Curtained by rain and lit by artillery shells arching above them through the night sky, the fresh troops of Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio bobbed across the Tennessee River on wooden steamboats during the evening of April 6, 1862. On the western bank of the river, at Pittsburg Landing, an angry, confused and terrified mob of Union skulkers sought shelter alongside the bluffs that overlooked the river. That morning, many of these same troops had been routed from their campgrounds near the primitive Methodist meeting house called Shiloh, 2 1/2 miles southwest of the landing, by onrushing Confederate troops led by General Albert Sidney Johnston’s onrushing Confederate troops, who were seeking to drive the Union invaders from their stronghold in southwestern Tennessee.
The ensuing battle, the bloodiest single day of fighting yet experienced on the North American continent, had settled by nightfall into an exhausted stalemate, with troops on both sides hunkering down for the night in the vine-choked gullies and brambles that gutted the battlefield. By then, Johnston himself was dead, having bled to death from a bullet wound to the knee, and the badly rattled Confederate high command was unsure what to do next. Some argued for an immediate retreat before the enemy could be reinforced; others wanted to renew the battle at dawn.
The Union commander, however, had no such doubts. Major General Ulysses S. Grant, although admittedly caught by surprise by the Rebels’ morning attack, did not envision retreating. With his back against the winding Tennessee River, such a retreat was not an option. Nor was Grant the sort of commander who spooked easily. When one of his staff members, Colonel James B. McPherson, suggested that they consider withdrawing, Grant immediately snapped, ‘No, sir, I propose to attack at daylight and whip them.’ Already, reinforcements were on the way. Meanwhile, all they could do was wait. Grant tried to catch a few hours’ sleep in the shelter of a large oak tree near the landing. But the incessant rain, coupled with the steady throb of pain from his ankle, which had been injured shortly before the battle when his horse fell on it, made sleep an impossibility. The Union commander then relocated to a log cabin on the bluff above the river. But Union surgeons had taken over the cabin for battlefield operations, which consisted mainly of sawing off shattered arms and legs. The screams of the wounded were too much for Grant. ‘The sight was more unendurable than encountering the enemy’s fire,’ Grant recalled in his Personal Memoirs, ‘and I returned to my tree in the rain.’ It was there that his second-in-command, Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, found him later that night, chewing on an ever-present cigar. ‘Well, Grant,’ said Sherman, ‘we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?’ ‘Yes,’ Grant replied, ‘lick ’em tomorrow, though.’
Grant’s confidence was based in part on the steady arrival of Union reinforcements from Buell’s Army of the Ohio, which had been 20 miles away at Savannah, Tenn., when the battle opened. A series of delays having to do with the disposition of artillery pieces and the lack of a local guide had prevented Buell’s lead division, under Brig. Gen. William Nelson, from reaching the field in time to join in the first day’s fighting. Now, however, Nelson’s men were busy piling onto two steamers for the nerve-wracking ride across the river.
Among the fresh troops in Nelson’s division was a young sergeant in the 9th Indiana, Ambrose Bierce, who would later write vividly about Shiloh and other battles as a famous newspaper columnist and short story writer. In his reminiscence ‘What I Saw of Shiloh,’ Bierce recalled sharing the ride across the river with a pretty young woman–‘someone’s wife,’ he guessed–who stood on the upper deck of the steamer holding a small, ivory-handled pistol in her hand for use ‘if it came to the worst.’ ‘I took my hat off to this little fool,’ Bierce recalled.
Bierce and the other Union reinforcements disembarked into a sea of Union skulkers and skedaddlers. ‘Along the sheltered strip of beach between the river bank and the water was a confused mass of humanity–several thousands of men,’ Bierce wrote. ‘They were mostly unarmed; many were wounded; some dead. All the camp-following tribes were there; all the cowards; a few officers. Not one of them knew where his regiment was, nor if he had a regiment. Many had not. These men were defeated, beaten, cowed. They were deaf to duty and dead to shame. A more demented crew never drifted to the rear of broken battalions. They would have stood in their tracks and been shot down to a man by a provost-marshal’s guard, but they could not have been urged up that bank. An army’s bravest men are its cowards. The death which they would not meet at the hands of the enemy they will meet at the hands of their officers, with never a flinching.’ Whenever a boat docked at the landing, provost guards had to keep back the mob of frightened fugitives with their bayonets. Some still jumped on board and were pushed off in midstream ‘to drown one another in their own way.’ Others stood by and muttered when they saw U.S. Army Regulars among the reinforcements, ‘You’ll catch regular hell today.’
Actually, no one would catch hell, regular or otherwise, until the next morning, when Grant intended to launch his counterattack. In the meantime, the new troops stumbled into line on the extreme Union left, just beyond the landing. The rain, the darkness and the eerie shadows from Spanish moss hanging on the tree branches above them unsettled even veteran soldiers like Bierce. Nor were their nerves improved by the constant flow of stretcher-bearers bringing the wounded to makeshift hospitals behind the lines. Bierce noted with a shudder that ‘these tents were constantly receiving the wounded, yet were never full; they were constantly ejecting the dead, yet were never empty. It was as if the helpless had been carried in and murdered, that they might not hamper those whose business it was to fall tomorrow.’
The Union army was pinned down in a semicircular line running 1,300 yards west from the Tennessee River, then turning north and running 1,000 yards to River Road. At 5:30 a.m. on April 7, Nelson’s fresh division led the way for the Federal counterattack. The meadow the men crossed was dotted here and there with pools of blood. Broken trees, their trunks scarred to a height of 20 feet with bullet holes, drooped their branches toward the ground. Angular bits of twisted metal stuck out from shell holes in the muddy ground. Abandoned knapsacks, haversacks, canteens and blankets were strewn everywhere, clearly showing where the Union forces had retreated the night before. Dead and wounded soldiers were also strewn about, including one Union sergeant whom Bierce found lying face upward on the ground, ‘taking his breath in convulsive, rattling snorts, and blowing it out in sputters of froth which crawled creamily down his cheeks, piling itself alongside his neck and ears. A bullet had clipped a groove in his skull, above the temple; from this the brain protruded in bosses, dropping off in flakes and strings.’
Ahead of the Union line, Confederate scouts galloped out of rifle range, leading Bierce and the others to mistakenly believe that the main enemy line had fallen back during the night. Pushing up a slight incline across an open field, the attackers were soon disabused of their optimistic notion. As the Union troops emerged into the open, they were suddenly greeted by an enormous artillery barrage. ‘The forest seemed all at once to flame up and disappear with a crash like that of a great wave upon the beach,’ wrote Bierce, ‘a crash that expired in hot hissings, and the sickening’spat’ of lead against flesh. A dozen of my brave fellows tumbled over like ten-pins.’ Hastily retreating into the tree line, Bierce and his fellow infantrymen caught sight of a stunned officer who reported solemnly to Colonel William Hazen that ‘the enemy is in force just beyond this field, sir’–as though he had been the only one to notice.
Temporarily stymied by the Rebel defense, Nelson halted his attack and waited for Brig. Gen. Thomas B. Crittenden to bring his division into line on his right. Near the infamous Peach Orchard where Union forces had been slaughtered the day before, Nelson and Crittenden linked up, their line extending west past the so-called Hornets’ Nest. Despite the exhaustion and general disarray of the Confederates, their steady musket- and cannon-fire held the Federals in check. The entire Union counterattack was in danger of grinding to a complete halt.
Thinking quickly, Buell dispatched two sections of Regular Army artillery to Nelson’s aid. Captain John Mendenhall’s 4th U.S. Artillery swung into action, firing two 2-inchers and two 12-pounders to contest the Confederate artillery directly across the Peach Orchard and wheat field. At the same time, Captain William Terrill’s 5th U.S. Artillery began firing two 10-pounders and four 12-pounders to suppress the Rebels. While one section silenced the enemy battery, Terrill and his other two sections advanced to the front of the skirmish line, blasting a hole for the infantry to resume its attack. Meanwhile, the foot soldiers hunkered face-down on the wet ground, alternately showered by enemy shrapnel or deafened by the roar of their own guns.
One soldier in the front ranks, identified only as ‘W,’ left behind an account of the fighting at the Peach Orchard. ‘W,’ a member of the 1st Battalion, 15th U.S. Infantry, noted with a veteran’s quick discernment the swelling fire on the Union left and an officer’s grim command, ‘Bring on the ambulances.’ At about 10 a.m., he recalled, the Union line was ordered to the ground just as a Confederate fusillade blasted over their heads, signaling an attack on Brig. Gen. Lovell Rousseau’s right flank. Casualties were heavy from the blast, despite the men’s prone positions. Confederate troops commanded by bishop-turned-general Leonidas Polk hurled themselves against Rousseau’s brigade but were met by volleys from the Union ranks. Captain Peter Swain, commanding the 15th Infantry, recalled proudly that his ‘cool, sturdy and obedient soldiers’–Regulars all–scythed down the Rebels with their accurate fire and moved on across Tillman’s Creek. Swain noted in particular the excellent conduct of Sgt. Maj. Gustavus Teubner and Lance Sgt. John Mars.
Once again, the sound of a bugle ordered Rousseau’s men to lie down to avoid a second artillery fusillade. Again, however, casualties were severe. In the 15th alone, two captains, a lieutenant and two first sergeants were down. The 16th Infantry, another Regular unit, lost Lieutenant Edward Mitchell. Despite the losses, the Union line moved on. Sighting the cannons that had done so much damage to their leaders, the Regulars hastily fixed bayonets and charged the offending battery. ‘W’ recalled a wounded Confederate artillery commander lying amid the wreckage of his battery. ‘You have slain all my men and cattle and you take the battery and be damned,’ the dying Reb admonished.
By noon, the Confederate line had been forced back to a new position astride Hamburg-Purdy Road, after what Sherman himself called ‘the severest artillery fire I ever heard.’ Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard concurred, describing ‘the unceasing, withering fire of the enemy’ as they ‘drove forward line after line of fresh troops.’ Now, for a time, the battle quieted down, as the Confederates under Polk, Brig. Gen. John C. Breckinridge and Maj. Gen. William Hardee began massing for a counterattack. Rousseau, noting the ominous development, ordered Mendenhall and Terrill to return to their parent divisions. Three hundred yards east of Shiloh Church, the Rebels were seen to be massing ‘in columns, doubled on the center,’ behind a stand of colors. It was obvious they intended to break the Union line beyond Rousseau’s left flank.
About 2 p.m. the Confederates launched their attack, crashing through the brush and pounding over the landscape, summoning energy from their Rebel yell. The fury of the assault immediately put the Union gunners in jeopardy. Terrill had left his horses and caissons in the rear, protected from enemy fire by broken ground. Accordingly, his guns had been advanced by hand, using long ropes called prolongs. Now, dangerously exposed to severe musket fire, they had to be withdrawn the same way. Under the watchful eye of their commander, the gunners of the 5th Artillery retired in order, by section, hurling canister and spherical case at the enemy and covering each other as they withdrew. Terrill himself took a turn hauling and firing.
Just north of Bloody Pond, Mendenhall’s battery fought the Confederates for 90 minutes, pouring case shot into the faces of the Southern attackers. The ebb and flow of the battle caused Mendenhall’s gunners to fire both in enfilade and even in reverse as the line of battle swayed around them like rows of wheat. At last, Colonel Hazen, leading the charge on horseback, sent his brigade forward in support of the Union gunners, driving them three-quarters of a mile to the rear, through another line of Confederate artillerymen, one of whom was fatally stabbed by a bowie knife taken from a captured Rebel.
Ambrose Bierce, who was in Hazen’s 19th Brigade, watched as the Confederate attack faltered and then receded. The noise of the cannon fire from both sides was so loud that at one point it seemed somehow soundless–‘the ear could take in no more,’ said Bierce–and then the Rebel line fell apart in disarray. ‘Lead had scored its old-time victory over steel,’ wrote Bierce, ‘the heroic had broken its great heart against the commonplace.’ Ironically, Hazen became separated from his men during the final charge and was ever afterward haunted by accusations that he had abandoned his men under fire.
The fierceness of the Confederate onslaught caused the untested volunteers on the Regulars’ right flank to flee, but training and discipline paid off for the Regulars. Both Major S.D. Carpenter of the 19th Infantry and the ubiquitous ‘W’ recorded that the Regular battalions on the Union right ‘changed front forward, on left company’ and took the Rebel attack in flank like a swinging gate, checking its impetus. Nelson and Crittenden, on the left, did likewise, trapping the Confederates in a deadly three-way fire. As the Federals pounded the reeling Rebels, Colonel William Gibson advanced to support Rousseau, whose men had expended all their ammunition. Providentially, Brig. Gen. Alexander McCook had called earlier that morning for more ammunition, and his resupply arrived just in time to replenish the soldiers’ cartridge boxes.
Once their cartridges were replenished, the Regulars joined the push that swept the Rebels beyond the former camps of Grant’s army. ‘Rousseau’s brigade moved in splendid order, steadily to the front, sweeping everything before it,’ Sherman reported admiringly. Captain E.F. Townsend of the 16th Infantry heard the 19th Infantry cheering on his left as they recaptured two of the cannons taken earlier by the Confederates. As Buell, the commander of the Army of the Ohio, reported, ‘By 4 p.m. the flag of the Union floated again upon the line from which it had been driven the previous day.’
Suddenly, the battle was over. The Confederates withdrew toward Corinth, their initial success lost in a flurry of bad luck, bad weather and sheer Union stubbornness. Burial details took up the horrific business of interring the dead, including men from the 55th Illinois who had been caught and butchered in a deep ravine and then burned by a quick-moving blaze ignited by gunfire. The always observant Ambrose Bierce visited the ravine and found the charred remains of his brother soldiers ‘in postures of agony that told of the tormenting flame. Their clothing was half burnt away–their hair and beard entirely….Some were swollen to double girth; others shriveled to manikins. According to degree of exposure, their faces were bloated and black or yellow and shrunken. The contraction of muscles which had given them claws for hands had cursed each countenance with a hideous grin.’
Even for survivors of the battle, Shiloh exacted a heavy toll. ‘The scenes of this field would have cured anybody of war,’ said Sherman. And future President James A. Garfield, then a Union field officer, wrote to his wife: ‘The horrible sights that I have witnessed on this field I can never describe. No blaze of glory, that flashes around the magnificent triumphs of war, can ever atone for the unwritten and unutterable horrors of the scene.’ As if disgusted by the carnage, nature itself turned against the battlefield. Heavy rains soaked them all, the living and the dead, and as the great writer Herman Melville later observed, ‘All [was] hushed at Shiloh.’
This article was written by James B. Ronan II and originally appeared in the May 1996 issue of America’s Civil War magazine.
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