This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh, when Union forces under Ulysses S Grant scored their first major victory of the Civil War over the Confederate armies. Grant was a complex man and remains a controversial figure, both as a soldier and a politician, but his story is a god example of the Hero’s Journey, the mythical trajectory outlined by Joseph Campbell in ‘The Hero With 1000 Faces’. This piece describes the meeting between Grant and his lieutenant William Tecumseh Sherman on the battlefield at the close of the first day of fighting.
Dusk was coming, and the rain was falling steadily. It slapped the leaves on the tree above his head and drummed on the bare wet earth around him. His army greatcoat glistened and droplets were forming along the edges of the braid on his shoulder straps. His hands were thrust into his coat pockets and a slouch hat was pulled down so far over his eyes so that only his bearded chin and a damp cheroot poked out beneath. As he leaned against the tree, the only sign of life was the occasional puff of bitter cigar smoke.
The day had been warm, in every sense, and the rain had dampened down the swirling dust clouds that had marked the battle earlier and made it such a confusing fight to follow. Camped with their back to the river, and knowing that the enemy was near, he had hoped that the reinforcements he had sent for would arrive before the fight started, but there had been delays, and the boats had only begun to arrive in mid-afternoon, and only just in time.
The enemy for once had not delayed, and not long after the sun was up they began to hear the sound of preparation and the rough and twangy marching bands. First, broken lines of skirmishers, darting between cover until close enough, they began to pepper his lines like flies irritating a mare. The cannonade startled them all, gouts of flame followed immediately by a belch of smoke, and then the rolling thunderous roar of detonation. there followed a brief uncanny moment of stillness and then hard black spheres were whizzing past them, careering along the ground or bursting in the air over the lines. Here and there a shell found its mark, creating further detonations, clouds of splinters and sudden nebulae of human debris, followed by yells, screams and barked commands.
Their own artillery opened up in reply, and the duel went on for some time. some of the formations, new to battle, were unnerved by the haphazard nature of the bombardment. They flinched and looked at each other and along the lines, and occasionally back. Their officers were just as callow, and struggled to maintain their calm and stay present in the lines. A few slipped away to report back, or request orders, and these absences were noticed and slyly commented upon by the men.
Then, rolling like a wave over the rough ground appeared a line of glittering diamonds, below which slowly materialised into the brown and grey shapes of men holding rifles, the glittering points above them now clearly the thin slashed shape of bayonets. Then another line, and another, each segment anchored by a regimental flag – Texas, Alabama, Mississipi and many more, and the bugles blowing and the drums beating their rhythm of advance and finally, with a piercing yodelling yell they swept forward at a run to within musket range, and the deadly busness of the day began in earnest
In the large open-sided tent that served as his command post, the general waited for news, but his impatience was such that he didn’t stay there for long. He ventured out to see for himself how things were going, to talk to the officers he trusted and give encouragement to those he felt were flagging. The smoke and dust made it all but impossible to see exactly what was gong on, but as the fight developed it was clear that the enemy was pressing hard and some of the more inexperienced regiments were giving way. Gradually the lines contracted, occasionally stuck around a good defensive position occupied by a particularly resolute commander whose men would hold and fight, and to whom the scarce reserves were sent. The enemy, frustrated by these points, began to concentrate on them and so a series of bloody toe-to-toe engagements began, a trial of strength and endurance.
By the time fresh troops began to disembark in the afternoon there were hundreds of terrified deserters cowering in the shelter of the river bank, casting dreadful warnings at the reinforcements as if hoping that by discouraging others they could justify their own fear. A few of the more vocal Cassandras were shot, and that quietened the others, but it proved impossible to get them to rejoin the lines.
Eventually the enemy tired, and the shortened lines held, and dusk arrived. After fourteen hours of ceaseless activity, half of which had been spent sitting on a camp stool receiving reports and then scribbling out terse orders, the remainder spent speeding from one command to another, he was glad of the rain and the solitude. Part of him longed for the fiery caramel sweetness of a large glass of bourbon, but he new this was neither to time nor the moment to drop his guard on that score, because one glass all too easily led to three, and then seven, and then oblivion.
He was aware of the horse before he caught site of its hooves as it drew up in the mud beside the tree. From beneath his hat he could see as far up as the stirrups, and that was high enough to recognise both boot and rider.
The other general leaned down from his horse, while the other adjusted his hat slightly so that one gimlet eye peered out and made contact.
‘Sam’ said the rider, nodding in acknowledgement. His uniform was darker on the shoulders and the upper back where the rain had begun to soak in. He wore a wide brimmed hat and beneath was an angular, weathered face that seemed constantly in some small motion or other, the chin covered in short bristles of grey and russet. He spoke again.
‘We’ve had one hell of day of it, general.’
The other man stood up away from the tree and raised his head to look the other square on. He knew the question he was being asked without it being said. His novice army had taken a beating today, and the enemy had largely gained the field. His staff and his commanders were making plans in expectation of an order to withdraw across the river under cover of night, where they could regroup. The cheerful sounds that filtered across the battlefield from the enemy’s camps made it plain that this was their expectation also – they were celebrating a hard-fought victory.
The rider had come fully anticipating the order to withdraw, and was on the point of asking the question directly when something in the set of the other man’s jaw made him pause. It didn’t look like a man who knew defeat. They had known each other for some months now, and his respect for his commander – junior in terms of seniority but promoted on the back of repeated successes – had grown to the point where notional seniority now counted for little. He knew when Sam had made up his mind, and he knew that once made this mind seldom shifted.
‘A hard day, indeed, Bill. We’ll whip ’em in the morning tho’. Set the men to digging in. I’ll be back presently and we’ll get ourselves straight.’
He raised a lazy arm and tipped the brim of his hat toward the rider, who took it as his cue to leave. The general sank back onto the tree trunk and resumed watching the raindrops spattering in the mud.