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Authors: Shelby Foote

Shiloh

BOOK: Shiloh
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1

Lieutenant Palmer Metcalfe

Aide-de-Camp Johnston's Staff

 

The sky had cleared, the clouds raveled to tatters, and at
four o’clock the sun broke through, silver on the bright green of grass and
leaves and golden on the puddles in the road; all down the column men quickened
the step, smiling in the sudden burst of gold and silver weather. They would
point at the sky, the shining fields, and call to each other: the sun, the sun!
Their uniforms, which had darkened in the rain, began to steam in the April
heat, and where formerly they had slogged through the mud, keeping their eyes
down on the boots or haversack of the man ahead, now they began to look around
and even dance aside with Little prancing steps to avoid the wet places. As we
rode past at the side of the road, they cheered and called out to us: "You
better keep up there! Don’t get left behind!" Replacing their hats from
cheering the general, they jeered at me especially, since I was the youngest
and brought up the rear. "Jog on, sonny. If you lose him you’ll never find
him again!"

This was mainly a brown country, cluttered with dead leaves
from the year before, but the oaks had tasseled and the redbud limbs were like
flames in the wind. Fruit trees in cabin yards, peach and pear and occasional
quince, were sheathed with bloom, white and pink, twinkling against broken
fields and random cuts of new grass washed clean by the rain. Winding over and
among the red clay hills, the column had strung out front and rear, accordion
action causing it to clot in places and move spasmodically in others, as if the
road itself had come alive, had been sowed with the dragon teeth of olden time,
and was crawling like an enormous snake toward Pittsburg Landing.

Seen that way, topping a rise and looking back and forward,
it was impersonal: an army in motion, so many
inspissated
tons of flesh and bone and blood and equipment: but seen from close, the mass
reduced to company size in a short dip between two hills, it was not that way
at all. I could see their faces then, and the army became what it really was:
forty thousand men—they were young men mostly, lots of them even younger than
myself, and I was nineteen just two weeks before—out on their first march in
the crazy weather of early April, going from Mississippi into Tennessee where
the Union army was camped between two creeks with its back to a river, inviting
destruction. This was the third day out, and their faces showed it. Rain and
mud, particularly where artillery and wagon trains had churned the road, had
made the march a hard one. Their faces were gay now in the sunlight, but when
you looked close you saw the sullen lines of strain about the mouths and the
lower eyelids etched with fatigue.

We had doubled back down the column all morning, then
retraced, and as we approached the crossroads a few hundred yards west of last
night's headquarters we saw General Beauregard standing in one of the angles of
a rail fence, talking with two of the corps commanders, Generals Bragg and
Polk. Beauregard was wagging his head, his big sad bloodhound eyes rimmed with
angry red and his hands fluttering. He was obviously upset, which was understandable,
for it was ten hours past the time when we should have been pressing them back
against the river.

When we rode up they turned and waited for General Johnston
to speak, and when he had greeted them with that careful courtesy he always
used, Beauregard began to repeat what he had been saying to the others. He
favored canceling the movement, returning to Corinth. Just hearing him say it,
I suddenly felt tired all over.

"There is no chance for surprise," he said,
shaking his head and shrugging his shoulders with that French way he had.
"They’ll be
intrenched
to the eyes."

General Johnston looked at him for a moment without saying
anything, then turned to Bishop Polk (they had roomed together at West Point)
and asked what he thought. Men in the passing column turned their heads,
watching, but they did not cheer because they could see this was a conference.
The bishop said his troops were eager for battle; they had left Corinth on the
way to a fight, he said, and if they didn’t find one they would be as
demoralized as if they had been whipped. He said it in that deep, pulpit voice
of his; it was as if I could hear his vestments rustle; it sounded fine.
General Bragg said he felt the same way about it—he would as soon be defeated
as return without fighting. General Breckinridge, commander of the reserve,
rode up while Bragg was speaking. He lifted his eyebrows, surprised that
withdrawal was even being considered; he sided with Bragg and Bishop Polk.
General Hardee was the only corps commander not present, but there was no doubt
which side he would favor: Hardee was always spoiling for a fight.

When General Johnston had heard them out, he drew himself up
in the saddle, leather creaking, and said quietly: "Gentlemen, we shall
attack at daylight tomorrow." It was as if a weight had been lifted from
my shoulders and I could breathe. He told them to form their corps according to
the order and to have the troops sleep on their arms in line of battle. As he
pulled his horse aside, passing me, he spoke to Colonel Preston.

"I would fight them if they were a million," he
said. "They can present no greater front between those two creeks than we
can, and the more men they crowd in there, the worse we can make it for
them."

I never knew anyone who did not think immediately that
General Johnston was the finest-looking man he had ever seen, and everyone who
ever knew him loved him. He was a big man, well over six feet tall and close to
two hundred pounds in weight, neither fat nor lean; he gave at once an
impression of strength and gentleness. His expression was calm as we rode away,
but his eyes were shining.

That was as it should be. For this was his hour of
vindication after two months of retreat and ugly talk which had followed
adulation. When he crossed the desert from California in '61, dodging Apaches
and Federal squadrons from cavalry posts along the way, and started north for
Richmond from New Orleans, he was hailed as the savior of liberty, and when he
reported to President Davis in September he was appointed General Commanding
the Western Department of the Army of the Confederate States of America—a long
title—responsible for maintaining the integrity of a line which stretched from
Virginia to Kansas along the northern frontier of our new nation. That was a
lot of line, but no one then, so far as I ever heard, doubted his ability to do
whatever was required of him. This was largely because they did not know what
forces he had to do it with.

He had twenty thousand poorly organized, poorly equipped
troops to defend the area between the mountains of eastern Kentucky and the
Mississippi River. By January he had managed to double that number, disposing
them this way: Polk on the left at Columbus opposing Grant, Hardee in the
center at Bowling Green opposing Sherman, and Zollicoffer on the right at
Cumberland Gap opposing Thomas. At each of these points his commanders were
outnumbered two and three to one. Hoping to hold off the Federal offensive so
that he would have more time to build and shape his army, he announced that his
situation was good, that he had plenty of troops, and that he had no fears
about holding his ground. His statements were printed in all the papers. North
and South. These were high times, everyone still drunk on Manassas and politicians
talking about whipping the enemy with cornstalks and the only disagreement
among our people back home was whether one Southern volunteer was worth ten
Yankee hirelings or a dozen—ten was the figure most frequently quoted, for
people's minds ran mostly to round numbers in those days. The general must have
known that reverses were coming, and he must have known too that, when they
came, the people would not understand.

They came soon enough. First, in mid-January at Fishing
Creek, his right caved in: Zollicoffer himself was killed when he rode out
front in a white rubber raincoat—he lay in a fence corner, muddy and dead,
while Union soldiers pulled hairs from his mustache for souvenirs, and his army
was broken and scattered deep into Tennessee, demoralized. Early next month
Fort Henry fell to Grant's attack, and ten days later Fort Donelson. Bowling
Green was evacuated then, outflanked, and Nashville was left to the enemy, the
first real Southern city to be lost. People were outraged. They had been
expecting an advance, and now within a month everything had changed; Kentucky
and Tennessee were being abandoned without a fight. They yelled for the
general's scalp. But when the Tennessee representatives in Richmond went into
the President's office to demand that he dismiss the Confederate commander in
the West, Mr. Davis told them: "If Sidney Johnston is not a general, we
had better give up the war, for we have no general," and bowed them out.

That was low ebb, but General Johnston took the blame just
as he had taken the praise. He knew that the only way to regain public favor
was to give the nation a victory, and he knew that the only way to halt the
Federal advance was to concentrate and strike. He chose Corinth, a railroad
junction in North Mississippi, near the Tennessee River, as the place to group
his armies. Grant, he believed, would try to break the Memphis & Charleston
Railroad, which ran through Corinth, whenever Buell reinforced him. General
Johnston planned to destroy Grant before Buell came up, after which he would
attend to Buell. It was that simple.

So Polk fell back from Columbus, leaving a strong garrison
at Island Number lo, and Bragg came up from Pensacola and Ruggles from New
Orleans, and Van Dorn was told to march from Arkansas and cross the river near
Memphis—he was expected any day. Grant's army was in camp at Pittsburg Landing,
on the near bank of the Tennessee River about twenty miles from Corinth. While
General Johnston was concentrating, scouts and spies brought him full reports
on Grant's strength and dispositions. He knew what he would find at Pittsburg:
an army no larger than his own, with its back to the river, unfortified—the
only digging they did was for straddle trenches—hemmed in by boggy creeks,
disposed for comfort, and scattered the peacetime way. He went on with his
plans; he would strike as soon as possible.

By the end of March we were almost ready. The Army of the
Mississippi (Beauregard had named it) was divided into four corps: 10,000 under
Polk, 16,000 under Bragg, 7000 under Hardee, and 7000 under Breckinridge. We
were as strong as Grant and stronger than Buell. Everything was set except for
the delay of Van Dorn, who had run into some trouble getting transportation across
the river. We waited. On the second of April, Polk sent word that one of the
enemy divisions was advancing from the river—heading for Memphis maybe, we
thought, though later we found this was not true—and that night a cavalry scout
reported that Buell's army was marching hard from Columbia to join Grant.
Within two hours of the time the scout reached headquarters General Johnston
ordered the advance on Pittsburg Landing. Van Dorn or no Van Dorn, the march
would begin Thursday and we would strike Grant at daybreak Saturday, April
fifth.

I worked all Wednesday night with Colonel Jordan, assistant
adjutant general on Beauregard's staff, preparing the march order. We used the
opening section of Napoleon's Waterloo order as a guide—there was always plenty
of material about Napoleon wherever Beauregard pitched his tent. First we sent
out a warning note for all commanders to have their troops assembled for the
march with three days' cooked rations in their haversacks. Then the colonel
hunched over the map with a sheaf of notes General Beauregard had written for
him to follow. It wasn’t much map, really; when I first looked at it, all I saw
was a wriggle of lines and a welter of longhand notations, some of them even
written upside-down. But as the colonel went on dictating it became simple
enough, and after a while it even became clear. I didn’t know which I admired
the most. Napoleon or Colonel Jordan. I was proud to be working with him.

Two roads ran from Corinth up to Pittsburg. On the map they
resembled a strung bow, with the two armies at the top and bottom tips. The
southern route, through Monterey, was the string; the northern route, through
Mickey's, was the bow. Bragg and Breckinridge were to travel the string, Hardee
and Polk the bow. Beyond Mickey's, within charging distance of the Federal
outposts, they were to form for battle in successive lines, Hardee across the
front with one brigade from Bragg, who was to form the second line five hundred
yards in rear. Polk was to march half a mile behind Bragg, supporting him, and
Breckinridge was to mass the reserve corps in Polk's rear. The flanks of the
army, with the three lead corps extended individually across the entire front,
rested on the two creeks which hemmed Grant in. As we advanced, each line would
support the line in front and the reserve corps would feed troops from the rear
toward those points where resistance was stiffest. That way, the Federal army
would be jammed into the northward loop of the creek on the left, or back
against the Tennessee itself.

It was the first battle order I had ever seen, and it
certainly seemed complicated. But once you understood what it was saying, it
was simple enough. I had had a share in composing it, watching it grow from
notes and discussion into what it finally became: a simple list of instructions
which, if followed, would result in the annihilation of an army that had come
with arrogance into our country to destroy us and deny our people their
independence: but even though I'd watched it grow line by line, myself
supplying the commas and semicolons which made it clearer, when it was complete
I could look at it as if it had been done without my help; and it was so good,
so beautifully simple, it made me catch my breath. It did occur to me, even
then, that all battle orders did this—they would all result in victory if they
were followed. But this one seemed so simple, somehow so right that I began to
understand how Shakespeare must have felt when he finished Macbeth, even if I
had only supplied the punctuation. Colonel Jordan was proud of it, too: I
believe he really thought it was better than the one by Napoleon he had used as
a model, though of course he didn’t say so.

BOOK: Shiloh
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