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Memoirs of Henry Villard/Volume 1/16



CHAPTER XVI


The Battle of Shiloh.—1862


GENERAL A. S. JOHNSTON had fallen back at first from Nashville in a southeasterly direction, to Murfreesboro', where he strengthened his force by reinforcements from Kentucky and Tennessee to the number of nineteen thousand, and then moved by rail to the Memphis & Charleston Railroad and over this road to its junction with the Mobile & Ohio Railroad at Corinth, in the northeast corner of Mississippi. This railroad centre was selected as the point of concentration for all the available rebel forces west of the Appalachian Mountains, as from it they could be readily used for the protection of both the middle rebel States and the Mississippi Valley. At Corinth, Johnston found General Beauregard with ten thousand men, and their united command continued to receive accessions. The Union commanders became aware of the proposed rebel concentration early in March, and decided upon their future operations accordingly.

Very strong opinions have been expressed by competent critics, during and since the war, that it was a grave mistake of our military leaders to make for the point chosen by the enemy instead of drawing him away from it by strategic moves and compelling him to meet them upon a field chosen by themselves. It is not for me, however, to discuss the merits or demerits of what was to be known as the Shiloh campaign, but simply to record the fact that Generals Halleck and Buell reached an understanding that the latter's army should join that of General Grant at Savannah on the Tennessee River. The operations of the united armies were to be conducted under the chief command of General Halleck. The railroads being destroyed, there remained for General Buell only the long march from Nashville to Savannah, for which he accordingly prepared.

The orders for the march were issued on March 14. Five divisions — to wit, the First, Second, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth, under Generals Thomas, McCook, Nelson, Crittenden, and Wood, aggregating thirty-seven thousand effective men — were to move under the direct command of General Buell, while the Third, under General Mitchel, and the newly-formed Seventh, under Brigadier-General G. W. Morgan, were to remain behind to protect Nashville and clear middle Tennessee of rebels, and to take possession of and repair the railroads in that portion of the State. The route to be followed led first in a southerly direction to the considerable towns of Franklin and Columbia, thence turned to the southwest as far as Lawrenceburg, and from this point almost due west through Waynesboro' to Savannah, a total distance of about one hundred and ten miles. On March 15, a cavalry force was sent to save the bridges at the two first-mentioned places, but they had already been destroyed. McCook's division started the next day as the head of the army. The Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and First divisions followed in the order mentioned, with an interval of a day between them.

I accompanied General McCook by invitation, messing with his division quartermaster. I was well mounted on a fine-looking, strong black horse that I had bought at a low price at Nashville. General Buell had no instructions to hasten, and hence we moved at a moderate pace. The marching, too, was easy at first, over the fine turnpikes from Nashville to Columbia. The country was rolling, picturesque, and well cultivated, the home of large slaveholders living in fine brick mansions on their broad plantations until frightened off by the invaders. The crossing of the stream at Franklin was not difficult, but when we reached Columbia, thirty-five miles from Nashville, on the third day, we were stopped by the swollen waters of the Duck River, which proved so wide and deep that we had the alternative of bridging it or of waiting for its subsidence. Strange to say, General Buell's army was not provided with any pontoons. The construction of a bridge being decided upon, General R. W. Johnson's brigade of McCook's division was detailed to erect it. The work was mainly performed by the numerous mechanics in the Thirty-second Indiana Regiment, entirely composed of Germans and commanded by Colonel August von Willich. He was descended from the old military family of that name in Prussia, and had been an artillery officer in the Prussian service until he embraced the revolutionary cause in 1848 and 1849. After its failure, he became an exile. He had brought his regiment up to a high point of drill and discipline. It was considered the best in Buell's army in these respects. I made the Colonel's acquaintance on this occasion, and found him a stern and most able and energetic soldier, with astonishingly radical political views for one of his antecedents. The personal relations then formed continued till his death, long after the close of the war.

The bridge construction delayed us ten days on Duck River, and thereby came near entailing disastrous consequences upon the Union cause that might have changed the outcome of the Civil War. As all Buell's advices from Halleck indicated that he (Buell) would meet Grant on the right bank of the Tennessee — that is, with the river be tween them and the enemy — he felt no apprehension as to Grant's safety before his junction with him. But, unknown to him, it had been decided to transfer Grant's command to the left bank at Pittsburg Landing, some eight miles above Savannah. This transposition, together with the knowledge of Buell's detention at Columbia, had determined A. S. Johnston and Beauregard to strike a blow at Grant before he was reinforced by Buell. The official records make it plain that they would thus have succeeded in overwhelming Grant at Shiloh and destroying his army but for the inspiration or foreboding of Buell's division commanders. The naval soldier, General Nelson, in his ever alert, anxious loyalty, grew fearful that Grant was in great danger from the rebel concentration at Corinth. He urged Buell in the last week of March to hurry to his relief as rapidly as possible, but failed to convince him of the need of any haste. His commander, moreover, pointed out the difficulty of resuming the march before the completion of the bridge over Duck River, which would be finished anyway in a few days. Nelson then offered to get his division over the river by fording it, as the river had rapidly fallen and reached its ordinary stage. Buell yielded to his earnest pleading for permission to try this, and even consented to his forming the advance in place of the Second Division, in case not only his infantry, but also his cavalry and artillery and trains, could be got across. The venturesome mariner immediately commenced his preparations, and on the 28th issued formal orders for the experiment. Reveille was sounded at four A.M. the next day, and in two hours his command was ready to move, with one day's rations in their haversacks.

Having obtained General Nelson's permission to accompany him, I was on the bank at six o'clock, a witness to very exciting and amusing scenes. As each infantry regiment reached the ford, the men, stripping off their pantaloons, rolled them up into small bundles which they carried on the points of their fixed bayonets. The cartridge-boxes were hung around their necks. The men then waded into the river, which was about one hundred and seventy-five feet wide at the ford, and made the passage without any difficulty, the bottom being hard and the greatest depth of water not exceeding three and one-half feet. Approaches having been made down the steep bank, the cavalry, artillery, and wagons effected the crossing also, with but small mishaps, and the whole division was safely encamped on the south bank before dark. The experiment was not repeated by the other troops, as the bridge was completed the next day and McCook's division made use of it on the second day. But the structure was narrow and not strong enough to bear great weight, so that much caution had to be used in moving the army over it. The passage took four days. Nelson's fording exploit was looked upon as an uncalled-for piece of bravado by his fellow-commanders and the rank and file of the army generally. But the two days' start he gained thereby for his division was to be a great boon to the Union cause.

The Fourth Division started early on the 29th en route for Savannah. Instead of hard turnpikes, we found now ordinary dirt roads, which the rain that had set in soon reduced to six and more inches of mud. They were so narrow that the fences on each side had to be thrown down to make room for the troops. The soil deteriorated, too, and the smaller size of the farms and the inferior cultivation indicated plainly that we were no longer in a region where the “peculiar institution” prevailed, but in the domain of the “poor whites.” It was very sparsely settled, and we passed only at long intervals a few struggling hamlets consisting of a small number of unpainted, shabby frame buildings. Even the so-called towns we came through — Lawrenceburg, Mount Pleasant, and Waynesboro' — were so small as not to deserve to be called even “villages,” and had a very thriftless, decayed appearance. Rain continued to fall and seemed to grow heavier from day to day. It made the march a very dreary and trying one to the troops. In spite of all efforts, no more than an average of ten miles a day could be accomplished, owing to the heaviness of the roads. As the trains followed in the rear of the division, the hardship of bivouacking without tents was imposed on all except the commanders and their staffs, who managed to occupy the few human habitations. I had a roof over me every night, but had to sleep on the bare floor.

Either before or after leaving Columbia, General Buell decided to make a halt for concentration and rest at Waynesboro', two days' easy march from Savannah, and advised Generals Halleck and Grant, and instructed his division commanders, accordingly. By a fortunate delay of the cavalry detail carrying the order, it failed to reach General Nelson. For some reason or other, the other division commanders also did not receive their orders before passing Waynesboro', so that General Buell's plan (regarding which Halleck wired him as late as April 5, “You are right about concentrating at Waynesboro'”) to stop there for a few days miscarried. Buell notified Grant on April 3 from his camp, seven miles south of Columbia, that he would come right through to Savannah with his leading division. He rode so rapidly with his staff that, on the evening of the following day, he could send a message to Grant three miles west of Waynesboro' (a field-telegraph line had been erected by an advance party), that he desired to meet him in Savannah the next day. He also asked for information about the position and strength of the enemy. Grant answered from Savannah on the 5th: “Your despatch just received. I will be here to meet you to-morrow. The enemy at and near Corinth from sixty to eighty thousand. Information deemed reliable.” This message constitutes indisputable proof that its author did not dream of the fearful struggle that burst upon him the next day.

In the meantime, Nelson pushed along with his division as fast as possible. His cavalry advance reached Savannah on the afternoon of April 3; himself and his staff, with whom I rode, and the leading brigade arrived early on the 5th. Savannah turned out to be no better than the villages we had passed. It was situated on elevated ground some distance from the river. As it was already crowded with various headquarters and surrounded by train-camps, camping-grounds for Nelson's division were selected about one and a half miles east of the place. Having hardly a dry thread on me, owing to the incessant rain, I concluded to ride to the river and try for quarters on one of the several boats made fast to the bank. Luckily, I succeeded in this, which meant not only a chance to dry my clothes, but also my first decent meal in almost a week and twelve hours' unbroken sleep in a good bed. General Buell, with his staff and body-guard,[1] also reached Savannah on the evening of the 5th, but so late that he did not try to hunt up General Grant before his appointment with him for the next day, and simply notified him of his arrival.

Early in the morning, the report of musketry and artillery fire was heard from up the river. It was so heavy that General Buell felt sure a serious conflict had commenced. He hastened to Grant's headquarters only to find that he had already started up the river, leaving the following message for him:

Savannah, April 6 [Sunday], 1862.  

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 that the attack could be made before Monday or Tuesday. This necessitates my joining the forces up the river instead of meeting you to-day as I had contemplated. I have directed Nelson to move to the river with his division.


It must be admitted that, if Grant had really been “looking for this,” it was his duty as commander-in-chief to be with his troops and not miles away and separated from them by a river. His absence involved, indeed, the lack of unity of command, the most essential condition of success in battle, and actually compelled his division commanders to take care of themselves as best they could. When he reached the scene of the conflict, the worst blows had already been suffered by his forces.

The directions to General Nelson referred to in Grant's message were in the following form:

An attack having been made upon our forces, you will move your entire command to the river opposite Pittsburg Landing. You can easily obtain a guide in the village.

As General Buell had reported his arrival the night before to General Grant, the issue of this order direct to Nelson can be explained only on the theory that Grant failed to hear of Buell's presence. This is confirmed by the following message sent by Grant after he had learned in person the condition of his command at Pittsburg Landing, not to General Buell, but to the “Commanding Officer, Federal forces, near Pittsburg, Tennessee.”

General: The attack upon my forces has been very spirited from early this morning. The appearance of fresh troops on the field now would have a powerful effect, both by inspiring our men and disheartening the enemy. If you will get upon the field, leaving all baggage on the east bank of the river, it will be a move to our advantage and possibly save the day to us. The rebel force is estimated at over one hundred thousand men.

This appeal for help, as well as Grant's first message, fortunately reached Buell and made him alive to the necessity of promptly giving all possible aid to his fellow-commander. He at once sent peremptory orders to all the division commanders still en route (Crittenden was just arriving), to hurry on to the river with the utmost despatch. He next hunted up General Nelson (who, for some never explained reason, did not receive Grant's order till noon), and ordered him to move at once to Pittsburg. There was some delay, too, in finding a guide, so that the division did not get fully under way until after one. The road crossed a bottom partially under water, and was in so bad a condition that the artillery could not be moved over it at all. Even the infantry had to flounder all the way through mire, sometimes over a foot deep. But the officers and men struggled along most willingly, spurred on by the constantly increasing roar of battle, and by the inspiriting feeling that they were hurrying to the rescue of their brethren-in-arms. Yet it took them nearly four hours to accomplish the distance of seven miles, and it was nearly five o'clock when the head of Ammen's brigade, which had the lead, reached Pittsburg Landing.

The general belief at Savannah was at first that the firing we heard was incidental to a reconnoissance in force, or to a skirmish of outposts; but, as it grew more violent and continuous, the conviction spread that a general engagement was going on. Grant's second message determined General Buell to go at once to the scene of action with part of his staff, and for that purpose he luckily ordered the very boat on which I had taken up my abode to get up steam. It was, however, only between three and four P.M. that we got under way. We had not proceeded very far when we began to notice numbers of soldiers on the west bank, and became satisfied that they were skulkers from the fight. More and more of them came in sight, and when we were still some distance from our destination they had increased to frequent and thick crowds. But, as our boat turned towards the Landing, we saw before us a dense mass apparently numbering thousands. I was standing with Captain Fry, the chief of staff, on the upper deck, and, appalled at the sight, exclaimed to him: “Oh, heavens! Captain, here is Bull Run all over again!” We heard the unbroken roar of artillery as we steamed up, and, as we neared the scene of the struggle, the sounds of rapid musketry discharges also became distinct, and we could see the flight of shells from the heavy guns of the two Union gunboats in position just above the Landing. We shuddered when we perceived ball after ball from rebel guns fall on the top of the very bluff under which the multitude of fugitives had sought shelter — unmistakable, distressing evidence of the nearness of the enemy. Our first impression could not be other than that the rebels had swept Grant's forces from the field, and that those who had not been killed, wounded, or captured were cowering before us, awaiting their inevitable fate.

On landing, we were met by an overwhelming confirmation of our apprehensions. We found ourselves, indeed, amid an immense, panic-stricken, uncontrollable mob. There were between seven and ten thousand men, of all arms and of all ranks, from field officers downward, all apparently entirely bereft of soldierly spirit, with no sense of obedience left, and animated by the sole impulse of personal safety. A number of officers, mounted and on foot, were making strenuous efforts to re-form the disorganized and demoralized throng; but neither exhortations, orders, adjurations nor threats produced any effect. General Buell brought his authority into play, but was no more obeyed than the others. Nothing availed against the increasing fright caused by the rebel balls and bullets that now began to fall among the crowd, killing several. At this critical moment, hope was revived by the landing of Colonel Ammen's brigade of the Fourth Division, brought over by boat from the opposite bank. It was accompanied by General Nelson himself. With that Jupiter head on his herculean figure, mounted on a heavy charger, he looked the personification of Orlando Furioso, as he rode up through the packed crowds, waving his hat and shouting: “Fall in, boys, fall in and follow me. We shall whip them yet.” Finding this did no good, he drew his sword and commenced belaboring the poltroons around him, berating them at the same time with his stentorian voice, in language more forcible than polished. His extraordinary swearing indicated plainly that he had had great practice in that sort of admonition on the quarter-deck. Finding that this method also availed nothing, he applied to General Buell, who had waited for him at the Landing, for permission to drive the stragglers back at the point of the bayonet, and, if they resisted, to fire on them. But he was not allowed to resort to extreme measures.

Buell, without wasting time in trying to find Grant, as immediate action was necessary to prevent the enemy from reaching the river, joined Nelson in leading Ammen's brigade up the bluff. On reaching the plateau, it found itself directly under the fire of the hostile artillery. It was then between five and six o'clock, and the light was fast giving way to darkness. Two regiments of the brigade, the Sixth Ohio and the Thirty-sixth Indiana, were at once deployed and pushed forward. Their vigorous advance caused the rebel guns to retreat. They came close enough to the rebels in front to exchange several volleys with them. Their advance, together with the enfilading fire of the gunboats, checked the enemy. Night put an end to the battle.

I had followed Nelson's men to the top of the bluff, and remained there awaiting developments. I had as little idea of what had really happened to Grant's army as General Buell himself. Nor could I get any connected account out of the runaway officers I met. They had nothing to say except this: “We were surprised at breakfast by rebels four times as strong as ourselves;” “My regiment was cut all to pieces;” “We were ordered to retreat,” and such other excuses for knowing nothing. Grant's headquarters were said to be near, but I could not get to them before dark. I made my way back to the Landing, after the firing had ceased, thinking that my best plan would be to find shelter for the night — which threatened to be very trying, as a pouring rain had set in — on the boat on which I had come. But it had been ordered to help bring the remainder of Nelson's division and the other divisions of Buell's army across the river as fast as possible, and I had to wait nearly an hour before it returned from the opposite bank with a huge load of men. It took a long time to discharge them, and then I found to my great chagrin that I could not possibly get my horse on board again, so that I had to choose between abandoning him and passing the night as best I could on the bank. Of course, I faced the latter necessity. After spending some time along the Landing in vain attempts to find something to eat for myself and my animal, I decided to follow the next arrival from Crittenden's division, which followed Nelson's, wherever it might be led, so as to be at any rate at the front in the morning. In so doing, I luckily came by the bivouac of Nelson's headquarters, where I was made welcome by one of the staff to the partial shelter of a rubber blanket hung between two trees near a big log fire, and also to some hard-tack, cold bacon, and brandy and water. My horse was taken charge of by an orderly, but was neither fed nor unsaddled.

None of us attempted to sleep during that memorable, dismal night. Nor would sleep have been possible, as the gunboats sent roaring eight-inch shells over us every ten minutes (in pursuance of the recommendation of General Nelson), in the direction of the enemy, in order at least to deprive the rebels of rest. We sat around the fire, protected as much as possible from the incessant rain by waterproofs, discussing the disaster of the day and the chances for the morrow. Little being known as to the actual condition to which Grant's command had been reduced by its defeat, there was anything but confident expectation. On the contrary, all were very anxious about the outcome of the next twenty-four hours.

The movement of Buell's troops from the right to the left bank continued all night long. The commanders not only managed to get the full infantry force of Nelson and Crittenden's divisions, but also three batteries of artillery, across the river before daybreak. Even General McCook's division reached the front in the morning, after an extraordinary all-night march. Buell and the two first-mentioned division commanders labored as best they could in the darkness, being ignorant of the ground, to get the troops in proper position for an offensive movement as soon as it was light enough for it. With Nelson's staff, I was up and stirring at four on the morning of April 7. The General himself roused his command quietly by riding through the bivouac. At five, he was able to report to General Buell, by an aide-de-camp, that his line of battle with skirmishers in front was ready to move, and received orders to advance on the enemy. Crittenden advanced simultaneously on Nelson's right. I followed in the rear with the ambulances. At half-past five the first shots fell, and, in a few minutes, the musketry-firing was heavy, and presently hostile balls and shells were whizzing over us. Nelson was ordered to stop till Crittenden had closed up on his right and the two field batteries were brought up and put in position to answer effectively the artillery on the other side. Our divisions then moved on again, but were confronted, at about seven, by a strong rebel force that attempted to turn Nelson's left, and, though foiled in this, attacked him so vigorously, supported by a heavy fire from two batteries, that his command began to yield, when the enemy was checked by the well-directed fire of Mendenhall's regular battery. By eight o'clock the musketry and artillery fire from both sides combined into a terrific roar, and hissing and humming missiles flew thickly around us. It seemed as if Crittenden and Nelson were not strong enough to make headway against the bodies opposed to them. But, fortunately, Rousseau's brigade of McCook's division then reached the ground and was immediately formed in line on the right of Crittenden. The other brigades of the same division followed it closely and took up position on its left.

Our line now extended about a mile and a half. The ground in front of it consisted partly of open fields and partly of patches of wood, with thick undergrowth. It was almost level before Nelson, but broken by ravines before Crittenden and McCook. The right wing was not in touch, however, with Grant's command. About nine o'clock we were ready for another advance along the whole line. The battle was speedily raging again with great violence. From one end of the line to the other, the combat lasted for hours, with hardly a lull in the deafening discharge of small arms and guns. Although but a short distance in the rear of the fighting front and actually under fire, it was not possible for me to follow the course of the struggle from my position, owing to the character of the ground and the thickness of the atmosphere from the falling rain mixed with the dense powder-smoke that hung over the field. Nor could I expect to learn anything reliable and connected by remaining in one spot. A sort of field-hospital was established near by, to which the wounded were being brought, in steadily increasing numbers, presenting sights that made me heart-sick, as I had not seen human blood spilled since the battle of Bull Run. But what intelligence the carriers of stretchers, and the surgeons that passed to and fro, brought from the front confused rather than enlightened me. Hence I mounted and set out in search of Buell's and the division headquarters.

I soon found the former, but obtained only very scanty information. Then I tried to discover McCook, in whose direction the heaviest firing was heard. I met the General and staff at a critical moment. Rousseau's brigade, soon after being placed in line, had been vigorously attacked. It repelled the enemy and drove him some distance, capturing a battery. Its advance caused an opening in the line between McCook and Crittenden through which the rebels quickly attempted to push with a very strong force. Perceiving this danger, Colonel von Willich, with his Thirty-second Indiana Regiment, was ordered to strike them, and made a most gallant attack, first delivering several volleys and then charging with the bayonet. Von Willich's was followed by the other regiments of Gibson's brigade, but they were caught in a withering cross-fire and compelled to fall back in considerable confusion. General McCook was doing his best to check this untoward turn when I found him. Kirk's brigade was brought to the relief of Gibson, and stemmed the rebel advance till Rousseau's brigade had replenished its cartridge-boxes and could again take the offensive. Then the whole division once more advanced, and pressed the still vigorously fighting enemy steadily back till his resistance ended in retreat. During the desperate struggle of Gibson's and Kirk's brigades, there was a continuous whistling of bullets above and around us, and it was marvellous that none of the staff were wounded. McCook's part in the conflict was so severe that I felt sure he was bearing the brunt of it, and hence I remained with him till it closed. After the firing had ceased altogether, I hunted up successively Crittenden and Nelson, and only then learned that they, too, had been engaged right along in meeting hostile attacks and following them up with counter ones, resulting in a steady gain of ground. They forced the enemy finally into full retreat by a flank attack by the Fourth and a front one by the Fifth Division, supported by a concentric fire from three batteries. Crittenden's command captured seven field-pieces in this decisive movement. Just before the close of the fighting, two brigades of General Wood's Sixth Division appeared, one of which, Colonel Wagner's, was started in pursuit of the enemy, but stopped by order after following him about a mile.

My recollection is, that it was about four o'clock P.M. when the sound of battle had entirely died away, but, strange to say, no reference whatever to time is made in the official reports of General Buell and his division commanders. I am sure, at any rate, that it was daylight still for nearly two hours after the end of the battle, enabling me to gather many additional details of the contest relating to the engaged portion of the Army of the Ohio. I saw enough killed and wounded Unionists and rebels scattered over the battle-field to indicate heavy losses on both sides, but accurate figures were, of course, unobtainable on that day. The usual suffering of the wounded from thirst was alleviated by the heavy rain that was still falling, yet many meanings and cries for help reached my ears. Buell's troops had recovered the camps from which the rebels had driven Sherman's, McClernand's, Hurlbut's, Prentiss's, and Wallace's divisions of Grant's army the day before, but were not permitted to make themselves comfortable in them, and had to bivouac as best they could for another night. I was so very tired, wet, and hungry — my animal also being in an entirely fagged-out condition — that I made up my mind to find something better for us both than the scanty fare and wet ground that had been our lot for nearly thirty hours, and made for the Landing some time before dark. There were eight boats lying there, and great was my joy when I spied, standing on the bow of one of them, a division quartermaster whom I had become well acquainted with at Louisville. I hailed him, and he responded at once in the heartiest manner to my request for food and shelter for “man and beast.” My horse was turned over to a deck-hand. I was shown to a stateroom, and soon I sat down to a generous hot supper, to which I did the amplest justice. I was too exhausted for any brain work that evening, and sought sleep as early as possible.

After ten hours' solid, unconscious rest and a hearty breakfast, I was ready and eager for work. I had but partial material for a complete account of the two days' battle; hence my first object had to be, if there were no more fighting, to secure information regarding the experiences of Grant's army during the two days, and, if possible, also something about the enemy. By eight o'clock I was riding up the bluff again. The swarms of skulkers had almost disappeared, and in their place there was a great jam of ambulances, bringing wounded to the two hospital-boats, and army wagons loading provisions, forage, and ammunition. I proceeded first to Buell's headquarters. There I learned that Wood's two brigades had been ordered to resume the pursuit of the enemy and were already in motion, and that Sherman's division had received orders to the same effect. As I was anxious to obtain Sherman's version of the battle, and feared the pursuit might take him beyond reach, I rode immediately in search of him, and luckily succeeded in finding his camp. He was just ready to mount. On the first day he had been slightly wounded in the right hand, which was bandaged, but he would not allow this to interfere with his duties. He favored me with a succinct, clear, very frank, and strictly truthful account of his own varied fortunes on Sunday and Monday, as well as those of the other division commanders of Grant in their relations to him. These I then tried to hunt up, and to revisit McCook, Crittenden, and Nelson — a harder task than I had supposed, for rain was still pouring down, and the ground fought over everywhere had turned into mire from one to two feet deep. On Grant's line there was still a good deal of confusion. I did not get through with my tour of exploration till nearly three o'clock.

I had spent considerable time in studying — no, this is too strong an expression — in contemplating the “horrors of war,” as exemplified by the dreadful sights all over the battle-field. Once only, later in the war, did I behold a spectacle equally grim, shocking, and sickening. There was bloody evidence in every direction that the slaughter had been great. Neither the one side nor the other had removed its dead, and there they were, blue and gray, in their starkness, lying here singly and there literally in rows and heaps. I passed more than a thousand of them. It was morbid, perhaps, on my part, but I lingered to see the effect of sudden violent death on features and limbs. It surprised me that the faces of most of these victims of battle bore a peaceful, contented expression, and that many lay as though they had consciously stretched themselves out to sleep. But there were also many ghastly exceptions, with features repulsively distorted by pain and hatred. There seemed to be but few killed by heavy missiles. Hundreds of severely wounded were likewise still lying about — some in the last agonies, others awaiting quietly their fate, and, alas! many writhing and shrieking in torture from horrible wounds. There was a little frame church near where I had found Sherman, known as the Shiloh meeting-house (it gave its name to the battle), whose interior presented the most woeful scene in all this sadness. The seats for the worshippers had been removed, and on the floor were extended, in two rows, on the bare planks and without any cover over them, twenty-seven dead and dying rebels, officers and men. Not a human being was about to offer them tender mercies. They had been left to their fate, all being obviously beyond relief. Passing the field hospitals, other awful evidences of the bloody work forced themselves upon my observation in the form of piles of amputated limbs. No one as yet knew the extent of the casualties, but I was satisfied that there must have been between eight and ten thousand killed and wounded on our side, which estimate was not far from the actual figures.

I had made some inquiries as to telegraph and mail facilities at the different headquarters, and ascertained that of the former there were as yet none, and that even after they should be secured, newspaper correspondents would not be permitted to use them. As to mails, they would be sent by boats to Cairo, one of which was to start that evening. I stopped again at Buell's headquarters on my way to the Landing, and learned that Wood's pursuit had been continued for eight miles without coming up with the enemy. Sherman had struck the Confederate cavalry rear-guard and driven it back after a lively skirmish. He had obtained positive information that the rebel army was retreating to Corinth. As this rendered it certain that fighting would not occur for some days at least, the thought came to me that it would be a good plan, in order to save time in preparing and sending forward my account of the battle, to go down the river on the first boat, write out my report on the way, and mail it at Cairo on arrival. In pursuance of this, I asked my friend the quartermaster to get me a permit to go on the boat, and to take care of my horse till my return. He agreed to both, and by four o clock I was properly installed on the side-wheeler that was to leave the same evening for Cairo. I was already congratulating myself on my smartness in hitting upon this scheme, from which I expected a decided advantage in time over other correspondents, when I discovered that two other correspondents had been equally acute and were fellow-passengers. I made their acquaintance, and found them very pleasant companions. One of them was Whitelaw Reid, who achieved a considerable reputation as a war-correspondent, tried cotton-planting unsuccessfully after the war, and then returned to the journalistic profession. He became the regular Washington correspondent and part owner of the Cincinnati Gazette, and subsequently editor and owner of the New York Tribune, and United States Minister to France. As my colleagues had been with Grant's army and knew very little of Buell's part in the conflict, we helped each other by exchanging notes.

I repeat that I am not trying in these memoirs to write formal history, but to relate personal happenings and observations. Yet in this particular case it seems to me proper, in order to render the foregoing more complete and intelligible, to describe also what happened on the field previous to the appearance of Buell's army. In so doing, I shall not enter into details, but shall merely outline the preceding operations of Grant's command, for the double reason that this will be sufficient for a clearer comprehension of what I have written, and that nothing like accurate particulars have ever been available. With all the official reports before me, I do not hesitate to say that it is impossible to make up from them a lucid, full, and correct description of the battle. I do not believe that the official records of any other battle of the Civil War left so many points in doubt. In order to impart greater accuracy and perhaps some novelty to my sketch, I feel justified in availing myself also of the authoritative rebel accounts, and especially of General Beauregard's official report to the Richmond authorities. I make these references to my sources of information so that I may not be charged with pretending to greater personal knowledge of the battle than I actually acquired.

According to the rebel records, Beauregard, with the approval of his Government, decided and acted on the plan of foiling the supposed purpose of the Northern commanders of cutting the Confederacy in two through the destruction of the railroad lines of communication in southwestern Tennessee and northern Mississippi and Alabama, by rapidly concentrating all the available forces west of the Alleghanies at and about Corinth. He pushed this concentration very energetically, and, by the end of March, the commands of Generals A. S. Johnston, Polk, and Bragg and other troops sent by the governors of the States named were collected in that locality, to the aggregate number of forty thousand fighting men. General Johnston, by virtue of his superior rank, assumed chief command on reaching Corinth. He approved of the previously conceived plan of Beauregard described by the latter in his report on the battle (in which Johnston had been killed), to wit: "to assume the offensive and strike a sudden blow at the enemy in position under General Grant on the west bank of the Tennessee at Pittsburg and in the direction of Savannah, before he was reinforced by the army under General Buell, then known to be advancing for that purpose by rapid marches from Nashville via Columbia. By a rapid and vigorous attack on General Grant, it was expected he would be beaten back into his transports and the river, or captured in time to enable us to profit by the victory and remove to the rear all the stores and munitions that would fall into our hands in such an event before the arrival of General Buell on the scene." The proposed attack was bold and sound strategy, directly invited by General Grant's grave mistake in placing his command on the west bank and thus exposing it to attack, with the river between him and his expected reinforcements. This flagrant blunder, contrary to elementary strategic rules, appears the more inexcusable in view of Grant's belief, as expressed in his dispatches to Buell before quoted, that the rebel forces amounted to one hundred thousand, while he himself had, according to the official returns, not over forty thousand effectives, of which, as will be shown, only about thirty-three thousand became actually engaged.

The rebel commanders worked very industriously in getting ready for the attack, but, to quote again from Beauregard's report, “want of proper officers needful for the proper organization of divisions and brigades, and other difficulties in the way of an effective organization, delayed the movement until the night of the second [of April], when it was heard from a reliable quarter that the junction of the enemy was near at hand. It was then, at a late hour, determined that the attack should be attempted at once, incomplete and imperfect as were our preparations for such a grave and momentous venture, and, accordingly, the same night, at one o'clock on the morning of the third, formal orders to the commanders of corps were issued for the movement.”

The starting-points were Corinth and its immediate vicinity, averaging a distance of about twenty miles from the positions of the Federal forces. The rebel chiefs calculated to arrive near the latter on the fourth and assail them early on the fifth. If they had succeeded in this, they would doubtless, as the sequel showed, have accomplished their purpose and destroyed or captured the whole of Grant's command before Buell could have come to its rescue. Happily for the Union cause, the march of the Confederates took a day longer. I am sure these twenty-four hours weighed more decidedly in the balance of events than any other day in the course of the Civil War. It is not too much to say, indeed, that, but for this delay, Grant would not have become a great historical figure and the conqueror of Robert E. Lee, and the Rebellion might have succeeded. The fortunate loss of time was due to the double fact that the rebel troops were unused to marching, and that the roads were too narrow, and were rendered almost impassable by a heavy rainfall on the fourth.

The country between Corinth and Pittsburg Landing consists of an undulating table-land, mainly covered with dense woods and such thick underbrush as to render the passage of troops difficult. It was then little better than a wilderness, broken here and there only by small clearings of from forty to eighty acres, with clusters of log buildings indicating that a few settlers tried to extract a scanty living from the indifferent soil. A main road runs from Corinth due north for about fifteen miles, when it branches off into two roads, one to Pittsburg Landing and the other to Hamburg Landing, four miles above the former. The plateau gradually ascends between the two landings, and, some miles from the river, shows hill formations. Two streams, Owl and Lick Creeks, rise there, about three miles apart, and flow into the Tennessee. On the ground between them, the battle was fought.

The rebel advance did not reach the intersection of the two roads from Hamburg and Pittsburg, within a short distance of the Federal encampments, till late in the after noon of Saturday, April 5. General Johnston determined to attack as early as possible the next morning with his army in the following formation: three lines of battle en échelon, extending from Owl Creek on the left to Lick Creek on the right. The first line consisted of Hardee's corps, fully deployed with their artillery and cavalry in the rear of the wings. The second line included General Bragg's corps, and was similarly formed, five hundred yards from the first. General Polk's corps formed the third line at a distance of eight hundred yards from the second, in lines of brigades deployed with batteries in rear of each brigade, and the left wing supported by cavalry. Behind all came a reserve under General Breckinridge.

Thus the rebels stood ready, under able, energetic commanders, to fall with concentrated might upon the unsuspecting Union forces. There raged for a long time after the battle an acrimonious controversy in the press and in public forums over the question whether the rebel attack was a surprise to Grant's troops. While it was no doubt true that the Union pickets were on the alert, and that their firing gave a short warning to the Federal camps of the approach of the enemy before the hostile host was actually upon them, it is likewise incontestable that neither General Sherman, whose division held the most advanced position, nor General Grant, had the remotest suspicion that the whole rebel army was within artillery range of the former. Witness Sherman's report by field-telegraph on that very Saturday afternoon to Grant: “All is quiet along my lines now. The enemy has cavalry in our front, and I think there are two regiments and one battery six miles out” (sic!). And still later in the day he reported further: “I do not apprehend anything like an attack upon our position.” Witness, further, Grant's dispatch to superior authority on the same day: “I have scarcely the faintest idea of an attack being made upon us, but will be prepared, should such a thing take place.”

It is hard to reconcile the actual situation of his command with this confident assurance that he “will be prepared.” The disconnected location of his six divisions on the west bank surely was not such as a cautious commander should allow if he thought an attack possible. Sherman's separate command had the most advanced position on the main road to Corinth, but his several brigades were spread out over too much ground. McClernand's was some distance in the rear of it; Prentiss's division was on Sherman's left, but not in close touch with it. Hurlbut's and W. H. L. Wallace's divisions were near Pittsburg Landing, from two to three miles from the others. Lew Wallace's division was from five to six miles away, at and about Cramp's Landing, below Pittsburg. It was not only the intervening distance, but also the broken nature of the ground separating the several camps, that made it impracticable to form quickly a connected defensive line. Still worse, the divisions formed entirely independent military units. In other words, no one division commander had authority over the other commanders. They all had to report to, and receive orders from, General Grant, who remained, as we have seen, at Savannah up to almost noon of the first day of battle—an unpardonable error, fraught, as it proved, with the greatest peril. Yet other faults of omission were chargeable to the Federal side. The approaches from Corinth were not properly guarded. No effort was made to protect the front against a sudden hostile offensive by field defences such as were so systematically and effectively used in the subsequent advances on Corinth and in all the later campaigns of the war. Last, not least, there lay special weakness in the fact that the very front divisions contained a number of entirely raw regiments which had had hardly any drilling and but limited knowledge of the use of their arms. Hence it was inevitable that, when the hostile array surged upon the camps like a flood tide, the instant effect was confusion, terror, and all but panic.

The rebel advance began before six A.M. By seven, the front line had reached the Federal advance-guard and firing commenced. Sherman even then did not apprehend a general attack, but sent word of the appearance of the enemy in force in his immediate front to Generals Prentiss, McClernand, and Hurlbut, asking the two latter—he could not “order” them—to get ready to support him and Prentiss respectively with their commands. While a fusillade was uninterruptedly going on between seven and eight along his line, it was only at eight that he became “satisfied for the first time,” to quote from his report, “that the enemy designed a determined attack upon our whole camp.” To meet it, he had succeeded in forming his division, which immediately became heavily engaged, and within an hour was forced, by the determined onsets of superior numbers, to give way in great disorder, the enemy driving it through its camps and far beyond, and capturing guns and many prisoners.

Meantime, Prentiss fared much worse. The main object of the rebel attack was to overwhelm the Federal left and thus open a short way to Grant's base of supplies at Pittsburg Landing. To that end, simultaneously with their move on Sherman, they threw upon Prentiss an even heavier mass. His resistance was of no more avail than Sherman's. His division was soon forced to yield, and was driven back through its own camp upon McClernand and Hurlbut. The “Alpine avalanche,” as Beauregard not unfitly calls it, rolled on and next struck McClernand. He had but two brigades with which to resist, having sent one early to the support of Sherman. Hurlbut came to his assistance, and the two, with parts of Prentiss's division, struggled with Sherman on their right through the forenoon and afternoon to stem the rebel progress. But they were compelled to retreat from position to position and fall back over miles of ground, nearer and nearer to the river. Between five and six o'clock, the rebel right had arrived within a few thousand feet of the river, and their shot and shell fell on the bluff rising from the Landing. Some of the rebel cavalry even reached the river a short distance above Pittsburg and watered their horses. At this most critical juncture, hope of salvation came with the appearance of General Nelson's brigade just in time to fill the unprotected space, on the left of Grant's retreat ing troops, through which the enemy was pushing for the Landing.

Assuming that Beauregard tells the truth in his report — and there is no good reason to doubt it — he did not know before dark on Sunday that the advance of Buell's army had actually reached the field, and was made aware of the fact only by the vigorous attacks on his right early next morning. He records his expectation, up to that discovery, of completing the Federal discomfiture on Monday, but admits that his “officers and men were exhausted by a combat of over twelve hours without food, and jaded by the march of the previous day through mud and water.” He adds: “During the night, the rain fell in torrents, adding to the discomfort and harassed condition of the men; the enemy, moreover, had broken their rest by a discharge, at measured intervals, of heavy shells thrown from the gunboats. Therefore, on the following morning, the troops under my command were not in a condition to cope with an equal force of fresh troops, armed and equipped like our adversary.” He claims that, notwithstanding this disparity, his troops withstood and repelled all offensive attempts on the second day up to one P.M., when he voluntarily withdrew from so “unequal a conflict.”

This claim is flatly contradicted by the official reports of General Buell and his division commanders. Moreover, the rebel archives contain a report from Beauregard's chief aide-de-camp to him, directly affirming that, notwithstanding the General's strenuous personal efforts in seizing and waving regimental flags to make his troops stand, they did not respond, but steadily yielded ground after eleven A.M. on Monday. It is beyond all question just as true that the rebels were compelled to retreat by the attack of the comparatively fresh Federal divisions, as that the latter saved what was left of Grant's army from capture or destruction. Its remnants were re-formed as well as possible, and, with Lew Wallace's division, which turned up at the close of Sunday's fighting, did their share on Monday on Buell's right in making the enemy yield up their encampments. But as they, together, hardly numbered more than fifteen thousand, of which nearly two thirds consisted of odds and ends of four divisions, no decisive offensive power could well be claimed for them.

Besides the physical exhaustion of the rebels on Sunday, other causes worked on their side to bring about their final failure. The most hurtful of these was no doubt the killing of their Commander-in-chief, General A. S. Johnston, between two and three P.M. on Sunday. While riding with the attacking columns, he was struck by several bullets, one of which cut an artery and made him bleed to death in fifteen minutes. His death was probably a greater blow to the Confederacy than the defeat of his purpose, for, according to the testimony of all who knew him personally, on the Southern as well as on the Northern side, there was the stuff for another Robert E. Lee in him, and he might have proved as formidable an antagonist on the western as the latter on the eastern theatre of war. Jefferson Davis fully recognized this in his official lament over the Confederacy's irreparable loss. Perhaps even the result at Shiloh would have been different if Johnston had lived. Leaving his admittedly inferior capacities as a strategist out of consideration, Beauregard was not in bodily condition for an energetic exercise of the chief command, being just convalescent from a severe two months illness.

Another cause appears from the admission of Beauregard in his report that “officers, non-commissioned officers and men abandoned their colors early in the first day to pillage the captured encampments,” and that “others retired shamefully from the field on both days, while the thunder of cannon and the roar and rattle of musketry told them that their brothers were being slaughtered by the fresh legions of the enemy.” The General claimed, on a later occasion, that the casualties on the first day and the admitted skulking of a portion of his command had reduced his fighting strength to twenty thousand on the second day, and this number may be accepted as correct. General Braxton Bragg complained as strongly of the straggling and plundering of his men, and ascribes to the weakness and confusion caused by it the failure to finish the battle on the first day.

Shiloh was one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. According to the official publications, Grant lost 1437 killed, 5679 wounded, and 2934 missing; Buell, 236 killed, 1816 wounded, and 88 missing — making a total of 1673 killed, 7495 wounded, and 3022 missing — while the rebel loss was 1728 killed, 8012 wounded, and 957 missing. Beauregard overestimated the total Federal loss at 20,000. As shown by some of my quotations, Beauregard's report had the fault of extravagant language, but it was far superior to Grant's in giving an intelligible account of the two days' fighting. In fact, Grant's is about as poor a production as the Rebellion brought forth in that line on the Northern side, and one cannot peruse it without wondering that the author of such a miserable screed ever attained the prominence he did.


Memoirs of Henry Villard - Pittsburg Landing and Shiloh.jpg

JULIUS BIEN & CO. N.Y.

  1. A select company of young Philadelphians of the better classes, especially recruited for this service and commanded by William J. Palmer, who, after the war, made quite a name for himself as a railroad builder and manager in connection with the Denver & Rio Grande system. The company, I believe, was afterwards increased to a regiment, and Palmer came out of the war with the rank of brigadier-general.