One Stray Bullet: My Memories of General Albert Sidney Johnston at Shiloh

I still think about that day. Even though it has been more than fifty years, in my mind the sight of gleaming bayonets and fluttering battle flags; the sound of massed musket volleys intermixed with the rolling thunder of booming cannon, strident bugle calls, beating drums, shouted orders, and clashing swords; the screams of horribly wounded men and horses; the smell of burned powder and violent death still resonate with razor sharp clarity. The passage of time may have clouded my eyes and weakened my hearing but the memories of supreme elation, gut wrenching fear and bone weary fatigue are still as distinct as if it happened yesterday. Yes sir, I still think about that day. Most of all I wonder about what might have been. My mother, God rest her soul, always said I was a dreamer. “Get your head out of them clouds and come down to earth with the rest of us boy.” That was Momma. Still…..

Fresh from his victories at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson General U. S. Grant brought his Army of the Tennessee down to a place called Pittsburg Landing on the west bank of the Tennessee River just south of Savannah. There he planned to join forces with General Don Carlos Buell, marching southwest from Nashville with the Army of the Ohio. Together they intended to strike a decisive blow against Corinth, Mississippi – junction of the Memphis & Charleston and Mobile & Ohio railroads. From Corinth lines ran east to Chattanooga and south to Mobile connecting Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas and the Gulf Coast states of Alabama and Mississippi to Atlanta and, from there, to Richmond. Supplies from those areas were vital to the success of the Army of Northern Virginia and, therefore, to the survival of the Confederacy. Recognizing the strategic importance of Corinth, General Johnston and his second in command General P. G. T. Beauregard determined to attack General Grant before he could unite with General Buell, defeating the Army of the Tennessee and the Army of the Ohio in detail. By recalling the forces of General Crittenden from Kentucky and General Polk from Columbus, by stripping the garrisons of General Ruggles in New Orleans, General Chalmers in Iuka, and General Bragg in Mobile and Pensacola, General Johnston gathered about 45,000 men. General Johnston also summoned General Earl van Dorn from Arkansas but General van Dorn, still smarting from his crushing loss at Pea Ridge in March, declined. Instead he chose to pursue a campaign to relieve New Madrid and Island Number 10 which he hoped would restore his tarnished reputation and, if truth be told, heal his wounded pride. Ranking a dismal 52 out of 56 in the West Point class of 1842 the vainglorious General van Dorn was thin-skinned when it came to matters of reputation. It is a shame his tactical acumen and sense of strategic priorities were not on a par with his considerable talent as a ladies’ man for the addition of General van Dorn’s 20,000 men would have been a significant asset in General Johnston’s planned operation. Determined to strike before the opportunity passed, with or without General van Dorn’s assistance, General Johnston seized the initiative and began the twenty-three mile march from Corinth to Pittsburg Landing on the third of April 1862.

Then it began to rain. Lord how it rained. Old Noah himself would have been impressed. A foot of dust on what passed for roads in that area quickly turned into a foot of boot stealing mud. Creeks that we could have easily waded the day before became impassable and had to be bridged. Everything except our powder got drenched – clothes, food, blankets, men, equipment, horses – but we kept our powder dry, by God! We were soaked to the skin and bone tired from hauling twelve pounders and supply wagons through the worst of the mire when the horses and the mules couldn’t pull any more. Ordinarily even tempered, General Johnston fumed over the delay. General Beauregard, on the other hand, usually as prickly as a porcupine, actually smiled. Perhaps the downpour dampened his fiery Creole nature. “At least we have plenty of fresh water,” I heard him say. He was an odd fellow and a hard man to like, that General Beauregard, quick to take offense and slow to forgive.

Be that as it may, rain and inexperience turned what should have been a one day march into a three day ordeal of mud and confusion, negating the General’s carefully crafted timetable. Exhausted, we finally finished our approach march late on the fifth of April. General Johnston feared he had lost the element of surprise but he was resolved to give battle regardless. I remember his closing words as he ended our final council of war, “I would fight them if they were a million.” He need not have worried. The six divisions of the Army of the Tennessee were encamped from Crump’s Landing (four miles north of Pittsburg Landing) to Shiloh Meeting House (four miles southwest of Pittsburg Landing), as if they were on holiday. They had made no effort to form defensive works and, in spite of skirmishing between Union pickets and Confederate scouts, whether due to inexperience, over confidence, faulty reports from his cavalry or, some say, strong drink, General Grant and his second in command, General Sherman, dismissed numerous reports of Rebel activity from subordinates as ‘nerves.’ Consequently the Union army remained peaceably bivouacked as the Confederate host drew near.

In those days Shiloh was a heavily wooded area. Scattered among dense thickets of yellow pine, scrub oak, tangled vines and underbrush, about two dozen large fields had been cleared for farming. Numerous streams drained the region forming steep hills and deep ravines where they flowed into the Tennessee River. It was ideal ground for defense, which General Grant, convinced we could not or would not attack, failed to utilize. Instead, General Grant chose to encamp on open ground that provided comfortable billets and room to train his many raw recruits in drill while he waited to join forces with General Buell.

Under the cover of darkness General Johnston formed the Confederate Army in a grand Napoleonic alignment of four Corps in echelon. The three brigades of III Corps commanded by Major General William J. Hardee would lead the assault followed in succession by II Corps consisting of six brigades under Major General Braxton Bragg and I Corps comprised of four brigades, Major General Leonidas Polk commanding. None other than the former Vice-President of the United States, now Brigadier General John C. Breckinridge, C.S.A., led the Reserve Corps with three brigades under his command.

Many have criticized his disposition of forces but you must allow that at this point in the war many of our men were recent volunteers, brand new to army, unused to the hardships of the march, much less the finer points of drill, and untested in battle. To complicate matters further, in addition to the recent concentration of separate forces unaccustomed to working together, several of the senior officers had previously held independent command, did not know their counterparts well or, if they did, considered them rivals. You would think a common enemy would foster a common purpose but regrettably there were matters of seniority and organization that had not yet been resolved satisfactorily. Finally, armies greater than a few thousand men were not yet common. Organizing the efforts of four Corps in battle is far different than directing the movements of four regiments, four brigades or even four divisions. In time our armies would rival those of Europe in size and with experience our staff work would become just as sophisticated if not more so but that was not the case in 1862. Complicated maneuvers requiring intricate and precise coordination were not feasible. No, the early battles were blunt and direct affairs. Military elegance would come later. No matter what tactics were used, from the beginning of the war to its end, all fights were brutal and bloody affairs.

Greatly aided by Union complacency regarding reports of Confederate troop movements, General Johnston completely surprised General Grant. All hell broke loose at dawn on April 6, 1862 near a Methodist Church called Shiloh Meeting House. In the Good Book, Shiloh was a sanctuary for the Israelites and the site of a tabernacle where the Ark of the Covenant was kept until it was captured by the Philistines. Make of that what you will, but no one found sanctuary on the grounds of Shiloh that day. General Hardee’s brigade caught Union forces sleepily emerging from their tents to enjoy breakfast and initially swept them from the field. As resistance stiffened General Bragg joined the assault and the hastily formed Union lines at Shiloh Church, Seay Field and Spanish Field disintegrated.

After a final conference with General Beauregard early on the sixth of April, General Johnston mounted his bay horse and rode to the sound of the guns to supervise troop movements at the front. I swear a more militant man never rode into battle. Resplendent in dress uniform and sword in hand he was Mars incarnate. As agreed previously, General Beauregard remained at the Confederate Headquarters in the rear to coordinate activity there and channel reinforcements where they were needed. Around two o’clock in the afternoon, as he was organizing an attack, a stray musket ball grazed General Johnston on the right calf behind the knee. Another inch and it would have shattered his leg or severed an artery. Instead it struck his destrier Fire Eater who reared and threw the General to the ground. So violently was the General hurled to the earth I thought him fairly struck and surely dead. My heart in my throat, scarcely able to breathe, I rushed to his side sorely afraid of what I would find. Imagine my joy when I discovered the General still among the living. Miracle upon miracle, the fall had merely rendered him senseless. After about thirty minutes, when he had fully regained his faculties General Johnston found General Beauregard wasting time and lives assaulting a wooded area just past Duncan field. Brigadier General Prentis had rallied the remnants of his division in an area that would become known as the “Hornet’s Nest.” There his men were fighting a delaying action and doing a damned fine job of it, buying General Grant time to form a line further to the rear. But for the inspired leadership of General Prentis and that valiant rearguard action the Confederate Army might have pushed the Army of the Tennessee into its namesake river on the morning of April sixth.

As I said, under his command the remnants of Prentis’ division rallied and, reinforced by two brigades of the 4th Division under the command of Brigadier General Stephen Hurlbut, plus the men of the 2nd Division commanded by Brigadier General W. H. L. Wallace, Union soldiers withstood repeated Confederate attacks on their position while General Grant desperately attempted to dig in just north of the Dill Branch and east of Tilghman Creek along the Pittsburg Landing and River roads. Given more time to rally his army and with support from the heavy naval cannon of the gunboats USS Tyler and USS Lexington General Grant might have held long enough that day for the Army of the Ohio to add their strength to the fight and turn the tide of battle.

Upon taking up the mantle of command again, General Johnston halted the foolish attacks on the Hornet’s Nest and ordered the Federal position masked and bypassed. Always in tune with the true center of gravity in any battle he then quickly organized a final push to dislodge the badly shaken Union forces before they could reform, securing a Confederate victory before General Buell could add the weight of his army to that of General Grant.

Calling up the Reserve Corps General Johnston told the assembled Brigade commanders, “Gentlemen, with God’s Grace, force of arms and the valor of your men, tonight we will water our horses in the Tennessee River.” With six brigades in echelon the General launched a massive, concentrated assault that crushed the Union left flank, pushed the Federal Army away from the Tennessee River and pinned it up against Owl Creek. That final charge was magnificent, yielding as complete a victory as ever recorded. When Pittsburg Landing came into the range of our guns at seven o’clock that evening, the Federal Army was trapped. Although many Union soldiers stood their ground and fought bravely many more threw down their muskets and fled. The rout began with a trickle of men fleeing to the rear. As panic spread the trickle became a torrent as whole units ran to reach Crump’s Landing and the safety of the far bank of the river protected by the guns of the Federal Navy. When the torrent became a flood the last vestiges of the Union army collapsed. We took nearly 17,000 prisoners that day including more than 2000 men now surrounded in the Hornet’s Nest.

On the morning of April seventh, General Buell made a feeble attempt to reverse the tide of battle. Given the hours of darkness to entrench and with our artillery corps more than doubled with the addition of abandoned Union cannon our men, though weary from their exertions of the day before, easily repulsed General Buell’s half hearted efforts and the Army of the Ohio began a demoralizing retreat back to Nashville.

In the furor that followed Shiloh, General Grant’s superior, General Halleck, who had never liked General Grant and resented his previous success, took the opportunity to relieve him for incompetence. Reassigned to the Indian Territories General Grant succumbed to the vice that had afflicted him off and on for years and died a broken man in 1873. Many in the Union Army had thought Sherman touched, if not downright crazy, prior to Shiloh. In their opinion Shiloh confirmed that judgment in spite of much evidence of quick thinking and commendable bravery on his part during the battle. Facts count for nothing when the army needs a scapegoat however and bonds of friendship dissolve quickly when there is blame to be assigned. Following a hastily convened and suspiciously expeditious Courts Martial General Sherman was dismissed from the Army. General Sherman spent his remaining days attempting vainly to overturn the verdict of that court and thereby restore his reputation. He died a penniless and bitter man in 1888.

The Western Theater stagnated after Shiloh. In the East Bobby Lee continued to whip every fool President Lincoln sent against him. Oh it is true that General Meade put paid to Lee’s invasion of the North at Gettysburg but it is also true that Lee repaid that one blemish on his military record many times over when General Meade attempted yet another march on Richmond the following year. In what is called his “perfect battle” Lee annihilated the Army of the Potomac during the Wilderness Campaign of May 1864. Sickened by four years of war with no end in sight, disheartened by ever longer casualty lists published daily in local newspapers for no visible gain, reminded constantly of the human toll by the maimed soldiers convalescing in every Northern town, a war weary public turned its back on Lincoln in the election of 1864 giving his Democratic opponent, General McClellan, the presidency on November eighth. The aggrieved and resentful General, a vociferous and caustic detractor of the President since early in the war, took unseemly pride in finally besting Lincoln, the man he referred to as “nothing more than a well meaning baboon…a gorilla…unworthy of his high position”. To restore his tarnished military reputation General McClellan was inclined to continue the war. Bowing to the Copperhead element of the Democratic Party and public sentiment however, President McClellan accepted Queen Victoria’s offer to mediate on behalf of her former subjects and entered into negotiations with President Davis shortly after inauguration. Secretary of State William H. Seward and his Confederate counterpart Judah P. Benjamin agreed to an armistice beginning 21 February 1865. Increasingly apprehensive regarding the actions of Napoleon III in Mexico, President McClellan and President Davis signed the Treaty of Quebec on 12 April 1865, the fourth anniversary of the most tragic, most costly and most deadly war in Union or Confederate history.

Now as we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the War of Secession and my seventy-eighth birthday Europe is engulfed in war and I wonder how long it will be before the United States and the Confederate States are dragged into the carnage and on whose side. Can we put aside the differences that have plagued our two nations for the last half-century? And what of my children? What will become of them should blood spill on American soil once again? Oh, I cannot complain. As far back as I can remember Master Albert always treated me well. In my youth he saw in me something more than a field hand and, in defiance of the conventions of the times, ensured I was well schooled so that I could serve as his secretary. When the war came he took me along not as his cook or personal servant but as his orderly to keep his journal, write dispatches and transcribe letters. Despite the disapproving remarks of some he later made me his aide, entrusting me with increasingly important duties.   I sincerely believe many of his staff came to respect me in spite of my color and their prejudices. I know the General respected me for his actions and demeanor toward me made that clear. I certainly respected the General. He was a decent and honorable man. After the war I served as tutor to his children, grand children and great grandchildren. He, in turn, always treated me and mine fairly, honestly and with dignity. I do worry however about my children when I am gone though, especially if war should come again.

Once he showed me the scar on his leg and recounted how close the hand of death came that bloody day so long ago at Shiloh. Shortly before he passed he talked with me about the fortunes of war and how what he called the iron dice of battle favor first one man and then arbitrarily roll for another; gilding a man’s reputation one moment, destroying it the next.   He told me of how luck or fate sometimes play as much a part in life as skill or determination. He spoke of how campaigns often hinge on the smallest details, sometimes even trivial things, like rain and mud and personalities and misunderstood orders. Momma would shake her head and laugh, but as my time draws nigh I think about those things the General shared with me and I cannot help but wonder but for one stray bullet what might have been and what it would have been like to live a free man in a united nation.



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