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Mr. Guttman:

I’ve read several books about the battle of Shiloh during the Civil War, but none of them have ever told what happened to the thousands of Union troops that “turned tail and ran” and hunkered down beneath the bluffs at Pittsburgh Landing. Since their numbers were so large and unprecedented, how were they dealt with by Grant and his officers?

Were they merely sent home? Court-martialed? Allowed to rejoin their outfits? I’ve always been curious about this…

Larry Reiminger

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Dear Mr. Reiminger,

In spite of Colonel William T. Sherman’s later complaint that anywhere from 57,000 to 70,000 deserters almost lost the Battle of Shiloh (conveniently forgetting how his early dismissal of reports of a coming Confederate attack led to his being caught with his trou at half-mast), there is no hard evidence of courts martial or executions for the deserters. It was usually left to the regimental or company commanders to judge, and in this case the “deserters” and “stragglers”  were simply returned to their units as quickly as possible and sent back into the line. The outcome of the battle on the second day suggests that, having gained some experience the day before, more of these troops held their ground better and justified the second chance.

The most common Union army practice with deserters in general was to find them, “detain” them and then send them back to their original outfits. They certainly had a better chance to doing some good alive than dead. Incredible though it seems today, I’ve noticed in websites references to great, great grandfathers and greet-great-great uncles who had been deserters, sometimes more than once, returning to complete their hitches, and then having what we might today call the gall to enroll in the Grand Army of the Republic.



Jon Guttman
Research Director
World History Group
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