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Friday, April 6, 2012

The Battle of Shiloh, April 6–7, 1862: “The scenes on this field would have cured anybody of war.”

The Battle of Shiloh began the morning of April 6, 1862, when six divisions of the Confederate army commanded by General Albert Sidney Johnston and General Pierre G. T. Beauregard launched a surprise attack out of the woods near Shiloh Church in southwestern Tennessee against five divisions of General U. S. Grant’s Union forces. At the end of a day of the fiercest fighting of the war, the Rebels had pushed the Yankees two miles from the opening line of battle. But 25,000 Union reinforcements under General Don Carlos Buell and General Lew Wallace arrived during the night and at daylight on April 7 the Union army counterattacked and regained all the lost ground.

One member of the reinforcing brigades was nineteen-year-old Ambrose Bierce; his recollection of the battle, “What I Saw at Shiloh,” though written almost twenty years later, is often acclaimed as, in S. T. Joshi’s words, “the best piece he ever wrote.” Here he describes being part of the Union counterattack:
But now our commanding officer rode from behind us to the front, waved his hand with the courteous gesture that says après vous, and with a barely audible cheer we sprang into the fight. Again the smoking front of gray receded, and again, as the enemy’s third line emerged from its leafy covert, it pushed forward across the piles of dead and wounded with protruded steel. Never was seen so striking a proof of the paramount importance of numbers. Within an area of three hundred yards by fifty there struggled for front places no fewer than six regiments, and the accession of each, after the first collision, had it not been counterpoised, would have turned the scale.
The scale of Shiloh, even more than the outcome, proved a shock to both sides. As James McPherson notes in Battle Cry of Freedom:
Coming at the end of a year of war, Shiloh was the first battle on a scale that became commonplace during the next three years. The 20,000 killed or wounded at Shiloh (about equally distributed between the two sides) were nearly double the 12,000 battle casualties at Manassas, Wilson’s Creek, Fort Donelson, and Pea Ridge combined. Gone was the romantic innocence of Rebs and Yanks who had marched off to war in 1861.
Grant remarked on the scale of the conflict in his April 8 letter home to his wife:
Again another terrible battle has occurred in which our arms have been victorious. For the number engaged and the tenacity with which both parties held on for two days, during an incessant fire of musketry and artillery, it has no equal on this continent.
But few eyewitnesses registered the impact of Shiloh more dramatically than Brigadier General William T. Sherman in his April 11 letter to his wife. Sherman had just taken command under Grant in March and during the first day of battle at Shiloh his forces took the brunt of the Confederate assault. Sherman himself was wounded in the hand and had three horses killed under him.
The scenes on this field would have cured anybody of war. Mangled bodies, dead, dying, in every conceivable shape, without heads, legs, and horses! I think we have buried 2000 since the fight our own & the Enemy, and the wounded fill horses, tents, steamboats and Every conceivable place. . . . I still feel the horrid nature of this war, and the piles of dead Gentlemen & wounded & maimed makes me more anxious than ever for some hope of an End but I know such a thing cannot be for a long long time. Indeed I never expect it or to survive it.
Also of interest:

Related LOA works: The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Lived It (includes letters about Shiloh by Generals Grant and Sherman); Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs (includes “What I Saw at Shiloh”); Grant and Sherman: Civil War Memoirs (boxed set)

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