Sunday, April 6, 2008

ON THIS DAY: Sunday, April 6, 1862

"The Devil’s Own Day”

(The following is condensed from Blood, Tears, and Glory: How Ohioans Won the Civil War, by James Bissland; published in 2007 by Orange Frazer Press., Inc.)

Early this morning, 1st Lt. Marion Posegate of the 48th Ohio is enjoying his first cup of coffee and “the soft, shimmering opening of a typical Southern spring day” when suddenly he hears the rolling thunder of a drummer’s alarm and scattered gunshots.

Posegate—who is acting adjutant of the 48th—buckles on his sword, but before he can finish ordering the regiment into a defensive line of battle, the impetuous colonel of the 48th, a Cincinnati lawyer named Peter J. Sullivan, rushes up and orders the men forward, towards the sound of gunshots.

But the men soon encounter an oncoming rush of Confederates and rush back to their original position. They fire one unified volley standing up and then wisely take cover behind trees and fallen trunks, firing carefully and at will.

The 48th Ohio is one of Sherman’s regiments, camped along and a ridge, with the crude log hut known as the Shiloh Meetinghouse its centerpiece. From his place on the ridge, 1st Lt. Ephraim C. Dawes of the 53rd Ohio views a scene that is “one never to be forgotten.” Sherman’s division is forming a ragged line of battle, but it has gaps in it because so many men are absent because of sickness. Behind the line of battle, teamsters, servants, and frightened soldiers are fleeing in the direction of the Tennessee River. Directly in front of Dawes are solid ranks of Confederates, their bayonets and swords gleaming in the early morning sun. They are advancing four ranks deep on a three-mile front, with one rank after another rolling forward like the tide.

Some Union regiments break and run for the shelter of a bluff by the river; others, though depleted by runaways, stand their ground until they can resist no longer and are forced to retreat, still fighting. This goes on all day, thousands of men running away, but more thousands putting up a stout defense even as they backpedal. Galloping furiously back and forth, directing the troops, are Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Brig. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. They had failed to prepare for or even consider the possibility of the Confederate attack, but now they are working fearlessly and furiously to rally their stunned forces.

Enemy fire is so heavy, according to Posegate, that thickets of brush look as if they have been cut down with “a dull sickle.” Trees are riddled with bullets and branches broken; only the fact that the inexperienced Confederates fire too high—as new soldiers often do—saves the 48th from annihilation. Posegate is wounded and removed a hospital boat.

By evening, the Union forces are pushed back almost to the Tennessee River, but they still hold Pittsburg Landing. Artillery and a deep ravine protect Grant’s army from destruction and so—unintentionally—does Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, who took command after Maj. Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston was mortally wounded. Certain he can finish off the Federals tomorrow, Beauregard calls off the attack at 6 p.m, wires Richmond that he has attained “a complete victory,” and goes to sleep in Sherman’s abandoned tent.

With thousands of Union soldiers huddled in fear beneath a bluff while thousands more cling to a sliver of land near the river’s edge, Sherman says to his commander, “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” Quietly puffing his customary cigar, Grant calmly replies, “Yes, lick ‘em tomorrow, though.”

That calm optimism in the face of discouragement will become Grant’s hallmark and, in Sherman’s opinion, the explanation for his greatness.

IT’S COMING SOONER THAN YOU THINK: April 12, 2011—scarcely 3 years from now!—will be the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1861, April 12 was the day Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

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