beyond repair, but the Federal army was not up to it. The Federals followed their foes just long enough to make sure that they had actually left the premises and then stopped, and although Grant exhorted both Sherman and McClernand to jam the Rebel rear guard with cavalry and infantry in hot pursuit, nothing much came of it. The Unionists went into the camps they had occupied before the battle began, the Confederates loitered just out of gunshot range, and the terrible Battle of Shiloh was over. Between them, Grant and Buell had lost more than 13,000 men, Beauregard had lost more than 10,000, and the greatest battle ever fought on the North American continent up to that date had come to an end.
It had been a very near thing indeed, and the most that could be said for the Northerners was that they had beaten off an unexpected attack; and yet one of the decisive struggles of the Civil War had been won. The end of the war was a long way off in April of 1862, yet when the exhausted Confederates drifted southwest from Pittsburg Landing a faint foreknowledge of what that end would be went down the road with them. The Northern victory had been purely negative, but it was of far-reaching consequence. For this was one battle which the Confederacy had to win in order to survive, and the Confederacy had not quite been able to win it. In the long run many things killed the dream of Southern independence; one of them, compacted in the wilderness above the Tennessee River, was made up of the desperate fighting of many Middle Western soldiers, the power of the row of guns on the bluff in the twilight … and with these, the unbreakable stubbornness of Ulysses S. Grant.