On this date in 1862, American writer Ambrose Bierce participated in the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee. Bierce is one of a handful of noted authors from either side to have served in the American Civil War. Bierce and Connecticut novelist John William DeForest were probably the two distinguished writers on the Union side to have seen the most action in the war. Bierce, born in Meigs County, Ohio in 1842, enlisted in Company C of the Ninth Regiment of Indiana Volunteers on April 19, 1861. Bierce experienced combat with the Ninth Indiana at Philippi, Laurel Hill, and Carrick’s Ford in western Virginia before his three months enlistment was up and he returned to Indiana. Bierce then re-joined the regiment when it was reorganized in August of 1861. He would go on to see action in the battles of Shiloh, Stones River, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, Kenesaw Mountain—where he was seriously wounded in the head—and then Franklin and Nashville.
After the war Bierce would become a journalist, living first in San Francisco and then London. He eventually returned to San Francisco and later moved back east to Washington, D.C. He wrote twenty-five short stories about the war, the most famous being “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge,” along with nonfiction accounts of his experiences in uniform. In addition to his Civil War writings and journalism, he also wrote many short stories about the macabre and supernatural.
He also became known as a wit and cynic—he was later dubbed “Bitter Bierce– famous for his notorious The Devil’s Dictionary, in which he gives brutally barbed definitions of familiar words. Here is his definition of “Christian:”
“One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor. One who follows the teaching of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.”
Here’s his definition of “patience:” “A minor form of despair, disguised as virtue.”
Except for a brief foray into mining, Bierce spent most of his career working for various newspapers and magazines, most of them affiliated with the Hearst syndicate. In October of 1913 Bierce made a tour of his old battlefields en route to Mexico, where he was to join Pancho Villa’s forces as an observer. Bierce vanished in Mexico, likely dying during the Battle of Ojinaga on January 11, 1914.
It was at Shiloh that Bierce would really see firsthand the hellish destruction of battle—most of his unit’s actions in West Virginia were skirmishes or limited kinds of engagements. Shiloh was different. The battle took place a year after the war started and is significant in the careers of both Sherman and Grant. General Grant had earlier made a name for himself by capturing Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee. These actions in turn led to the evacuation of Nashville and forced Confederate General Albert S. Johnston to yield control of much of central and western portions of the state. At the time of Shiloh, Grant had massed 40,000 soldiers on the Tennessee River at Pittsburgh Landing, intending to move later on Corinth, Mississippi, twenty-two miles to the south and an important rail junction. Major General Don Carlos Buell, a native of Ohio, was to leave Nashville with 35,000 troops and join Grant’s forces on the Tennessee River for the move on Corinth.
The move alarmed Confederate officers at Corinth. Johnston’s second in command, P.G. T. Beauregard, recommended moving against Grant. General Johnston agreed. The Confederates moved north and struck against Union forces early on April 6 near a Methodist meetinghouse called Shiloh Church. “Shiloh” is a Hebrew word meaning “place of peace.”
At first the southern forces were successful, driving back northern forces nearly a mile, but Union soldiers rallied, particularly those under the command of General Benjamin Prentiss. He established his troops in the center of the Union line and held off the Confederates so fiercely that southern soldiers dubbed the area the “Hornet’s Nest.” Disorganized southern attacks failed to break Prentiss’ line until the Confederates assembled sixty-two field guns and pounded away at the position. Although the right and center positions on the Union line had been badly hit, Grant’s left stayed strong, and throughout the afternoon of April 6 Buell’s troops were crossing the river, helping to bolster Grant’s army. The Confederate forces had also lost their commander that day: General Johnston was hit by a bullet that severed a leg artery. He died around 2:30 P.M.
On the following morning of April 7, Grant counterattacked, finally forcing Beauregard, who assumed command when Johnston was killed, to retreat back towards Corinth, Mississippi. Most historians would cautiously term Shiloh a Union victory, albeit a costly one. They retained control of the battlefield, held all that was gained from earlier campaigning and would later take the city of Memphis and the rest of western Tennessee when Confederate forces abandoned Corinth. But casualty lists were high on both sides, and any notion that the war would be short-lived faded away in the wake of Shiloh’s carnage.
Ambrose Bierce wrote a powerful essay called “What I Saw of Shiloh.” It’s a vivid piece of writing, and one of the best short accounts of a battle I’ve ever read. Bierce became a topographical officer during the war, and he is particularly adept at rendering landscape. Bierce begins by recalling a leisurely bivouac on the morning of April 6 which is interrupted by the distant sound of cannon fire. He then describes the surrounding terrain and what he and his fellow soldiers can see of the battle on the heights across the river. Of particular interest are the activities of two Union gunboats lobbing shells into the hills above:
“As a spectacle this was rather fine. We could just discern the black bodies of these boats, looking very much like turtles. But when they let off their big guns there was a conflagration. The river shuddered in its banks, and hurried on, bloody, wounded, terrified! Objects a mile away sprang toward our eyes as a snake strikes at the face of its victim. The report stung us to the brain, but we blessed it audibly. Then we could hear the great shell tearing away through the air until the sound died out in the distance; then, a surprisingly long time afterward, a dull, distant explosion and a sudden silence of small-arms fire told their own tale.”
Bierce follows with descriptions of the boats ferrying soldiers across the water, but also the efforts of demoralized soldiers who had been driven back during the day’s fighting to board these same boats:
“Whenever a steamboat would land, this abominable mob had to be kept off her with bayonets; when she pulled away, they sprang on her and were pushed by scores into the water, where they were suffered to drown one another in their own way. The men disembarking insulted them, shoved them, struck them. In return they expressed their unholy delight in the certainty of our destruction by the enemy.”
Bierce details their night march, made more miserable by rain. Everywhere are dead bodies, the moans of the wounded, an ominous landscape where even nature seems to have turned against them. Eventually it is morning, and its light makes clearer the devastation: more bodies, abandoned knapsacks and equipment, dead horses and mules, shattered trees, small pools of rainwater “with a tinge of blood.” At this point the reader encounters one of the most disconcerting passages in Bierce’s writing. Bierce and his men come upon “a Federal sergeant, variously hurt, who had been a fine giant in his time.”
“He lay face upward, taking in 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. I had not previously known one could get on, even in this unsatisfactory fashion, with so little brain. One of my men whom I knew for a womanish fellow, asked if he should put his bayonet through him. Inexpressibly shocked by the cold-blooded proposal, I told him I thought not; it was unusual, and too many were looking.”
Soon the unit is under fire, first from musketry and later from artillery. Shrapnel and grapeshot rain down over their position. Men huddle for safety. Bierce describes an artillery duel and also the sight of dozens of men who were burned to death when the underbrush around them caught fire and they were too wounded to escape—this was not uncommon during the war. Then there is a period in which Bierce and his men watch the fighting as they are held in reserve, then finally move into battle. They fight, the din and noise such that “the ear could take in no more.” They run headlong into some Confederate units who open fire and send them retreating backwards. As they reload and reform their line, thousands of federal soldiers swarm past them. Bierce and his fellow soldiers prepare to rise and join them, but soon is there only silence.
“Minute after minute passes and the sound does not come. Then for the first time we note that the silence of the whole region is not comparative, but absolute. Have we become stone deaf? See; here comes a stretcher-bearer, and there a surgeon! Good heavens! a chaplain! The battle was indeed at and end.”
Casualties were heavy. Casualty totals for the Union 13,407: 1,754 dead, 8,408 wounded and 2,885 missing. Total Confederate casualties were 10,694: 1,723 dead, 8,012 wounded and 959 missing. (The source for these numbers is The Oxford Companion To American Military History, edited by John Whiteclay Chambers II). Another casualty was Grant’s reputation. The Confederates had surprised him at Shiloh and he had been lax about fortifying his position. These two factors, along with heavy losses, hurt Grant. He was able to restore his reputation with his capture of Vicksburg in the summer of 1863.
The numbers are staggering, and they are testimony to the costs of the battle. But we are fortunate to have the vivid and sobering account of what Ambrose Bierce saw at Shiloh one hundred and fifty-two years ago.