It happened under a tree in the rain…
…my favourite moment between General Grant and General Sherman, that is. Yes, it happened under a tree in the rain after the first day of the Battle of Shiloh. Oh, and just to warn you, this post contains profanity.
Civil War BFF’s. If I had to pick between the two though, I’m Team Sherman….
I’ve always been fascinated by the friendship between Grant and Sherman. From Shiloh to the end of the war, they were BFF’s. Sadly, their friendship did not remain as strong after the war and I believe this is mainly to do from Grant’s time as President (I’m not laying the blame solely on Grant but I think he did a few things that pissed Sherman off). During the Civil War, however, they had quite the friendship. One can gather this from how they spoke of each other.
Speaking of Grant, Sherman said “he stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk and now sir, we stand by each other always”. And vice-versa, Grant wrote to his father, “I know him well as one of the greatest and best of men. He is poor and always will be, but he is great and magnanimous”. The bond that was forged quickly at the Battle of Shiloh would carry through the war. Taking place 10 months into the war, Flood states that “the relationship as superior [Grant] and subordinate [Sherman] began when they moved towards Shiloh” (Flood 4). It was here Grant and Sherman were brought together on the field, taking “each other’s measure under fire and [beginning] two years of successful cooperation and friendship” (Flood 4). It has been argued by many that it was this friendship that was a huge factor in the Union victory. Robert L. O’Connell, author of the very awesome Sherman biography “Fierce Patriot” states that “it was this alliance that eventually won the Civil War in the field” (O’Connell 94). There is a even a book devoted to their friendship, “Grant & Sherman: The Friendship That Won The Civil War” by Charles Bracelen Flood (I’m currently reading it and it’s quite good so far!).
It just so happens that today marks the 154th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of Shiloh. This is when my favourite Grant-Sherman moment happened.
A little about Shiloh…
The Union side was led by Grant and Don Carlos Buell. Sherman, along with Stephen Hurl, Benjamin Prentis, John McClernand & Lew Wallace (side note: Heard of the book “Ben Hur”? This guy is the author. Spoiler alert: he makes it through the war. Also, he got a little held up on his way to Shiloh and wasn’t there until the end of the day) are also there. Leading on the Confederate side, there is Albert Sidney Johnston (the south’s oldest general at 58 years of age),& P.G.T Beauregard (herein known simply as “Beau”). Braxton Bragg, Leonidas K. Polk, John C. Breckinridge and William J. Hardee were also there.
The battle was named after a church that was at the top of a hill nearly at the center of the Union line. It is also called the Battle of Pittsburg Landing. Shiloh is located in the far southwestern corner of Tennessee close to the Mississippi border. The eastern boundary of the battlefield was the Tennessee River. To the west, the boundary was the Owl and Snake creeks. The site had lots of forest with ridges, deep ravines, swaps and there were very few cleared areas. In other words, it was a shitty place for a battle (but nothing is perfect, especially in war. Grant and Johnston didn’t get together prior to the battle and have a discussion like this: “You know, man, this is a shitty place to fight a battle” “I know, dude, like look at a these frickin’ trees, ravines and damn swamps. There’s maybe what, like 40 acres of cleared land?” “Yup. Shitty place. Let’s find somewhere better to kick each other’s asses” “Yeah, that sounds good”). Even the best generals would struggle to control troops on this terrain. And struggle they did, on both sides, but especially the Union side on the first day.
It was a violent, bloody battle and those that fought had difficulty describing it: “I cannot bring myself to tell you of the things I saw yesterday” (Shiloh 15). It is described “as the first great and terrible battle of the Civil War”, setting the stage for what was to follow (Shiloh 15). Sherman states it was a battle that “began with extreme fury” (Sherman 213) and that what he witnessed “would have cured anybody of war”(from a letter Sherman wrote to his wife Ellen).
The battle began with a surprise attack on the Union troops, which Sherman was witness to:
“Shortly after 7am, with my entire staff, I rode along a portion of our front, and when in the open field before Appler’s regiment, the enemy’s pickets opened a brisk fire upon my party, killing my orderly, Thomas D. Holliday, of Company H, Second Illinois Cavalry. The fire came from the bushes which line a small stream that rises in the field in front of Appler’s camp, and flows to the north along my whole front” (Sherman’s Memoirs)
Despite the surprise attack, Sherman, and the rest of the Union army, held their own on that first day. Yes, they did get driven back from where they started but they did not lose the battle. O’Connell argues that it was Prentiss who saved the day, by getting his men into shelter along a sunken lane and turning it into what the Confederates called, with no affection whatsoever, a hornet’s nest (O’Connell 99). While Prentiss did end up surrendering, with Beau getting 2200 men from this, what he did helped the Union to hold their own even while the Confederates pounded them with their artillery, driving them further back.
The Confederates had bad luck of their own though. In mid-afternoon, General Albert Sidney Johnston, struck by a musket ball that severed the artery in his leg, died.This left Beau to take over command. While he tried his best to keep the news from the men eventually word got around that Johnston had died(Flood 111). Upon seeing his tired troops (who were no doubt also demoralized too at losing their commander), Beau decided that maybe, just maybe, he should call it a day. Grant was thinking along the same lines as him (O’Connell 100). The end of day 1 looked like this:
That night, Beau ended up sleeping in Sherman’s tent since he had captured where Sherman had been that morning (Flood 113). I’m picturing Sherman just seething at this. At 10pm, just to add insult to injury, mainly for the Union at this point because…NO TENTS…it starts to rain.
It is at this time, General Grant is riding around his own camp. His troops were sleeping in the rain without shelter. He could hear agonized moans from the wounded (Flood 113).
Sherman paints a bit of prettier picture in his official account of the battle:
“It rained hard during the night, but our men were in good spirits, lay on their arms, being satisfied with such bread and meat as could be gathered at the neighboring camps, and determined to redeem on Monday the losses of Sunday” (Sherman’s Memoirs).
Really, you probably aren’t going to say “it was a really crappy night, it was f&*^ing raining, and a damn rebel general is sleeping in my f&*^ing tent”. Nope, you have to be official. And official Sherman was.
To top it off with the rain, Grant had a sore, swollen ankle that was result of the fall from a horse the Friday before the battle. His ankle was swollen, bruised and painful to the point where he knew he wouldn’t be able to rest (Grant’s Memoirs). Did I mention it is f&*^ing raining? Grant went back to a log house for shelter. It was being used a make-shift hospital to treat the wounded. He found the site “more unendurable than encountering the enemy’s fire, and I returned to my tree in the rain” (Grant’s Memoirs).
This is where my favourite Grant-Sherman moment happens. Under the tree. In the rain…
Sherman, his arm in a sling and hand sore from a buckshot wound (O’Connell 100), wanders over to where Grant is. What Sherman does not mention in his official report is that, at this point, he is ready to retreat. He doesn’t think they should fight the next day. And he’s about to tell Grant his plan for retreat (O’Connell 100). He thought it best to put the river between them and the enemy in order to recuperate (Flood 114). Both men know how high the casualties are going to be from the day. Of the 40,000 Union soldiers who had started the day, 10,00 would be listed as wounded, killed or missing. He sees Grant there standing under the tree, a lantern in one hand, supporting himself on a crutch, rain dripping down the brim of his hat and cigar clenched in his teeth. In seeing Grant there, Sherman decided to shut-up and not say a thing about the retreat.
Instead, he says to Grant: “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day of it, haven’t we?”. To which Grant replies “Yes. Lick’em tomorrow though”. O’Connell says at this point “Sherman rose to the occasion. The chatterbox shut himself down, bit the proverbial bullet, and got ready for the next day’s attack” (O’Connell 100). And that exchange between the two men is my favourite Grant-Sherman moment. I don’t know why. It just is. Just something about it. Perhaps because Shiloh was such an important battle for them both and it was the beginning of their friendship. A friendship that ultimately had a strong role in the Union victory.
They fought the next day, with the Beau and his Confederate Army finally retreating mid-afternoon. It was actually Beau’s chief of staff who hinted that maybe they should GTF out and gave a good analogy on the state of things (O’Connell 101):
Do you not think our troops are very much in the condition of a lump of sugar thoroughly soaked with water, yet preserving its original shape, though ready to dissolve? Would it not be judicious to get away with what we have?
Beau listened, taking the army back towards Corinth. This is a map of the second day, April 7, 1862:
The two day battle at Shiloh produced more than 23,000 casualties, ended as a stalemate and was the bloodiest battle in American history at its time.The Civil War Trust gives quite a good summary of the battle here.
Flood, Bracelen Charles. “Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won The Civil War”. New York: Harper Collins, 2005.
Groom, Winston. “Shiloh 1862”. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2013.
O’Connell, Robert L. “Fierece Patriot: The Tangled Lives Of William Tecumseh Sherman”. New York: Random House, 2014.
I also used the Memoirs of both General Grant and General Sherman