Shiloh dispatch

On this anniversary of Lexington and Concord I present to you the dispatch of Samuel Wilkeson of the New York Tribune who, accompanying the 55th Illinois regiment and its Black Hat Battalion, witnessed some of the worst fighting at the Battle of Shiloh. If not for the valor and gallantry of Company K of the 55th he might not have lived to tell the tale. (Not to mention being swallowed up in several feet of red Tennessee mud.)

Nightfall, Pittsburgh Landing,Tenn.

6 April 1862

With my back resting against the trunk of a tree on the bluff overlooking Pittsburgh Landing, I struggle to write a few lines which I hope to send down river to Savannah where they might be telegraphed. When that will happen I cannot say. For all is chaos and confusion here as the dejected member of Grant’s shattered army mill about along the Tennessee below me.

I can confirm what you undoubtedly will hear from other sources; that a great and terrible battle was fought here today, and that troops under Grant and Sherman were roughly handled. The fight will most certainly be resumed tomorrow, for we are told that Lew Wallace has finally arrived on the field from Crump’s Landing and I have personally witnessed the arrival of regiment after regiment of Buell’s Army of the Ohio. Those troops arrived from Nashville late this afternoon, and were prevented from engaging the enemy merely due to the necessity to ferry them across the Tennessee River from the opposite bank.

Frequent blasts from the whistles of riverboats announce the arrival of still more of Buell’s army, providing a welcome distraction from the pitiable cries of the wounded who seem to be lying about everywhere as thick as leaves in the fall. With the surgeons busily at work close by, the listener is forced to witness their suffering. The afflicted scream, cry, moan, and plead for succor in a multitude of ghoulish ways that would make the hardest of hearts weep and any thoughtful person condemn the evils and futility of war.

This horrible day began before dawn when we were awakened by the sound of musket fire to the southwest, in a direction which suggested our pickets had engaged the enemy. Nevertheless, we arose, the troops answered roll call and made their breakfasts as if this were a normal Sunday morning in camp. I was encamped with the 55th Illinois, part of Colonel David Stuart’s brigade of Sherman’s division. Colonel Stuart had been gracious enough to intercede on my behalf with General Sherman. Though a fine officer, the General decidedly does not prefer the company of the correspondent.

We’d barely finished our breakfasts when Colonel Stuart and an aide rode up excitedly and ordered the 55th into line of battle in front of our camp along the parade ground. There we waited for well over an hour as dawn broke and the rattle of musketry steadily increased in the distance. We listened with growing alarm as the boom of cannon became intermingled with those of the rifle and musket, leaving little doubt among all ranks that a great battle had commenced. Finally, General Sherman himself appeared and we were in motion, headed forward.

The regiment was placed in line with the 71st Ohio to our right and the 54th Ohio to our left. We waited anxiously as soldiers from other units streamed past, the shock and horror of what they’d experienced registering on their faces. Close on the heels of this debris of war came the enemy; wave after wave of men in butternut and grey. A battery of our artillery situated on a gentle rise of ground near a country chapel to our left began firing as the rebels boldly advanced and came into line. We were soon engaged with them in a very hot contest immediately to our front. Being under fire is disagreeable in the extreme. As soon as the participant realizes how close death or serious injury comes with the buzz and whir of each musket ball, removing himself from the action becomes the uppermost thought in his mind. I had soon convinced myself that I would not be missed if I retired from the field. As it was, it took all my courage simply to maintain what was in reality a much safer position well behind the main firing line.

We had been successfully holding our position for several minutes when the order was given to advance the regiment. The men shifted front slightly and moved to press the enemy back. At that moment disaster struck. The regiment to our right had broken and fled into the woods. As I placed my glass on the scene to our right I could clearly see a solid mass of grey in two waves enter the wood. A full brigade of the enemy at least. A single company of the 55th was ordered to move to a position on our flank and close the gap in the line. They were insufficient to retard the enemy’s advance. The object of the Confederate maneuver was manifest. Using a regiment to occupy us to our front, they had been able to employ an entire brigade to turn our flank. On they came, pouring into the gap which we were unable to close, and shouting the most blood curdling cries that struck cold, naked fear into all who heard it. We did not wait for the order to retreat. The regiment broke and ran. And I ran as hard and as enthusiastically as any. We ran clear through our camp, with the remains of our breakfast still warm over the cook fires, not stopping to think that it would be our enemy that would sleep in our tents and eat our food that night.

To the 55th’s credit, the regiment emerged from the rear of our camp and quickly reformed in good order. The men were shaken but they were also ashamed and more than a little angry they had been forced back. Ominously, we were fewer, the lines thinner. We had suffered badly during our retreat when our pursuers had fired into us from a ravine on our flank. Our spirits rose however, when we saw a battery of artillery deploy behind us and with a good deal of dispatch begin firing solid shot over our heads at the advancing rebels. The men cheered. We were soon engaged with them once more. The rattle of musketry became so intense that orders given by harried officers could barely be heard over the din. Volley after volley was fired between the two opposing lines of infantry so that our foes would disappear, only to reappear in the smoke of battle as if they were spectral ghosts. Of special note is the valor and devotion shown by Company K of the 55th’s Black Hat Battalion, Captain Wallick commanding. Despite heavy losses, the Black Hats would not yield. Only after they were ordered back did they move. This time the retrograde movement was done with cool efficiency as the aim was to allow the artillery a clear field of fire. The guns were being loaded with double canister.

How many times were we forced back? How many times did the men reform and resume the struggle? The rest of this terrible day is lost in the inevitable terror and confusion of battle. What of the rest of our division? What of General Prentiss and the remainder of the army? I do remember officers frantically trying to align the survivors of the 55th with a line of men near a peach orchard in what must have been the early afternoon. We stood there until relieved by men of Hurlbut’s division. Colonel Stuart calmly put the regiment into column down a narrow road that wound past a small pond strewn with the wounded of both armies and red with their blood; scenes of destruction and horror that are not fit to print.

It is beginning to rain now so I must close. General Grant himself sits in repose not twenty yards from where I write, under a great oak. Just minutes ago General Sherman rode up and the two generals exchanged words. What they spoke about can only be guessed at for they spoke softly and with the anguish and exhaustion of men who had witnessed the terrible cost of war this day. S.W.

The foregoing represents a mixture of research and of observations made on the field at Shiloh, Tennessee on the morning of 5 April 1997 by Thomas M. Sobottke, portraying New York Tribune correspondent Samuel Wilkeson.