“The Leading Thought”
For many in the Union armies, the battle at Shiloh was their first big test at arms. Three of Grant’s five divisions were “entirely raw,” in Grant’s words; many had only just received their weapons and hardly knew how to load them. Probably most had wondered to themselves how they would perform when they “saw the elephant.”
A significant number—though a minority of Grant’s troops—had panicked and run away, taking shelter under a bluff at Pittsburg Landing. Of the 41,500 men present for duty at Shiloh on the first morning, estimates of those who fled range from 4,000 to 5,000 (In Grant’s opinion) to 15,000 (Buell’s).
Reactions to the first experience of combat varied. Although some men on both sides fled the field, the majority of soldiers remained in the fight, despite their fears. And then there were those who were energized by fighting, who came alive in the eyes of their peers and forgot whatever apprehensions they may have had. As the war went on, the men around Ulysses S. Grant would discover he was one of these. Sherman seemed to be another.
At Shiloh, Sherman remained in the thick of the fighting at risk of his life, galloping back and forth to rally his men. Grant said he found it unnecessary to stay long with Sherman during the battle, explaining, “Although his troops were…under fire for the first time, their commander, by his constant presence with them, inspired a confidence in officers and men that enabled them to render service on that bloody battlefield worthy of the best of veterans.” This was the same man who had seemed so spooked by the mere possibility of Confederates bearing down on him in Kentucky.
As the armies settled down after the battle and men had time to think and write, Capt. Emerson Opdycke, executive officer of the 41st Ohio, wrote his wife to tell her “how I felt during such an awful contest.”
Underlining certain words for emphasis, Opdycke told Lucy that “I was conscious of the danger all the time, but felt that as an officer, I was there to perform certain duties, so that in my mind, all the danger sank into comparative insignificance.
“I thought of patriotism, of victory, of personal honor and pride, and of a glorious death of the battlefield, but the leading thought was to thrash the rebels soundly! I could not help smiling to myself occasionally when I saw cowardly officers or men, but they were very few in the brave 41st.”
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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