Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Shiloh, April 3, 1862: "The weather is now springlike..."

On April 3, 1862, the clouds of war were gathering in southern Tennessee. The Army of the Tennessee, led by Major General Ulysses S. Grant, was concentrating around Pittsburg Landing, on the Tennessee River. Over twenty miles to the south, Confederate forces were gathering, preparing, and organizing for one of the greatest attacks in American history. Confederate General Albert Sydney Johnston, commander of the Confederate Department of the West, knew that time was of the essence. The Federal forces at Pittsburg Landing were gathering to strike at Corinth, Mississippi, where the Memphis and Charleston, and Mobile and Ohio Railroads intersected, connecting nearly every part of the Confederacy. Johnston knew that Major General Don Carlos Buell was advancing from Nashville with his Army of the Ohio. The time to strike was now. A decision was made; the Confederate Army of the Mississippi, with Johnston in the lead, would move north to strike Grant’s force at Pittsburg Landing, hopefully taking them by surprise.

While decisions were being made at Corinth, at Pittsburg Landing, the air was filled with springtime, and the sounds of an army in camp. New recruits were drilled in marching and battle techniques, soldiers inspected weapons, and men wrote letters home. Among those doing the latter was Brigadier General William T. Sherman. Sherman’s road to this point in his life was filled with ups and downs. His life before the war was marked with personal failures and great self doubt. In 1861, at the start of the war, he was a Louisiana military academy superintendent. With the wave of secession sweeping the South, Sherman went north to his native Ohio, leaving the South behind, believing his southern friends were making a grave mistake. Sherman took command of a brigade, and received his Civil War baptism of fire at the Battle of First Manassas. By the fall of 1861, Sherman was the commander of the District of Kentucky. The job proved to be too much for him. Believing that innumerable Confederates were amassing for an attack, Sherman sent urgent messages to his superiors, calling for more men, let he and the North be overwhelmed. Because of this, he was relieved of his post, and sent to St. Louis to serve under General Henry Halleck. Many in the north called him insane for his seemingly irrational fears of a strong Confederate army and a prolonged and bloody war. Yet, after several months had passed, when it was time for a Federal army to exploit the gains made by Grant at Forts Henry and Donelson, Sherman was in the right place for a division command. His men were among the first Federal soldiers to set up camp at Pittsburg Landing. Indeed, Sherman was in many ways responsible for the location of the Federal camp there.

On that April 3, 1862, as Confederates began marching north from Corinth, Mississippi, and Albert Sydney Johnston prepared an attack upon which rode the hopes of the Confederacy, Sherman was writing a letter to his wife, Ellen, from his headquarters near Shiloh Church. He described for her the situation at Pittsburg Landing, noting that spring had arrived. Portions of the letter are below:

Sherman's Headquarters Monument, near Shiloh Church

Recreation of historic Shiloh Church, sitting on the same site (next to modern day Methodist Church)

Pittsburg, Landing, Tennessee
Camp, April 3, 1862
Dearest Ellen,

I have really neglected writing for some days. I don’t know why, but I daily become more and more disposed to stop writing… We have now near 60,000 men here, and Bragg has command at Corinth only 18 miles off, with 80 regiments and more coming. On our part, McCook, Thomas, and Nelson’s Divisions are coming from Nashville and are expected about Monday …[These divisions compose the Army of the Ohio; they did indeed arrive on Monday, just in time for the second day of the Battle of Shiloh] when I suppose we must advance to attack Corinth or some other point on the Memphis and Charleston Road.

Peach Orchard in bloom

Shiloh's Peach Orchard is located in Sara Bell's Cotton Field. While Sherman wrote of the trees in bloom, the majority of his division was camped to the south and west of the Peach Orchard. However, the brigade of Colonel David Stuart was encamped just a few hundred yards away, guarding the road south to Hamburg, Tennessee. 

The weather is now springlike, apples and peaches in blossom and trees beginning to leave, bluebirds singing and spring weather upon the hillsides. This part of the Tennessee differs somewhat from that up at Bellefonte. There the Alleghany Mountains still characterized the Country whereas here the hills are lower and rounded covered with oak, hickory, and dogwood, not unlike the Hills down Hocking [in Ohio]. The people have mostly fled, abandoning their houses, and such as remain are of a neutral tint not knowing which side will turn up victors. That enthusiastic love of the Union of which you read in the newspapers is a form of expression easily written, but is not true. The poor farmers certainly do want peace, and protection, but all the wealthier classes hate us Yankees with a pure unadulterated hate. They fear the Gunboats which throw heavy shells and are invulnerable to their rifles and shotguns, and await our coming back from the River.


 Blossoming trees in the Peach Orchard, with the Manse George Cabin in the background

…My Division is very raw and needs much instruction. Brigade Commanders are [Colonel John A.] McDowell, [Colonel David] Stuart, [Colonel Jesse] Hildebrand, and [Colonel Ralph] Buckland. General Grant commands in chief, and we have a host of other generals, so that I am content to be in a mixed crowd.

I don’t pretend to look ahead far and do not wish to guide events. They are too momentous to be a subject of personal ambition.

We are constantly in the presence of the enemy pickets, but I am satisfied that they will await our coming at Corinth or some point of the Charleston Road [Charleston and Memphis Railroad]. If we don’t get away soon the leaves will be out and the whole country an ambush.

Our letters come very irregularly, I have nothing from you for more than a week but I know you are all well and happy at home and that is a great source of consolation.

My love to all yours. Ever,

W.T. Sherman

Just a few days after this letter, William Tecumseh Sherman found himself in the fight of his life. On April 6, 1862, Sherman would find his rebirth as a military commander during the fighting at Shiloh. Yet, 150 years ago today, he was still a division leader whose sanity many questioned, laying in wait with his men among the blossoming trees and sunshine of Shiloh's spring weather. 

Sherman's Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T. Sherman, 1860-1865, Edited by Brooks D. Simpson and Jean V. Berlin (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 198-199.

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