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Eye Witness account, W S Hillyer

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[pg. 10] "Pittsburg, April 11 1862. On the Battlefield."

The excitement of the great battle is in a manner subsiding, and my thoughts are constantly reverting to the place where my heart and home are. As I stated to you before, I arrived at Savannah early Sunday morning--about half past four o'clock. While we were at breakfast, about seven o’clock, a gentleman reported that heavy cannonading was heard in the direction of Pittsburg, which is about nine miles from Savannah. The General and staff hurried down to our dispatch boat, the "Tigress." and started up the river. When about half way we met a boat coming down and received from her a dispatch stating that the enemy had attacked our center and right at daylight, driven our center back and a heavy fight was raging.

We arrived at Pittsburg about half past eight o'clock got on our horses and galloped out to the battle-field. Arrived there we found the enemy had attacked and were engaging our right and center in overwhelming force and our troops were falling back. We met hundreds of cowardly renegades fleeing to the river and reporting their regiments cut to pieces. We tried in vain to rally and return them to the front. We rode on to the center, ordering all the reinforcements we could command, and soon I found myself in the midst of a shower of cannon and musket balls. Cool and undismayed as ever, the General issued his orders and sent his aides flying over the field. While executing an order a cannon ball passed within two feet of my horse's head, and a cavalry captain near by called out to me, "Did it hit you, Captain?"

Soon after there was a lull in the center, and the heaviest firing was on our right. We galloped over there and rode along the line when the battle was raging fiercely. At this time our forces had been driven back about a mile and the enemy had taken a large portion of our division (General Prentiss') prisoners. Suddenly there was a lull on the right as welt as the center, and most of us thought that the enemy were worsted and retiring. "Not so," General Grant said. "I don't like this quiet. I fear the enemy are concentrating on our left" (where we were weakest). "Captain Hillyer, ride over and order a company of cavalry to make a reconnoisance on the left." "Yes, sir; where shall I find you on my return?" said I. "Wherever you hear the heaviest firing.," was the consoling reply. And, when I had executed the order, the only guide I had back to the General was the heaviest musketry and cannonading. In the meantime he had ordered reinforcements to the left, and his apprehensions were well founded. But a few minutes had elapsed when the enemy attacked us with desperate courage on our left. One continuous roar of artillery, varied only by the [pg. 11] unceasing rattle of musketry, was heard, and Death, with fifty thousand mowers, stalked over the field. Oh! it was an awful day. From then till dark apprehension of defeat, knowledge of the terrible slaughter and shadows of the direful consequences of defeat filled our hearts with sorrowful foreboding, but General Grant was still as calm and confident as ever. "We'll whip them yet" was his reply to the announcement that our troops were falling back, and his confidence inspired all his command.

Gen. Lew Wallace's division, which was at Crump's Landing, on the river, between Pittsburg and Savannah, a force ten thousand strong, were ordered to move Up to Pittsburg about eleven o'clock. They were but four miles distant, and should have been there by noon. Every moment we expected to hear from them, but by some unpardonable delay they came not. We assured the left that Wallace should soon be up to reinforce them, and, thus encouraged. our forces stood their ground against desperate odds. But the field was being strewn with our killed and wounded, and the battle raged hotter and hotter.

About two o'clock General Buell arrived. One of his divisions (General Nelson's) was marching and would soon arrive opposite Pittsburg, where boats waited to carry them over. In answer to General Grant's inquiry as to his other forces, Buell informed him that General. Crittenden's command had been halted two miles from Savannah to await further orders. General Grant immediately ordered me to proceed to Savannah with sufficient boats and order Crittenden to move immediately to the river with his men and embark for Pittsburg, leaving his transportation and baggage behind.

I got to Savannah about half past three, rode out to Crittenden's camp and gave the order, which he received with the utmost enthusiasm for there he was, within hearing of the battle, and without permission to advance. I asked him where was McCook's division. He said just behind him, and Wood's just behind McCook's. What should I do? I had no order's except for Crittenden, but we needed all the reinforcements we could get. I quickly determined to assume the responsibility. I sat down and wrote an order in General Grant’s name and dispatched a courier, ordering General McCook to leave his transportation and move his available force immediately to the river to General Wood, and followed it with an order to General Thomas, who was a few miles behind Wood. I returned to Savannah; there, I remembered, we had three regiments. I thought they were not needed there. I again assumed responsibility and ordered two of the regiments to embark for Pittsburg. I made all the arrangements for transportation and returned to report to General Grant. By this time it [pg. 12] was night. I found the General and the rest of his staff stretched on the ground, without a tent or any protection, and the rain pouring down!

I reported to the General what I had done; he said I had done exactly right. In consequence of my assumption of responsibility we had, in addition to Crittenden's and Nelson's commands, the whole of McCook's and a part of Wood's division, together with two regiments from Savannah, in the fight the next day, and we needed them all!

Sunday evening the enemy had pushed our lines back until their batteries almost commanded our transports; a little further and they would have made it impossible to land our reinforcements. But, fortunately, they got within range of our two gunboats, which were lying anchored in the river, and which opened upon them with a perfect shower of shells. Night never was more welcome to any poor mortals than that night to our little army at Pittsburg. I say "little army" because our force at Pittsburg at this time did not exceed forty thousand men.... Wallace's division had not arrived, nor any of Buell’s command. Notwithstanding this disparity, we labored under another serious disadvantage; the enemy, being the attacking party, could concentrate their whole force at any point, while we were compelled to maintain our lines on the right, left and center, not knowing what moment the enemy might shift their position under cover of the woods.

Before morning we had received twenty-five thousand reinforcements, and before Monday's battle was over ten thousand more.

Sunday night General Grant ordered that at the break of day our forces should advance on the right, left and center, attacking the enemy all around the lines wherever he could be found.

The first dawn of morning lighted our men onward toward the foe. In a few moments our whole line was engaged, and the battle raged with even more severity than on Sunday. The enemy were moving forward with the confidence inspired by their partial success on the preceding day; our's with the confidence inspired by the knowledge that we had been reinforced. I have not time to describe this day's action. It was the most terrible conflict I have ever witnessed. Our line of battle engaged at one time could not have been less than five or six miles, and wherever the battle raged hottest General Grant could be seen with his staff. At one time the rebels evidently distinguished him as a commanding general, for they opened a battery which filled the air around us with bursting shells and solid shot, and, as we advanced along the line, they followed us for a quarter of a mile. [pg. 13] Fortunely, the range was a little too high, and the ricochet passed beyond us. One ball, passed under the General's horse. I rode over the battle-field after the battle. Our men were busy burying the dead. The scene was horrible. Hundreds and hundreds of dead bodies strewed the ground. For miles and miles, wherever we rode, we found dead bodies scattered through the woods in every direction.

Oh! there will be many desolate homes and comfortless hearts as the details of this battle are known through the country. Many a mourning Rachel will find little consolation in the victory which finally crowned our arms. But future ages will, look with admiration on the desperate valor of our troops and bless the memory of the dead who felt at Pittsburg fighting for the maintenance of our good government. You and I cannot be too grateful to the kind Providence who has preserved your husband and our children's father through these two terrible days.

I have seen enough of war. God grant that it may be speedily terminated. I cannot retire now till we have driven the enemy from Corinth. When that is done I think I wilt leave it to others to finish up this rebellion, which I look upon as already mortally wounded.....

Kiss my little darlings for papa. Tell them that papa's thoughts often went after them, even during the excitement of the battle-field, and nothing but a sense of duty reconciled him to the risking of his life.

Good bye. God bless you.
Your husband,
W. S. Hillyer.

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Don't you just love old letters... especially ones that were written so very close to a significant event, such as the one above, written by then-Captain William S. Hillyer, aide-de-camp to MGen Grant at the Battle of Shiloh. [Thanks to Sharon for posting; I find it remarkable that no one commented, until now.]

 

What a treasure trove of information: both for what it says; and for what it does not say...

 

[Hillyer had just returned from escorting two Jesse Scouts away from Pittsburg Landing to St Louis: both men were suspected involved in horse-theft.]  As he indicates, he arrived at Savannah in the wee hours of April 6th. Facts not mentioned:

  • he arrived aboard the sidewheel steamer Minnehaha;
  • Mrs. WHL Wallace was aboard;
  • BGen John Pope Cook was aboard;
  • two regiments of Iowa Infantry were aboard (the 15th and 16th);
  • after a brief pause at Savannah, where Hillyer and BGen Cook left the boat, the Minnehaha continued to Pittsburg Landing.

Hearing the sound of guns during breakfast, Hillyer rode with General Grant aboard Tigress [no mention is made of the stop at Crump's], but he does mention meeting 'another steamer'  [the John Warner] about halfway to Pittsburg Landing. A messenger sent by BGen WHL Wallace reported that 'a heavy battle was engaged'  [see Note 1].

 

Hillyer records arrival of Tigress at Pittsburg Landing at about 8:30 am  [see Note 2].

 

His letter indicates 'confusion' about the time of surrender of Prentiss' Division... because Hillyer was not there when it happened. He'd been sent away by General Grant at about 2 pm, aboard a steamer to Savannah, to report to BGen Crittenden. Crittenden had been halted by Buell two miles from Savannah; and Hillyer was sent as messenger from Grant to 'move Crittenden forward.'  While in conversation with BGen Crittenden, Hillyer learned that McCook was just a little way behind... and Wood behind McCook... and Thomas behind Wood. On his own initiative, Captain Hillyer ordered McCook, Wood and Thomas forward, too.

 

Hillyer returned to Savannah [my estimate is 5 pm] and realized there were three infantry regiments 'just lounging about' ...and sent two of them on to Pittsburg Landing [leaving the 53rd Indiana, under Colonel Walter Gresham to maintain the Post of Savannah.] Captain Hillyer returned to Pittsburg Landing just after nightfall, and reported to General Grant [who he found lying in the rain] and explained his actions -- and was informed by Grant that his decisions were good ones.

 

 

Note 1:   WHL Wallace sent the John Warner to Savannah to alert General Grant to the full-scale attack being carried out by Confederate forces. Grant was underway on the Tigress, and the two boats met about halfway between Crump's and Pittsburg. For me, it has always been an item of curiosity: given WHL Wallace's concise report, WHY didn't General Grant forward the John Warner on to Crump's with a messenger calling for Lew Wallace to come up? The Warner would have arrived before 9:30 am.

 

Note 2:   Captain Hillyer mentions that the Tigress arrived at Pittsburg Landing about 8:30 am [which is a close approximation... and is recorded in this letter before the later 'massaging' of times, done to 'stitch up' Lew Wallace over the 'wrong road affair.'  Hillyer also records the message to Lew Wallace to 'come up' being received about 11 am, which is a close approximation.]

 

Finally, it is of interest that W.S. Hillyer's papers ended up at the University of Virginia. Hopefully, that material (640 items) will be accessible on the internet, one day.

 

 Regards

 

Ozzy

 

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Hi Ozzy,

I'm currently conducting some research that involves the steamer Minnehaha.  I was wondering if you could give me a citation for the information that Cook and Hillyer were aboard the Minnehaha when it left St. Louis.  Is it the Hillyer Papers at the University of Virginia?

thanks, chuck

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Chuck

The information I found IRT BGen John Cook indicated he boarded the Minnehaha at Cairo (I believe Mrs. WHL Wallace boarded at Cairo, too.) I will have to go through my notes and find the reference; and will post it as soon as I find it.

Regards

Ozzy

 

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I decided to begin with a record of Mrs. Wallace's journey to Pittsburg Landing, to be found in The Life and Letters of General WHL Wallace, by Isabel Wallace; Chicago: R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company, 1909 (pages 182-186.) Mrs. Wallace intended to travel in company with Army supply agent, Mr. R.E. Goodell, but that man was unavailable. While making arrangements for the journey, she contacted family friend, Judge Caton, who 'telegraphed to Cairo for me to see if I could pass. General W.K. Strong, then in command at Cairo, was a personal friend of Judge Caton, and the Judge gave me a letter of introduction to him.' [dated March 31, page 182] [My deductions in brackets -- Ozzy.]

'I took the night train to LaSalle. At Cairo, Elder Button (Chaplain of the 20th Illinois) [her escort, replacing R.E. Goodell] took a note from me with Judge Caton's note to General Strong's Headquarters, and came back in ten minutes with a permit to go up the river in a transport [not named: Minnehaha is not indicated by name anywhere in this book] that was to start up next day loaded with Iowa regiments.' [page 183]

'General Strong was in St. Louis; his adjutant said, 'I know General Strong would want to do anything he could that was requested by Judge Caton.' [page 185]

'At different points along the river, officers came on board...'

'There was a kind woman nurse [not named] that belonged to Colonel Ross' regiment on board with sanitary supplies. And there were two regiments of Iowa volunteers [probably the 15th Iowa Infantry and 16th Iowa Infantry]. Belknap [possibly Major William Belknap of 15th Iowa] was adjutant of one of the Iowa regiments.' [pages 185-6]

'At midnight of April 5, we touched at Savannah where General Grant had his Headquarters. I asked the officers who went ashore [at Savannah, not named] to inquire whether General WHL Wallace was now at Savannah. General Grant himself was up, and sent me word that my husband was with C.F. Smith's Division, and in command of it at Pittsburg Landing.' [page 186]

'Some of General Grant's staff were on board [not named, but only Captain Hillyer was known to have left for St. Louis, near the end of March] and I was careful to let them know I had come without my husband's knowledge, fearing he might be blamed for my presence there.' [pages 185-6]

'We arrived before daylight at Pittsburg Landing. Captain Coates of the 11th Illinois was on board returning from a leave of absence. He proposed to walk with me to my husband's Headquarters. We heard a great deal of firing...' [page 186] 

 

Ozzy

 

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In order to determine how John Pope Cook got to Savannah, it was first necessary to establish that he was there.

A reference in the OR Volume 11, pages 100-101: Special Orders No. 49 of April 9, 1862 (at Pittsburg Landing), Item #10, directs BGen John Cook to report for duty to BGen B.M. Prentiss, commanding the 6th Division, who will assign him a brigade. -- by order of MGen U.S. Grant.

In another report, from John A. Rawlins to U.S. Grant, dated 1 April 1863 (found in OR 10, pages 183-188), at the bottom of page 184, Rawlins indicates 'Brigadier General John Cook of Illinois had come in on a steamer during the night, and reported to you in person before breakfast on April 6th, 1862.'

Four late-arriving regiments had been in St. Louis/Benton Barracks at the end of March, and were ordered to report Pittsburg Landing:

  • 23rd Missouri                        began to arrive at Pittsburg Landing on April 4
  • 18th Wisconsin                      arrived at Pittsburg Landing aboard the John Warner in the early evening of April 5
  • 15th Iowa and 16th Iowa       embarked aboard the Minnehaha on April 1st; stopped overnight at Cairo April 2/3; stopped for a few hours at Paducah on April 3; arrived Savannah 'just after midnight' of 5/6 April; arrived Pittsburg Landing before sunrise April 6 [from the Journal of Philip H. Goode, 15th Iowa, found at Iowa Gen Web http://iagenweb.org/civilwar/regiment/infantry/15th/journalgoode.htm    

Of the above movements, that of the Minnehaha ties most closely with arrival, as reported, of Ann Wallace, William Hillyer and John Pope Cook. Unfortunately, I have yet to uncover a statement of Hillyer or Cook, indicating 'I arrived at Savannah on April 6th aboard the steamer Minnehaha.'

 

Regards

Ozzy

References:  OR Volumes 10 and 11

iagenweb

 

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Thanks for the information.  It makes sense that they would have been on the Minnehaha, it was the only one with two Iowa regiments on board that I have found.  Ithink it would be accurate to say that Hillyer boarded in St. Louis and Cook at Cairo.  If I use that I'll cite:  The Life and Letters of General WHL Wallace, by Isabel Wallace; Chicago: R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company, 1909 (pages 182-186.

cheers, chuck

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Returning to Hillyer's Letter of April 11th 1862... several items of significance are mentioned:

  • ordered away from Pittsburg Landing by General Grant at 2pm with orders to "collect boats enough to bring up Crittenden's Division from Savannah" [this time is significant, because it implies Captain Hillyer was present aboard Tigress for meeting between Grant and Buell, upon the latter's arrival]
  • Hillyer reports arrival at Savannah about 3:30 [which is reasonable, given he had to first organize a small flotilla to accompany him from Pittsburg Landing]
  • in his letter, W.S. Hillyer reports that he "ordered up Crittenden, and then discovered that McCook was behind Crittenden; and T.J. Wood behind McCook. On his own initiative, Hillyer ordered forward McCook, Wood (and Thomas.)" 

On the face of it, these actions by Hillyer appear not only as commendable, but smoothly executed. However...

http://ebooks.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/pageviewer-idx?c=moawar;cc=moawar;idno=waro0010;node=waro0010%3A2;view=image;seq=372;size=100;page=root   Shiloh report of BGen Crittenden

General Crittenden indicates that he found out about Hillyer's "order" by accident: that another officer of Army of the Ohio informed him orders had been sent to Wood and McCook. "Had I received orders?"  Believing the delivery of orders had miscarried, Crittenden immediately moved his Division forward (with Jackson's Cavalry leading the way) in order to follow General Nelson down the path through the marsh... when an order was received from Colonel J.B. Fry (Chief of Staff of General Buell) "to take boats from Savannah to Pittsburg, if not already on the road." Crittenden was able to redirect the bulk of his division to the Landing at Savannah; but Jackson's Cavalry had advanced too quickly, and continued through the marsh...

Just an attempt at clarity...

Ozzy

 

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