Surprised at Shiloh? Hell no, said Sherman.

Updated: Nov 22, 2020

The “Other” Sherman-Stanton Controversy[1]

By Daniel A. Masters



In the summer of 1862, Major General William Tecumseh Sherman and Lieutenant Governor Benjamin Stanton of Ohio engaged in a heated exchange of letters concerning Stanton’s public statements to the effect that the Federal army at Shiloh was surprised due to the negligence of its commanding officers. Stanton stated that the soldiers of the army held General Ulysses S. Grant and General Benjamin Prentiss responsible for this surprise, charging Grant with “blundering stupidity and negligence” and, moreover said that “the general feeling amongst the most intelligent men with whom I conversed is that they ought to be court martialed and shot.” Sherman hotly fired back, declaring that Stanton’s charges were “all false, false in general, false in every particular.” He defended Grant and the army high command, laying the blame for the trouble squarely at the feet of the raw volunteer troops and the political leaders who defended their cowardice, then lampooned Stanton as a libeler and slanderer. As Sherman’s and Stanton’s exchanges ceased, Sherman’s father-in-law, the politically powerful Thomas Ewing, took up where Sherman left off, publishing a pamphlet defending Sherman’s version of events and denouncing Stanton. Likewise, Stanton published a pamphlet a month later in attempt to defend his actions and his reputation.


Years later, Sherman mentioned the incident in his memoirs but dismissed the correspondence as “too personal to revive,” claiming that Stanton “often regretted his mistake in attempting to gain popular fame by abusing army leaders, then as now an easy and favorite mode of gaining notoriety, if not popularity.” But Sherman’s breezy dismissal of this unsavory episode of his military career glosses over the other key issue that the correspondence brought before public attention at the time: that of the oftentimes strained relationship between West Point-trained officers and the volunteer armies that they led in the field. The correspondence is significant in that it illustrates the interplay of politics, morale, and discipline, versus the wider effort of defeating the Confederacy.[2]


The first detailed account of Shiloh appeared on the front page of the April 14th edition of the Chicago Tribune as witnessed by a Chicago volunteer named Frank W. Reilly. Reilly served as the assistant surgeon of the 45th Illinois Infantry and had arrived for duty just days before the battle. He was less than impressed with what he saw of General Sherman. Referring to the evening of April 5th, Reilly stated that “General Grant had issued his orders to Gen. Sherman not to 'bring on an attack' and that officer added to his eccentricities by strict obedience, most pacifically calling in his pickets and going to bed early with that sweet consciousness of fidelity which is the best reward of obedience,” this despite the fact that the Rebel army was so close to the Federal camps that “in the night air the ring of a ramrod might almost have been heard. “ Reilly reminded readers that “Sherman is the officer who professed to need 100,000 men to reduce Kentucky,” a call that led some to publicly wonder that Sherman was crazy. “The proofs are thickening that that number is far too many to entrust to General Sherman.” [3]


The correspondent of the Cincinnati Times reported that in the days leading up to the battle, the general opinion of Federal officers was that the Confederates intended to fight a defensive campaign, and that belief guided their inaction in taking appropriate defensive measures. “Under these circumstances, matters have gone on rather loosely for a few days past on our side, our commanders feeling confident that even Secession audacity would never dare to assert an opposition in the open field,” he wrote. Despite the testimony of a Rebel prisoner who assured his captors that there would be an attack on Sunday, “no extra measures were adopted to guard against surprise or allow the troops to prepare for themselves a defense in case such an attack was made.” The correspondent averred that this lackadaisical attitude stretched to picket duty as well, commenting that “it has been known for some days past that proper attention has not been made to the placing of the pickets a sufficient distance from our front lines to ensure against surprise, and in some cases have been neglected altogether.” [4]

Whitelaw Reid of the Cincinnati Gazette [5] expounded on this theme of unpreparedness in the Federal camps as he described the initial shock of the Confederate attack upon Buckland's brigade of Sherman's division:

Almost at dawn, Sherman's pickets were driven in, a very little later, Prentiss's were; and the enemy were into the camps almost as soon as were the pickets themselves. Here began scenes which, let us hope, will have no parallel in the remaining annals of the war. Many, particularly the officers, were not yet out of bed. Others were dressing, others washing, others cooking, a few eating their breakfast. Many guns were unloaded, accoutrements lying pell-mell, ammunition was ill supplied- in short, the camps were completely surprised- disgracefully might be added, unless someone can hereafter give some yet undiscovered reason to the contrary.”

The wild cries from pickets rushing in and the few scattering shots that preceded their arrival aroused the regiments to a sense of their peril; an instant afterwards, rattling volleys of musketry poured through the tents, while before there was time for thought of preparation, there came rushing through the woods with lines of battle sweeping the whole fronts of division camps and bending down on either flank, the fine, dashing, compact columns of the enemy. Into the just aroused camps thronged the Rebel regiments, firing sharp volleys as they came and springing forward upon our laggards with the bayonet, for while their artillery already in position, was tossing shells to the further side of the encampments, scores were shot down as they were running, without weapons, hatless, coatless, toward the river. The searching bullets found other poor unfortunates in their tents, and there, all unheeding now, still they slumbered, while the unseen foe rushed on. Others fell, as they were disentangling themselves from the flaps that formed the doors to their tents; others as they were buckling on their accoutrements others as they were trying to impress on the cruelly exultant enemy their desire to surrender. Officers were bayonetted in their beds and left for dead. Such were the fearful disasters that opened the Rebel onset on the lines of Buckland's brigade of Sherman's division.” [6]

Following the battle, several Northern states sent delegations of doctors, nurses, and sanitary commission workers to Pittsburg Landing to assist the army in treating the thousands of wounded men. Rev. Robert Collyer led the Chicago delegation, circulated amongst the wounded of his state, and recorded his impressions in a letter published in the Chicago Tribune. “First, all who said anything about it, said that the fatal surprise of Sunday morning was the result of unpardonable negligence on the part of the commanders. The men themselves knew that the woods all about them were swarming with the enemy, but there was no effort made to get a clear knowledge of the real condition of things, and not even a picket guard sent out until perhaps Saturday, and that this knowledge of a certain danger near them made the men feel unsteady and unstrung.” Collyer also stated that many of the men stated that the battle Sunday was “badly managed” and the men “were outflanked every time.” One soldier stated that “we did run away; we won't deny it. We got under the bank and wouldn't come out. Why? Because it was no use. If a man gives his life, he wants to get the worth of it.” [7]

The widely circulated reports that several Ohio regiments had fled at the first fire hit the press starting on April 12th, based on a dispatch from Cairo dated Friday April 11th. “The attack commenced about daybreak Sunday morning. Taylor's Battery and Waterhouse's Battery (both Illinois units) opened the fight, supported by the 23rd Illinois on the right, the 77th Ohio supporting the left of Taylor's and the 53rd Ohio supporting the left of Waterhouse's. These regiments belonged to Sherman's division, occupying the extreme right. Both of the Ohio regiments ran- the 77th without firing a gun- leaving Waterhouse without support.” [8] The Tribune mourned that “we would that we could be spared the pain of recording the shame of some of the Ohio regiments who ran at the first fire or without a shot,” adding that “one of these regiments rushed down helter-skelter to the river and took possession of a steamer in waiting for the wounded, nor could they be dispossessed.” [9]

The correspondent of the Cincinnati Gazette noted that “some of the regiments ran without firing a gun. Col. Appler's 53rd Ohio is loudly complained of in this score, and others are mentioned.”[10] A few days later, in a short article praising the actions of Captain Waterhouse's Illinois artillery battery at Shiloh, the Chicago Tribune again castigated the 53rd and 77th Ohio regiments, stating that upon the first fire, both regiments “cut and run like so many sheep. Capt. Waterhouse nobly stood the fire of the enemy for over 40 minutes after being completely deserted by his support.” [11] The Daily Ohio Statesman, quoting a report from the Chicago Times, reported that “when the attack was first made, the 53rd, 57th, 71st, and 77th Ohio regiments displayed inexcusable inefficiency. The latter fled without firing a gun; the others fired one or two rounds then fled. The cowardice of these regiments left the point undefended and the enemy immediately closed in and surrounded the more advanced regiments.” [12] The Gazette writer excused their actions by stating that these regiments were “raw troops, just from the usual idleness of our 'camps of instruction.' Hundreds of them never heard a gun fired in anger; their officers, for the most part, were equally inexperienced; they had been reposing in fancied security and were awakened by the stunning roar of cannon in their midst and the bursting of bomb shells among their tents. Certainly, it is sad enough but hardly surprising, that under such circumstances, some should run.” [13]

State pride entered into the narrative as the Columbus Journal offered that the reports that these Ohio regiments ran was a “most unfounded falsehood” perpetrated by “the correspondent of the Chicago Tribune, and which was made up by that individual no nearer the battlefield than Cairo.” Quoting Lieutenant L. Starling Sullivant,[14] a regular army officer with the Ordnance Department who witnessed some of the battle, the Journal suggested that while the “53rd, 57th and 77th regiments did fall back hastily,” it did no different than troops from other states including Illinois. “The same 'panic' which caused the Ohio regiments to 'flee in disorder' caused some of the gallant friends of the Chicago Tribune's correspondent to leave in an equally hasty manner. So much for that attempt to disparage the bravery and patriotism of our gallant Ohio boys.” [15]

But local newspapers in Ohio, eager to absolve their friends and neighbors of culpability, added fuel to the narrative that Grant’s army was surprised by blaming the commanding officer of the army for the results. “The surprise of our army at Pittsburg seems to have been complete, and although by two days of the most desperate fighting and the timely arrival of General Buell’s division, the enemy was repulsed, the blood of thousands of brave and loyal men paid the fearful penalty of official negligence,” opined the Republican leaning Cleveland Morning Leader. “Who is responsible for the blunder is a question to be decided after an investigation by the Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War.” But the Leader, circumventing the process just proposed, condemned Grant in the court of public opinion and proffered that it was ultimately Grant’s responsibility. It also darkly touched on rumors of Grant’s drunkenness by stating that while “Grant is a brave and patriotic soldier, he is unfortunately cursed with personal habits calculated to impair the efficiency of his conduct.” [16]

Joseph Medill of the Chicago Tribune opined that “the evidence that the surprise was as complete as it proved to be effective is so unanimous and overwhelming that we can discredit it no longer.” Compiling a list of perceived sins on the battlefield gleaned from previously published accounts, the Tribune stated that “these are points that demand investigation; and we hope that, strike where the blow may, the man at whose door the responsibility will be laid will not be suffered to escape.” However, Medill cautioned against this quick judgment against Grant, and said “we will withhold all censure from Gen. Grant and for him, as the commander to whom the blame would first and most naturally be attributed, we ask for a suspension of judgment until the facts are known. We know not what orders he was under from his superiors, not what faults and disobediences his subordinates at the heads of divisions and regiments may have committed. But for somebody, there is a reckoning which ought not be deferred.” [17]

The widespread editorial criticism of Grant ultimately reached the White House where Lincoln himself asked Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to investigate. In a telegraph to Major General Henry W. Halleck, Stanton inquired “whether any neglect or misconduct of General Grant or any other officer contributed to the sad casualties that befell our forces on Sunday.” Halleck made an inquiry that ultimately absolved Grant of responsibility, blaming instead the raw volunteers and their neophyte regimental officers. One of Grant's staff members wrote of Halleck that “the conduct of the battle and all the details meet his entire approbation.” Grant also dismissed the rumors that he had started drinking again, writing in a letter to his wife that he was “sober as a deacon no matter what is said to the contrary.” [18] Sherman's caustic appraisal of this investigation is worth noting. “President Lincoln telegraphed to know who was the cause of the surprise and dreadful slaughter at Pittsburg Landing- Halleck answered that he thought the Confederate officers and soldiers were to blame and were the cause of the slaughter. So I hope old Abe will order Beauregard and Bragg to be court martialed for their cruelty in shooting bullets at us in the indiscriminate manner they did.”[19]


In Sherman’s first letter to his wife Ellen following the battle, he lamented the behavior of some of his troops. “My troops were very raw and some regiments broke at the first fire,” he related. “Others behaved better and I managed to keep enough all the time to form a command and was the first to get back to our front line. My division had about 8,000 men, at least half ran away and out of the remaining half, I have 302 soldiers, 16 officers killed and over 1,200 wounded.” In a later letter, he returned to this theme of disappointment with his volunteer troops. “The only difficulty is that hundreds and thousands of men are tired of the war and, satisfied with what they have seen, have taken advantage of slight wounds and gone home. As usual, the noisy clamorous ones ‘spiling’ for a fight have gone home to tell of their terrible deeds and left others to bear the battle still to be fought. How few know the dangers attending this war. The very men who were most clamorous for a fight were the first to run, and leave a few to stand the brunt of Sunday. ”[20] To his brother in law Charles Ewing, Sherman relayed that “we have had here the same games that were attempted at Bull Run- men run away, won't obey their officers, won't listen to the threats, remonstrances, and prayers of their superiors, but after the danger is past, they raise false issues to cover their infamy.” [21]

The arrival of the Cincinnati and Chicago newspapers in late April, rife with their tales of surprise and disaster, touched a raw nerve in Sherman. “The newspapers came back to us with accounts of our battle of the 6 & 7 as usual made by people who ran away and had to excuse their cowardice by charging bad management on the part of the leaders” he wrote his brother Ohio Senator John Sherman.[22] In subsequent letters to his family, Sherman complained that “the hue and cry against Grant about surprise is wrong. I was not surprised and I was in advance. It is outrageous for the cowardly newsmongers thus to defame men whose lives are exposed. The real truth is, the private soldiers in battle leave their ranks, run away, and then raise these false issues. The political leaders dare not lay the blame where it belongs. They, like the volunteer officers, are afraid of the men.” He stated that the “story of men being bayonetted in their tents is a pure lie” and averred that men who had not gotten dressed by 7:45 in the morning, more than two hours after reveille, “deserved to be bayonetted. It is all a lie got up by the cowards who ran to the river and reported we were surprised and all killed. By their false reports, they may have prevented success coming to us earlier than it did.” [23]

Sherman’s ire against the newspaper reports continued to fester, and he complained to his father in law Thomas Ewing on April 27 that “if the newspapers are to be our government, I confess I would prefer Bragg, Beauregard, or anybody as my ruler and I will persist in my determination never to be a leader responsible to such a power.”[24] Sherman railed against newspaper reporters, stating that they were “the most contemptible race of men that exist, cowards, cringing, hanging around, and gathering their material out of the most polluted sources.”[25] Sherman also commented to his wife that “I am sometimes amused at these newspaper reporters. They keep shy of me as I have said the first one I catch I will hang as a spy. It would afford me pleasure to hang one or two.”[26] Writing his brother John, the general grumped that “I am out of all patience that our people prefer to believe the horrid stories of butchery, ridiculous in themselves, gotten up by cowards to cover their shame than the plain natural reports of officers.” The well-connected senator recommended that his brother find a way to “get along.”[27]

Once General Halleck took command of the two Federal armies that had won the battle of Shiloh, he embarked upon a slow and methodical advance to destroy the remainder of the Confederate army at Corinth. Halleck gave Grant a nominal promotion to second in command of this army, but Grant was allowed to exercise very little direct authority and likened the arrangement to being under arrest. This gave Grant time to brood on the ill treatment he had received from the press, and the more he brooded, the more discouraged he became. “I have been so shockingly abused that I sometimes think it almost time to defend myself,” he wrote his wife during this time. “It has been my good fortune to render some service to the cause and my very bad luck to have attracted the attention of the newspaper scribblers,” he wrote in another missive to a friend in Galena, Illinois. Matters were not helped when Grant's father Jesse provided private letters from his son and one of his staff officers, William S. Hillyer, to the Cincinnati newspapers in a ham-handed attempt to quell some of the criticism. “Writing to Jesse was a mistake,” commented Grant biographer Brooks Simpson. “Readers might scoff at the general's unsupported assertion that he had the 'confidence of every brave man in my command;' they rejected the notion that only cowards were critics. Hillyer claimed there was a conspiracy to besmirch Grant's name. As it was, what did appear sparked more criticism.” [28]

Sherman was appalled by the effect of the public slanders on his friend Grant and placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of “the scoundrels who fled and left about half their number to do their work have succeeded in establishing the story of surprise. They were surprised, astonished, and disgusted at the utter want of respect for life on the part of the Confederates, whom they have been taught to regards as inferior to them.” These men had to “cast about for a legitimate excuse and the cheapest one was to accuse their officers.” Sherman stated that these men “are entitled to no delicacy from me.”[29]

Sherman, despite his oft quoted dismissal of the press and politicians in general, remained sensitive to their workings and to the potential effect bad press could have on political support back home and in Washington. Grant's initial report of Shiloh did much to shield Sherman from undue criticism, and Sherman was “forever thankful that Grant did not try to divert the flood of criticism directed at him” towards Sherman or the other divisional commanders. As such, Sherman seized the first opportunity to “take up the cudgels” in defense of his friend and fellow Ohioan. Upon the evacuation of Corinth in early June, Halleck dispersed his grand army, placing Grant back in command of his old army, and also giving him command of the district of western Tennessee with headquarters at Memphis. In the meantime, Sherman had been promoted to Major General in May upon the heels of Halleck’s recommendation that Sherman’s actions on April 6th were instrumental in saving the fortunes of the army at Shiloh. As it was clear that Grant was now officially 'off the hook,' Sherman decided that it was time to settle accounts with the 'newspaper scribblers' who had caused so much trouble with their reckless reporting. His primary target was not Joseph Medill of the Chicago Tribune or even any member of the press. Sherman chose Ohio's Lieutenant Governor Benjamin Stanton. [30]

Sherman’s first letter to Stanton

The 53-year-old Stanton, a noted attorney from Bellefontaine, had served four terms in Congress (1851-53, 1855-61) as a member of the Whig and later Republican parties before he was elected as Ohio's lieutenant governor on the Republican ticket in 1861. Stanton had served as chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs while in Congress, and had been selected by Governor David Tod to head the delegation of Ohioans who rushed to Pittsburg Landing following the battle to lend aid to the state's wounded soldiers.[31] Stanton spent two days at Pittsburgh Landing, then wrote a letter to his hometown newspaper, the Mac-A-Cheek Press of Bellefontaine, that stated that there was an “intense feeling of indignation against Generals Grant and Prentiss, and the general feeling amongst the most intelligent men with whom I conversed is that they (Grant and Prentiss) ought to be court martialed and shot.” Sherman became aware of this publication in early May and by May 23rd wrote his wife that he had discussed Stanton's comments with Generals Grant and Hurlbut and said “they will gladly accept the quarrel with this demagogue. He came and went away quick, before danger could possibly arise-such are the men who disgrace Ohio.” [32]

Sherman's published response to Stanton was a toned-down version from the original that he sent to his family for evaluation in May. “I have received yours and Phil's letters about mine to Stanton and have modified it to be less belligerent and more in accordance with your father's views,” Sherman wrote his wife on June 10. “The more I think of it the more angry I become that a man in high office should so abuse his position and opportunities as to injure us who at the least are doing our best. He is a coward and a rascal and I hope my letter will be published and let him digest it.”[33] Upon receipt of Sherman's revised letter, his wife shared it with her father and brothers who offered wholehearted support. “Father says I must send your letter to editors in every direction,” she wrote.[34] As Sherman hoped, his letter received wide publication across Ohio, particularly in Democratic newspapers who praised it for its forthright style and eloquent denunciation of one of their longtime political opponents. [35]

Camp in the field, Chewalla, Tennessee

June 10, 1862

Lieut. Gov. B Stanton, Columbus,

Sir:

I am not surprised when anonymous scribblers write and publish falsehoods or make criticisms on matters of which they are incapable of comprehending. It is their trade. They live by it. Slander gives point and piquancy to a paragraph, and the writer, being irresponsible or beneath notice, escapes a merited punishment. It is different with men in high official station who, like you, descend to the dirty work. You had an opportunity to learn the truth, for I saw you myself at Shiloh soon after the battle and know that hundreds would have aided you in your work had you been in search of facts. You never inquired of me the truth of events which you must have known transpired in my sight and hearing but seemed to have preferred the ‘camp stories’ to authentic data within your reach.

A friend, by mere accident, has shown me a slip of newspaper dated April 19th, 1862, styled ‘Extra’ published at Bellefontaine, Ohio and signed B. Stanton. I am further told you are the man. If so, and you be the Lieutenant Governor of Ohio, I hold that you are my peer and that of Generals Grant, Hurlbut, and Prentiss, all of whom you directly charge with conduct on the field of Shiloh which deserves a court martial, whose sentence, if you have not borne false witness, would be degradation or death. The accusatory part of your statement is all false, false in general, false in every particular, and I repeat you could not have failed to know it false when you published that statement. To prove what I say, I now quote the concluding part of your paper:

‘Some complaints have been made about the conduct of a few of the new regiments in this battle, including the 54th and 57th. It must be remembered that these are new regiments- that not only have they never seen any service, but that they never received their guns until they arrived on the Tennessee River, two or three weeks before the battle. So with Myers’ battery.[36] It has not been more than six weeks since they have had their horses. And yet these regiments and this battery were put on the extreme outside of our camp and were consequently first exposed to the enemy’s fire. And to this that our lines were so carelessly and negligently guarded that the enemy were almost on us in our very tents before the officers in command were aware of their approach. The wonder therefore is, not that these regiments were finally broken and routed, but that they made any stand at all. But the loss sustained by these regiments, especially by Capt. Starr’s company in the 54th, shows that they made a gallant and noble stand, and that the ultimate retreat was not the fault of the men, but of the blundering stupidity and negligence of the general in command. There is an intense feeling of indignation against Generals Grant and Prentiss, and the general feeling amongst the most intelligent men with whom I conversed is that they ought to be court martialed and shot.’ Yours & c., B. Stanton

With Myers’ battery, I have nothing to do as it was in General Hurlbut’s division, who has made his official report, which proves yours untrue; for instead of being kept on the ‘extreme outside of the camp,’ it was at the beginning of the battle more than a mile to the rear of mine and McClernand’s and Prentiss’ divisions. The 54th, Colonel T. Kilby Smith and 57th, Colonel William Mungen, did form a part of my command. No one that I ever heard has questioned the courage and gallantry of the 54th, unless it be inferred from your own apology for them, and I know that I speak the mind of the officers of that regiment when I say they scorn to have their merits bolstered up by your lame and impotent conclusions. As to their being on the outer line, it was where they wished to be, and so far from being surprised, they were, by my orders, under arms at daylight and it was near 10 a.m. before the enemy assailed their position. This position was so favorable that Colonel Stuart, with his small brigade of which the 54th formed a part, held at bay for hours Hardee’s whole division, composed on infantry, artillery, and cavalry.

The 57th was posted on the left of Shiloh, which I say and in which Beauregard concurs with me, was the key to the whole position. It was in the very front, the place of honor, to which Col. Mungen or his men could not object. Their front was guarded by themselves, and if negligence is justly charged, it belongs to the regiment itself. So favorable was the ground, that although the regiment lost but two officers and seven men, Col. Mungen has more than once assured me that he counted fifty dead secessionists on the ground over which he was attacked. As to the enemy being in their very camp before the officers were aware of their approach, it is the most wicked falsehood that was ever attempted to be thrust upon a people sad and heart sore and the terrible but necessary casualties of war. That the cowards who deserted their comrades in that hour of danger should in their desperate strait to cover up their infamy invent such a story was to be expected; but that you should have lent yourself as a willing instrument to perpetuating that falsehood is a shame from which you can never hope to recover. [37]

The truth is now well understood. For days we knew the enemy was in our front, but the nature of the ground and his superior strength in cavalry prevented us from breaking through their veil of approach to ascertain their true strength and purpose. But as soldiers, we were prepared at all times to receive an attack and even to make one if circumstances warranted it. On that morning, our pickets had been driven in. Our main guards were forced back the small valley in our front. All our regiments of infantry, batteries of artillery, and squadrons of cavalry were prepared. I myself, their commander, was fully prepared, rode along lines of this very regiment, and saw it in position in front of their camp, and looking to a narrow causeway across the small creek by which the enemy was expected and did approach. After passing this regiment, I rode on to Appler’s position[38] and beyond some five hundred yards where I was fired on and my orderly, Thos. D. Holliday[39], was killed. Even after that, I gave some directions about Waterhouse’s battery and again returned to Shiloh in time to witness the attack there. It is simply ridiculous to talk about surprise. To be sure, very many were astonished and surprised, not so much at the enemy’s coming but at the manner of his coming, and these sought safety at the river and could not be prevailed to recover from their surprise until the enemy had been driven away by their comrades after two days of hard fighting. I have never made a question of the individual bravery of this or any other regiment, but merely state facts. The regiment still belongs to my command and has elicited my praise for its improvement and steadiness in the many skirmishes and affairs on the advance on Corinth. I doubt not the people of Ohio will yet have reason to feel the same pride in this regiment as they now do in many of the same state of deservedly high repute.

As to the intense feeling against Generals Grant and Prentiss- could anything be more base that that? Grant, just fresh from the victory at Donelson, more rich in its fruits than was Saratoga, Yorktown, or any other fought on this continent, is yet held up the people of Ohio, his native state, as one who, in the opinion of the intelligent coward, is worthy to be shot; and Prentiss, now absent and a prisoner, unable to meet your wicked and malicious shafts, also condemned to death. Shame on you and I know I tell you an unpleasant truth which I assure you neither he or nor his men were surprised, butchered in their tents, etc.; but on the contrary, were prepared in time to receive the shock of battle more terrible than any of the annals of American history have heretofore recorded. He met it manfully and well, for hours bore up against the superior host, fell back slowly until he met the reserves under Wallace and Hurlbut, and fought till near 4 p.m. when he was completely enveloped and made prisoner. Well do I remember the line after line of steady troops displaying the bloody banner of the South, and to me the more familiar Pelican flag of Louisiana, bearing down on Prentiss, who was to my left and rear and how, though busy enough with my own appropriate part, I felt for his danger and dispatched my aide Major Sanger[40] to give him notice. My aide found him in advance of his camps fighting well, but the shock was too great and he was borne back step by step till made prisoner, six hours after your surprised informants had sought refuge under the steep banks of the Tennessee.

So much for the history of events you did not behold yet pretend to comment on. You came to Shiloh on a mission of mercy and before a new one arose. You tarried a few days, but I cannot learn from my Ohio colonels how you dispensed your charitable trust. That is none of my business, but I do know that you abused your opportunity and caught up vague, foolish camp rumors from the region of the steamboat landing instead of seeking for truth where alone you did know it could be found; among the thousands of brave Ohio men who were in my camp and who can still boast of never having seen the Tennessee river since the day we disembarked. You then return to your state and in obscure printed slips circulate libels and falsehoods against men whose vocation and distance made it highly improbable that you could ever be held to account. You knew that we were in the presence of a fierce, bold, and determined enemy with hundreds of miles of ambush before us from which a few stray shots would relieve you of your victims. You knew that our men were raw and undisciplined, and that all our time was taken up in organization, drill, and discipline, leaving us no time to meet your malicious slanders and resent your insults. The hour of reckoning seemed, therefore, distant and uncertain. You have had your day, but the retreat of the enemy and a day of comparative rest has given me leisure to write this for your benefit. Grant and Hurlbut and Prentiss still live and will in due season pay their respects also. [41]

If you have no respect for the honor and reputation of the generals who lead the armies of your country, you should have some regard to the honor and welfare of the country itself. If your paper could have had its intended effect of destroying the confidence of the executive, the army, and the people in their generals, it would have produced absolute and utter disorganization. It not only placed courage and cowardice, stubborn and enduring valor and ignominious flight upon the same base, but it holds up to public favor those who deserted their colors and teaches them to add insubordination to their cowardice. Such an army as your military morale would produce could not be commanded by any general who hoped to win reputation or had a reputation to lose. Our whole force, if imbued with your notions, would be driven across the Ohio in less than a month and even you would be disturbed in your quiet study where you now, in perfect safety, write libels against generals who organize our armies and with them fight and win battles for our country.

I am & c.,

W.T. Sherman, Major General of Volunteers [42]

Stanton’s Response to Sherman

While Sherman’s letter received ample republication among Ohio’s newspapers, Stanton’s response to Sherman was reprinted in relatively few, generally those that were Republican leaning. Stanton wrote the letter for publication in the June 25, 1862 edition of the Cincinnati Commercial. The Weekly Lancaster Gazette of Sherman’s hometown also ran Stanton’s reply:

Bellefontaine, Ohio

June 23, 1862

Sir:

Your letter of the 10th, dated ‘Camp in the field near Chewalla, Tennessee’ in manuscript was received on Saturday the 21st inst.

I congratulate you on having at last found one whom you are willing to recognize as your ‘peer,’ and hold responsible for the charge that our army was ‘surprised’ on the field of Shiloh on Sunday morning the 6th of April last. You do me too much honor, however, in assigning to me a higher position than thousands of others, both in and out of the army, who have made the same charge in much more direct and offensive terms than were used in the letter to which you refer. The county in which I reside had six companies of infantry and a battery of artillery in the battle of Shiloh. I availed myself of the opportunity afforded by my visit to the battlefield for the purpose of removing our wounded soldiers, and to inquire into the fate of my neighbors and fellow citizens who were engaged in the battle. The letter to which you refer was written to a weekly newspaper published at the county seat for the purpose of informing the people of the county how their friends fared in that terrible conflict. It reached the publisher the day after the publication of the paper and was published as an extra for the purpose of disseminating the intelligence it contained in advance of the regular publication of the paper. This explains its publication in an extra of an obscure country paper.

After giving the information, which was the main object of the letter, I concluded with remarks which you quote as to the causes of the disasters befell our army in that battle. The same charges, in every form of expression, were made in all the leading newspapers of the country, published by gentlemen of first standing in society, and repeated orally in every tent on the battlefield by men of all ranks, from major generals commanding divisions to privates in the ranks. That you must have seen and heard these charges thousands of times is a matter that cannot admit of doubt. And yet you seem to have submitted to it all with a spirit of Christian forbearance and resignation which is worthy of all praise for more than sixty days; but now, for reasons that are doubtless satisfactory to you and which I have no disposition to call in question, you propose to hold me responsible for their publication in an obscure country paper.

I accept the responsibility and propose to sustain the charge- that the officers in command of the army were guilty of gross negligence and that the army was taken by surprise on the morning of the 6th of April last. In the letter to which you refer, you were not named as one of the officers who were responsible for that surprise. My reason for not naming you was that you were not the commander in chief and that your gallantry and courage in the battle, to a great extent, reclaimed your error in neglecting the precautions necessary to guard against surprise. I will now say, however, that after General Grant, upon whom the responsibility mainly rests, no man is chargeable with a larger share of that responsibility than you.

You complain that I did not inquire of you as to the facts, instead relying upon on camp rumors for my information. You will doubtless recollect that I had never had the honor of your acquaintance until I met you at Gen. McCook’s headquarters on the Sunday after the battle and have never seen you since. You did not then do me the honor to invite me your quarters, or offer me any facilities for procuring such information as you might be in possession of. It also happened that I had many acquaintances on the ground whose opportunities for knowing the true history of that battle were fully equal to yours, and in whose intelligence, integrity, and disinterestedness (emphasis in original), I had quite as much confidence as I had to yours.

To give you an idea of the class of men with whom I conversed, I will say to you that I visited the quarters of Gens. Buell, McClernand and McCook; that I met Gens. Boyle, Garfield and Crittenden, Col. Smith of the 1st Ohio, Parrott, Fyffe of the 20th Ohio, Gibson, Mason, Mungen, Smith of the 84th, Hawkins of the 13th Ohio, Leggett, Connell and others that I do not now recollect. I also saw and conversed with many company officers and privates with whom I was acquainted, many of whom were men of intelligence and character whose statements are entitled to quite as much confidence as the statements of gentlemen who wear shoulder straps and stars. I spent two days upon the battlefield in constant intercourse with men of every grade and rank, from the general commanding to the men in the ranks and I saw but one man who said the attack was not a surprise, and that man was Colonel Leggett of the 78th Ohio. Every other man of the hundreds whose opinions I heard expressed upon the subject said the attack was a surprise that was the result of the gross negligence of the commanding officers.

You charge me with relying on the opinions of fugitives and cowards who took shelter under the banks of the river. Whether any with whom I conversed were of that number, I do not know, but I do know that many of them were at least your equals in intelligence, integrity, and courage, and some of them in rank, and that their statements are entitled to the most explicit confidence. It is very evident from the manner in which you assail me for not coming to you for intelligence instead of obtaining it from men in subordinate positions that you have greatly mistaken your position and the character of the men under your command. You should remember that you are not commanding an army that was recruited at the Five Points and in Mercer Street, New York. “The cankers of a calm world and a long freeze,” and fit only for food and powder, but an army whose rank and file is composed of intelligent and educated farmers and mechanics, who in everything but mere military rank are peers of the generals and colonels by whom they are commanded. They have gone into the military service and placed themselves under your command from motives of the purest patriotism; and while they obey your commands and submit to the indignities which you may heap upon them as your inferiors in rank and position, they are nevertheless capable of comprehending the movements of the army and detecting the blunders of the officers who command them. They are abundantly capable of observing and stating truly acts which come under their observation; and I have no hesitation in giving full credit to their statements.

And now for a few facts. A scar worn veteran from Michigan who was wounded in that battle came up with me in one of the hospital boats which I accompanied to the battlefield. He had a bullet through his leg and his clothes were riddled with grape and canister. He was a man of intelligence, good sense, and undoubted courage. He was in Gen. Prentiss’ division and his regiment, or a considerable portion of it, cut their way through the enemy’s ranks after they were surrounded. He told me the first notice they had of the attack, the enemy was upon them while they were in their tents and that before they were drawn up in order of battle, they were surrounded by the enemy and their retreat cut off. (Emphasis original). [43]

You say, and you say that Gen. Beauregard concurs with you, that the 57th regiment occupied the key to your whole position. As an excuse for putting raw and undisciplined troops in front to receive the first shock of battle, you say ‘it was where they wished to be.’ As to the 57th, you say ‘it was in the very front, the place of honor, to which Col. Mungen and his men could not object. Their front was guarded by themselves, and if negligence is justly charged, it belongs to themselves.’ It is presumed that every regiment in the army desired the post of honor. They could not all have it. Whose business was it then to determine which regiment was best entitled to it? Was it not yours, as commander of the division?

And then you say their front was guarded by themselves, and if there was some negligence it was chargeable to the regiment. And so you considered yourself justifiable as the commander of the very key to our position in putting a perfectly green regiment commanded by a colonel taken from civil life who had not been in the service one month in the post of honor and danger, and suffer him to station his pickets and guard his front according to his judgment of the exigencies of his position. Do you not see that this is a full confession of all, all and more, than I ever charged you with? An assistant surgeon or hospital steward of the 57th, well known to me to be a man of unimpeachable character, told me upon his death bed that so sudden and unexpected was the attack, it was with the utmost difficulty that they were able to hurry their sick into wagons and start them to the landing before their camp was taken by the enemy. [44]

I know the facts which I have stated are denied by the officers in command and they say that our army was drawn up in line of battle before the attack was made and, therefore, they say there was no surprise. As the prosecution of the controversy would probably result in an endless conflict of testimony, I will not pursue it any further at this time. There is, however, facts about which there can be more controversy that establishes the charge of negligence on the part of the officers in command beyond cavil or controversy:

1st. The general in command was ten or twelves miles from the field when the battle commenced, and so incredulous was he to a battle being in progress that he did not arrive on the field until 10 o’clock, when it had been raging for four hours.

2nd. The enemy encamped in full force on Saturday night, previous to the battle, within hearing of our drums and bugles; certainly not more than a mile or a mile and a half from our camps and slept soundly on their arms, without you or any of our commanding officers being aware of the fact. This fact is established by the concurrent testimony of more than fifty wounded prisoners who came up with me on the steamer Magnolia on Monday after the battle. They all regarded the attack as a perfect and complete surprise. (Emphasis original)

3rd. Not a tree was cut down, not a shovelful of earth was thrown up, or a siege gun put in position, or any other preparation to protect us from attack. Did you, as commander of the most exposed position in our army, holding the ‘key to our position,’ expect an attack and not take a single step to guard against it? And what came of your own tents and baggage, General? Did it fall into the hands of the enemy? If you expected an attack, why did you not send it to the rear?

But you say the ‘nature of the ground and the enemy’s superior strength in cavalry prevented us (you) from breaking through the veil of their approach to ascertain their true purpose and strength.’ (Emphasis original) You say of the 54th regiment that, by your orders, it was under arms at daylight. If my recollection of your official report of the battle is not greatly at fault, you say that it was not until 8 o’clock that you believed a serious attack upon our whole force was intended. This was on the 6th of April. The sun rose about twenty minutes before six, it was daylight before five, and the morning was clear and cloudless. You had been in order of battle nearly three hours, and yet so little did you know of the enemy’s force or his purpose, that you made no efforts to protect your front until the enemy was upon you in full force, and it was too late to do anything but resist as well as you could with raw troops, the overwhelming numbers that were assailing you.

Your complaint that I relied upon fugitives on the river bank for information is utterly groundless. You saw me at General McCook’s quarters. I was in every division of the army, the right, the left wing, and from the river to the line of pickets on the extreme front. I conversed with many of the superior officers and especially with officers of the gallant and disciplined army under General Buell who saved you and your division from total destruction. If you wish to know the opinion of men who were competent judges of the question at issue between us, suppose you inquire of Gen. Halleck, Gen. Buell, Gen. McCook, Gen. Boyle, Gen. Crittenden, or any other commanding officer of the army who was not in command of any division of the army at Shiloh on Sunday the 6th of April. Gross negligence and misconduct cannot be covered up and smothered down by any high faluting declamation about Saratoga and Yorktown. I know it has been considered a matter of more importance to save the reputation of an officer than the lives of a thousand men in the ranks, as for the officers who command them. If Gen. Grant was guilty of misconduct in the battle of Shiloh, how comes it that Gen. Halleck has quietly, but effectually, deprived him of any command? The truth is that nearly all the disasters that have befallen us in the war are attributable to the blundering of incompetent or careless officers.

You have made a capital mistake in arraigning me in the coarse and offensive style you have adopted, for expressing my opinion of the officers in command at that battle. More than ten thousand men fell victim to the incompetency and mismanagement of somebody on that terrible day. Is it not the privilege of the people, whose sons and brothers have been victims of calamity, to inquire who is responsible for it, and if possible avoid similar calamities in the future? By what warrant then do you talk about holding me or anybody ‘responsible’ for expressing an honest opinion, or criticizing your conduct on that occasion? I do not know precisely what you mean by ‘holding me to an account’ for what I have said and written on the subject, nor is it a matter of much consequence. I trust I shall always be able to render such an account as will be satisfactory to every one whose good opinion is worth preserving, whether it is satisfactory to you or not.

You say I have availed myself of your absence and published my letter in an obscure paper for fear of being ‘held to an account.’ And when you have inflicted upon me such punishment as in your judgment my offense demands, you threaten me with the vengeance of Generals Grant, Hurlbut, and Prentiss. Are you really deluding yourself that the people of this country recognize the existence of a military despotism which strikes such terror into them that they are afraid to express their opinions in the presence of the army or its officers? If you are, you had better banish it at once, for you may rest assured it will lead you into difficulties that you do not anticipate. You may rest assured that the time has not yet come for the people of this country to submit to a military despotism, or for the gallant and patriotic men in our army to aid you in establishing it. The bayonet under your command will think. And if the time shall ever come when the people of this country shall be compelled to submit to despotism, you are not ‘the man on horseback’ from whom they have anything to fear. But these are public considerations in which I have no special interest and therefore pass them by without further remark.

In conclusion, I have a proposition to make to you. If the Secretary of War will give me a court martial composed of independent and intelligent army officers, with power to compel the attendance of witnesses and manage the case on the part of the government, I will meet you before such a court and convict General Grant and yourself and General Prentiss of negligence and misconduct in suffering the army to be surprised and attacked without proper preparation for defense, or submit to whatever punishment may be awarded against me as the author of a false and calumnious charge. You will perceive that I have not dealt in epithets or imitate your billingsgate style. It is not in accordance with my habits or my taste. I can find an old woman in any fish market that is a much better match for you in that style of composition than I am. Having no clerk at hand, and badly pressed for time, I send you a newspaper copy.

Very respectfully, yours & c.

B. Stanton [45]

Sherman’s second letter to Stanton

“I have seen my own letter of June 10 in print and also Stanton's answer of the 23rd. I think this calls for a rejoinder and I have prepared one,” Sherman wrote to his brother-in law on July 13, 1862. “I think you will object to the paragraph which says I meant to insult him. I want that preserved, but you may modify it in any other way and publish-send him written or printed copy as you please.” But the following day, Sherman received an order from Gen. Halleck directing him not to respond to Stanton’s June 23rd letter. “I am very desirous of conforming to Halleck's wishes and therefore write to ask you to withhold from publication the answer of mine sent yesterday. I telegraphed to the same effect today, but there are some parts that Stanton should see and if you can trust anybody in Columbus...get them to read the letter to Stanton that he may prefer his charges, but don't let the letter be copied or pass out of your hands. I am satisfied that Stanton is a liar and a coward.”[46] Sherman's unpublished letter is reprinted below:

Camp at Moscow, Tennessee

July 12, 1862

Sir:

Your letter of June 23rd published in the Cincinnati Commercial of June 25th reached me yesterday. I have read it carefully and think you do not meet the issues I made in mine of June 10th. I do not now propose to prolong the controversy, but only to answer the new points raised by you under the belief that thousands of honest people in Ohio are interested in the truth of history involved. In reviewing your charge of ‘surprise’ and fixing it more pointedly on me, you refer me to Generals Halleck, Buell, McCook, Crittenden, and Garfield; also to Colonel Smith of the 1st Ohio, Parrott, Fyffe of the 20th, Smith of the 84th, Hawkins of the 13th, Colonels Leggett, Connell, and others. You afterwards, however, admit Colonel Leggett differed with the others in opinion and thought there was no surprise. Not an officer whom you have named above was at Shiloh during April 6th, the day of the alleged surprise until after the day’s fighting was over. Not one of them knew then, nor at the time of your visit to Shiloh, how strong a main guard, intermediate guard, and picket guard I had to my front, where they were posted, or what were their orders.

They knew nothing at all about it, but approaching the battlefield from the rear, where the fugitives told their tale of surprise and slaughter, they caught the same false impressions you did from the same source. They are not such witnesses as your acquaintances Colonels Hildebrand and Buckland who posted the guards and pickets on Saturday night, who were present at the affair on Friday afternoon when we drew the enemy’s fire of infantry and artillery, back of the crossroads and who saw everything as it occurred on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. There was also in my camp your personal acquaintances Colonels Cockerill, Sullivan, Kilby Smith, and others whose word no man has ever doubted, who saw and shared in every act before, at the time, and after the battle, and who could have spoken to you of what they saw and know, evidence regarded by all courts of justice as far better than the hearsay and inferences of equally good men who you say undertook to inform you of facts that transpired days or weeks before they ever saw Shiloh.

But I say that General Halleck never told you that I or my division was surprised on Sunday April 6, 1862. He has personally apprised me of the very reverse, and he has moreover in person informed me that he fully appreciated the fact that the men who did fight on April 6, by their dogged courage and persistent defense of every foot of ground, did hold in check a vastly superior force of the enemy, and gave time for the arrival of reinforcements of Buell which Grant had expected hourly for eight days. I also assert that General Buell never told you that I was surprised. In examining more closely your letter, I see you use those names very ingeniously, not asserting anything, yet leaving the impression that these high and tried officers had told you, a citizen, that my division had been surprised. I have no hesitation in declaring that you have used the names of these and nearly every other officer without their warrant or sanction. [47]