MY RECOLLECTIONS OF SHILOH

by George W. McBride, 1894

In season and out of season there has always been a conflict of opinion as to the facts regarding this great battle. I do not pretend to know, nor have I a desire to express an opinion in regard to the matters in dispute. I only ask to tell what a boy sixteen years old saw one day, on that historic field.

  Our regiment, the 15th Michigan Infantry, arrived at Pittsburg Landing, by the steamboat "War Eagle", on the afternoon of April 5, 1862. We were tired, hungry, and impatient because of the cramped conditions of our voyage. We disembarked, moved up onto the bluff, and went into camp just back from the river. We were allowed to move around, and found ourselves amidst the wild whirl of an army in the field-men, camps, tents, wagons, mules and swearing drivers, cannon, sutlers, drummers, darkies, and the flag. Men were everywhere: some were in a pavilion playing cards, and in one corner of the small enclosure lay a dead infantryman, whose presence seemed unknown to the boys who were hazarding all they had on a full hand; while just outside was the carcass of a dead mule, giving evidence of a not very recent demise. I can see that wild scene now, clear and sharp. It was my first real experience with soldiers in the field, and, boy-like, I saw many things to remember. Around the landing were grouped a multitude of war munitions, and on the river, with their prows pointing up stream, were moored a fleet of river steamboats. All was activity and bustle and change. We were fed, and lay down on the ground to sleep. Having been excused from duty because of the mumps, I tried to find a warm place, but was finally content to roll up in a blanket, and make Mother Earth my bed for the first time. Early the next morning, at what time I cannot say, the bugle-call aroused us. We came to life and activity, got something to eat, and our command moved out of camp. I was still excused from duty, but went along to see what was coming next. The air was balmy, the roads were good, the birds were singing in the trees, and a strange, profound stillness fell about us. The camps we passed through on our way out were alive and in motion; proceeding on our way we heard the firing of guns in our front; inquiring the cause of the firing we were informed that the boys in advance were "shooting squirrels." Soon the shots became more frequent, and seemingly nearer us; and for some reason our column moved with quicker step. When we had passed out and beyond Hurlbut's division, whose men were forming, and whose battalions were mustering fast as we pressed them, we met three men, one of whom, in the dress of the 54th Ohio, was being helped to the rear by the others. He was holding in one hand the other, bleeding and crushed by a rifle shot. We spoke to him about "shooting squirrels"; his answer was that they were the "funniest squirrels we ever saw," and that the enemy was attacking us in force. The excitement had reached us, and soon an officer, riding up with the order, "on the left by file into line," was quickly obeyed, forming the regiment's first line of battle. We were moved to the left, halting in a peach orchard, and constituting the extreme left of Prentiss's division, we were told. Near to us, on our right, were the 18th Wisconsin and the 18th Missouri, like ourselves new regiments and just arrived. We unslung knapsacks, fell back three paces, fixed bayonets, and stood to attention at order arms.

  The ground we occupied was a clearing around a log house; the house was old and somewhat dilapidated. Before us the ground sloped down to a small creek, where the clearing ended. Across the creek the hillside was covered with a growth of scrub oak and bushes; the ridge ran obliquely to our right and beyond our view. The crest of the ridge was in plain sight from our line and higher than where we stood. It seems to me now that we were there but a moment, when there appeared over the ridge in front a column of men, some of them dressed in blue, some in gray, some in bright-colored uniforms. Who are they? We do not know. They come down the hill, through the underbrush, with closed ranks. Behind comes another line similar to the first, and further back still another. The first line moves down the hillside, crosses the little creek, enters the clearing, halts and fires into us. We stand at an order arms and look at them as they shoot. No reply on our part- not a man in our company has a cartridge to use, and there are none to be had. Again comes that blinding line fire; a few men fall. We are ordered to shoulder arms, about face, and move back, which we do; but as we go the regiments on our right answer the challenge with a terrible volley and the fight is on.

  It seems ridiculous to think of men going out to fight, and when the time comes to find they have no cartridges for their guns, and in the face of the enemy turn and march away; but that is just what we did, and in good order. Back into the openings we went, remaining inactive until we met the 23rd Missouri infantry, who were armed with guns of the same calibre as ours; we were given sixty rounds of ammunition, about- faced, and started back for our place in the line.

  The Shiloh battlefield was a series of clearings and oak openings, with now and then a clump of underbrush and occasional ravines. We return through the thin woods, and as we ascend a sharp rise we see, out in the front and on the flanks, the struggle.

  The roar of the fight rises and falls, ringing along the line in war's wild, grand sweep. We are hurriedly formed into line on the crest of the ridge, and ordered to load. I get down on the ground, close to the roots of a large oak tree, and fire my first shot at a human being. In a moment the regiment is engaged: the enemy, in unbroken columns, comes like waves of the sea, pitiless and in grand form upon us; batteries swing into position, and the hissing shells fall like hail about us. We are new men, but we are firing at short range, and the line in front melts away. Yet it closes up and on it comes, sullen and determined; batteries are increasing their fire- the line on our right breaks, and we are flanked by the enemy. I can see the fight now as I saw it then.

  To its credit be it said, our green regiment stood like a rock in the pathway of our opponents, and checked and held them at bay until they flanked us out of our position; but repeatedly were they driven back and repulsed in their assaults upon us. We went in recruits; we came out veterans.

  I said I could see the fight now as I saw it then; the enemy had pushed back Sherman, McClernard, and Prentiss; officers had fallen and the day seemed lost, but to the boy it was war's wild splendor- overhead the smoke of battle, all around the busy, active, fighting comrades mingled with the silent dead, the wounded, and the dying. There was the grash of musketry, the roar of artillery, the yells of the combatants, the smoke, the jar, the terrible energy. Why should it not remain a picture on my memory? In our front is the coming line, tipped with fire and flame. The white smoke leaping out in front, slowly rises, forming a curtain that unites the line of fire and the cloud above. At intervals we can see the faces of the foe, blackened with powder, and glaring with the demoniac fury of battle, lost to all human impulses, and full of a fiendish desire to kill; they are no longer men, they are devils incarnate. Here lies, stands, or crouches a line of men, opposing this rushing and advancing foe; but in the body of that regiment abides the iron of Michigan, and with slow, cool movement the guns are loaded and fired with awful effect. The men before us fall like leaves in autumn. The line vanishes, a new one takes its place, the rattling roar blends into a continuos sound and scores of men fall dead. Guns grow hot to the touch, the iron heats in the blood of the green regiment, and the ground grows rich with our fallen heroes' gore.

  The enemy flank us and are moving to our rear; some one calls out, "Everybody for himself!" The line breaks, I go with the others, back and down the hill, across a small ravine, and into camp of the 11th Illinois cavalry, with the howling, rushing mass of the enemy pressing in close pursuit.

  When I arose from the roots of the tree, where I had lain and fired as fast as I could, I was a cool as one could expect a raw recruit would be in his first fight. I was partially dazed and the full force of the situation did not impress me at the time. As I reached the bottom of the hill and entered the camp of the cavalry, the artillery seemed to have a cross fire, and at short range was sweeping the ground with canister. The enemy was active, and the musketry fire was awful; the striking of the balls on the Sibley tents of the cavalry camp gave out a short, cutting sound that terrified me. The striking of the shot on the ground threw up little clouds of dust, and the falling of men all around me impressed me with a desire to get out of there. I recollect that the hair now commenced to rise on the back of my head, and was soon standing straight up, and I felt sure that a cannon-ball was close behind me, giving me chase as I started for the river. In my mind it was a race between me and that cannon-ball. For the first mile I traveled, I won. I was never so frightened before, and trust I may never be again; I never ran fast before, and know I never will again. I was never in such a storm of bullets before or since; it seemed as if the trees were casting them. Out of that fire that killed, I came alive and unharmed, but it was a marvel that any of us did, for an examination of the field afterwards showed the ground plowed with shot, and the smallest twig told of the storm of death that had swept over it. "Chaos had come again," and the slope was slippery with blood and strewn with the dead.

  I succeeded in escaping the cannon-ball, and soon found myself in company with a stalwart young Irishman, belonging to the 15th Iowa, who was blackened with battle-smoke, and his gun showed that he had been in the fight. I asked him where he was going. He replied: "Back, be jabers!" He said there was too much mixing of the gray with the blue at the front for him.

  We together passed on toward the river. Soon we came to a line of men who were acting as guards. A man on horseback, with the cleanest uniform and the brightest sword I saw that day, rode pell-mell upon us, and in a loud voice called us cowards, cravens and the like. He was out of reach of either bullets and cannon-shot. He ordered us to fall in with his men. We did not, but suggested to him that if he would move to the front he would find something that would take the brightness off his sword. He let us pass.

  You ask me what time of day this was. I don't know. It was when Wallace fell back, sometime in the afternoon. The fight at the "Hornet's Nest" was ended.

  I went to the river and drank of its waters, the first I had for hours. Turning, I saw an army of skulkers hiding under the bank of the river- men from all commands, officers of all grades. It was a pitiable sight; men with the fear of death upon them, some thoroughly demoralized and ready to throw themselves into the river, some wounded men, and some, thank God, ready to fight it out!

  An officer whose appearance indicated he had been in the fight came and called on the huddling mass to rally and follow him. I was simple enough to do so; why, I cannot say, unless it was my utter contempt for those great, burly creatures wearing boots and hiding in shelter out of danger, while their comrades were out yonder, breasting the storm. I went out and found Dan Clark, a member of my company, the only person I knew in all the crowd. The officer placed us on a slope of a hill, facing the enemy. There were earthworks on the top, behind which was a battery of artillery and some siege-guns, all under the command of Colonel Webster. We lay down with our feet higher than our heads.

  While waiting for the final struggle, I saw the grandest sight, except one, I witnessed during the war. It was nearing sundown; the heroic legions of Sherman and Prentiss had practically ceased to be, Hurlbut had been shattered, McClernard was in pieces; Wallace was mortally wounded, but his division remained invincible. The proud army of Donelson was crouching like whipped curs in a small circular line, whose two ends rested upon the Tennessee River. Thousands of men were hiding below the bluff, unable to get farther away. The enemy, terribly battered, but determined, was assured of victory. Regimental organization had disappeared; the dead were lying out along the ridge, in the valleys, everywhere; but with all the wreak of retreat and attack, there was within that line that unconquerable heroism afterwards shown on so many fields. The man who tells you that without Buell, Grant would have lost at Shiloh, did not see the last grand grapple on Sunday night.

  I said we were placed head downwards on a hillside, with a battery or more of guns at its top. We are facing the West. Looking out through the openings, the sunshine falls bright and clear on everything. Looking to the right or left, we see battalions forming and artillery getting into position. A lull in the crash and roar of battle; its stillness is oppressive. Look away out yonder- see the flashing, gleaming sunshine on the polished steel in front and on the flanks- it is the coming of the enemy! In close columns by division, with flags fluttering, and its army moving en echelon. See how distinct every rifle-barrel, bayonet, and sabre, like the gleam of silver and shimmer of brass. In the very front is a regiment of Zouaves. A grander sight no man ever saw than this coming of the Confederate army. We see the swinging motion noticeable when great bodies of men move together. Thus comes this human battering-ram, with artillery trailing in its ranks, presenting the appearance of a huge monster clothed in folds of flashing steel. On comes the enemy in its grand, full pride, sure of crushing the beaten, broken Army of the Tennessee, in perfect step and with arms at right-shoulder-shift, seemingly conscious of its might. With blare of band and bugle the line advances; we see it coming and wonder if one will raise a white flag. I load my gun and lie flat on the ground, head downward; with teeth tightly closed I await what seems our sure defeat. Behind the front line comes another, and still another. On they come; soon their lines begin to unfold and develop; these movements are executed with exact step, and arms are still at right-shoulder-shift.

  I live an age in a moment. We are startled by a cannon-shot above us- a signal for more. It is answered by a blinding flash- a mighty roar. The earth trembles; something strikes me; a darkness falls about me; smoke, and leaves, and twigs, and gravel, and earth fill the air. I started up affrighted, wondering if the heavens and earth are coming together. It is the "good-evening" of Webster's great guns above us to the bold, defiant Confederate host. Artillery along the line opens, and the final struggle has begun.

  No white flag here! Our cannoneers are planting their shrapnel where it will do the most harm, and it falls amid the crowded mass of the enemy, as true as if it had been carried by hand. The smoke before us lifts, and we see beneath it the lines of the enemy with great gaps torn in them, closing up and still advancing. We open upon them a line-fire, the guns behind us are still throwing case-shot, the roar deafens and the smoke blinds us for a time. Again it lifts and we see the gray line staggering under the awful fire it faces. The gunboats take up the fight, but on comes that determined line until only a corporal's guard remains. We look again. It has vanished- gone! Another pushes on, to disappear like the first. Our line is a blaze of fire- it is a volcano. It hurls defiance with its shots at the proud, splendid bravery of the enemy, who die but refuse to retreat.

  The fight becomes fiendish; the enemy concentrates his fire, and brings into action every available man and gun. Arms are no longer at the right shoulder, but are being used by experienced men. The stubborn resistance of the seemingly beaten Federal army is a surprise to the legions of Beauregard, who can neither crush nor dislodge the blue. The gray line trembles, almost, as it halts, wavers for a moment, and then sullenly falls back, the few that are left firing as they go, until the supporting line is reached. Then we see real discipline in battle. The retreating line halts, closes up, reforms on its support. See how deliberate and full of action it becomes, maddened at the repulse, and burning to avenge their fallen comrades! The fiery sons of the South are again in perfect form, ready to hurl themselves with their angry impetuosity against their tired but undaunted foe. For a moment the gray line is motionless; then all at once it leaps forward with a mighty yell, and sweeps across the bloody space separating the blue from the gray. Following the yell comes a storm of leaden hail full into our faces. I t is a battle of the giants. A wild cheer from our line is hurled back upon them, and shot answers shot. The roar of artillery is incessant. The crash of musketry is deafening, and the earth trembles from the concussion and shock. Watch the play on the faces of the men! The eye flashes, the face grows wild and grand, the form rounds out to its fullest limit, and the plain, dull soldier boy rises into the grandeur and glory of an Homeric god as he springs to his feet, with no thought of white flag or defeat, full of a desire to meet and destroy the coming enemy. All individuality is lost in this wild dance of death. The gray line again halts, trembles, and is gone, followed by a wild cheer that bursts from the heroic line in blue, telling in its own glad way that they are victors on that bloody field.

  You may point to the skulkers that line the river bank, with a flippant expression of disdain. I answer by pointing to the heroes who met the shock of Beauregard's battalions on that Sunday night, and rolled them back in bloody rout and defeat. No braver men ever faced an enemy.

  It now became apparent that the hill, bristling with batteries, could not be carried by assault, so the splendid line of the enemy moves to the right, looking for some easier point of attack. They crowd into the valley of Lick Creek, and find that the boats are still in the river, and are pouring their deadly shells into their crowded mass. I did not see that; I was engaged elsewhere.

  Let me say to those who question the result of the first day at Shiloh, that in our front the enemy were beaten and driven back by Grant's army, and before the arrival of any of Buell's men. We held on until the enemy let go. It was terrible: the field strewn with dead and wounded men, broken implements of war, horses, cannons, guns, and wagons. Soon the ambulances and night came together; the sun sank on that ghastly field, leaving the two armies about even: ours driven from their camps, theirs hurled back and beaten from their last grand rally and attack. I left our shattered line and rejoined my regiment, or a portion of it, finding it in camp on the same ground where we were the night before. We went out in the morning with fully six hundred men; we had one hundred and fifty in line that night. All dead, wounded, or prisoners, you ask? No; there were enough of them dead and wounded, but many had strayed away, and came to us later. The orderly-sergeant of our company lay out there, front face to the stars; a brother and comrades were motionless and still where the storm had struck them.

  The day is history's; its tragedies ended, its foeman are friends; its magnificent bravery on the one side was matched by splendid courage on the other. It was a stand-up fight on an open field for the supremacy of American manhood. On one side was the prestige of victory with the army in gray; on the other was the gloom of defeat. On that awful Sunday night the two civilizations struggled for the mastery amidst the grandest settings of war. The broad, cultured, stalwart, sturdy sons of the Northwest stood amid the wreaks that strewed the field, and beat with a Titanic hand the gallant chivalry of the South. Each found a foeman worthy of his steel.

Written by, McBride, George W., "My Recollections of Shiloh" , Blue and Gray, the Patriotic American Magazine, Vol. 3, No.1 (January, 1894), pp. 8-12

The Roster of the 15th Michigan Infantry, Co. H that George W. McBride belonged to.

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The content of this page was submitted by Dave Scott , an indirect descendant of a soldier that fought with the 15th Michigan Infantry.
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