The Battle of Shiloh Changes Everything, A Nurse Reflects

April 6, 1862/2012
Volume 3, Issue 14 (78 Issues Since 15 October 2010)

The Battle of Shiloh Changes Everything

On April 6, 1862 the Confederate’s successful surprise attack on General Ulysses S. Grant’s unprepared troops at Shiloh on the Tennessee River caused them to fall back until the onset of night stopped the Confederate advance. Grant’s “army was crippled, but he knew that the Confederates were just as badly hurt and that he would be reinforced during the night. Thus he replied to one subordinate who advised retreat: ‘Retreat? No. I propose to attack at daylight and to whip them.’ And he did.” (1)

More than 13,000 Union soldiers and 10,000 Confederates were killed or wounded, more men than in all previous American wars combined. (In contrast, there had been 4,700 casualties at the first Battle of Bull Run.) President Lincoln was urged to relieve Grant, but he stood behind him. “I can’t spare this man; he fights,” Lincoln said.

Historian Edward L. Ayers writes, “The horrifying battle of Shiloh in April 1862 changed Americans’ understanding of the Civil War. Coming almost exactly a year after Fort Sumter and the secession of Virginia, the battle near the border of Tennessee and Mississippi not only redefined the borders of the military conflict but also the boundaries of the imaginable. Thousands of men with little training and no experience in war were thrown against one another in days of inexpressible suffering and waste. A desperate and defiant effort by the Confederacy to stop the progress of the United States Army and Navy in the lower Mississippi Valley and to push the Union Army all the way back to the Ohio River, the Battle of Shiloh shattered any fantasies people had that the war would be won easily by either side. While the United States prevented the Confederacy from seizing the great victory it had imagined, the Union general — Ulysses S. Grant — was widely attacked for incompetence, and worse.” (2)

General Grant on Shiloh

“Up to the battle of Shiloh,” Grant would later write, “I as well as thousands of other citizens believed that the rebellion against the Government would collapse suddenly and soon [if] a decisive victory could be gained over any of its armies. [But after Shiloh,] I gave up all idea of saving the Union except by complete conquest.”

“I saw an open field,” Grant recalled, “so covered with dead that it would have been possible to walk across the clearing, in any direction, stepping on dead bodies, without a foot touching the ground.” (3)

– Submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Vermont Humanities Council Executive Director

Battle of Shiloh, c. 1888, Thure de Thulstrup, Library of Congress

Battle of Shiloh, c. 1888, Thure de Thulstrup, Library of Congress


1. Grant Moves South: 1861 – 1863, Bruce Catton, 1960, p. 241, quoted by James M. McPherson in Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War, 1996, p. 168

2. America’s War, Talking About the Civil War and Emancipation on their 150th Anniversaries, Edward L. Ayers, ed., (2012), p. 114

3. A People’s Contest: The Union and Civil War 1861-1865, Phillip Shaw Paludan,  p. 76


Battle of Shiloh Maps at the Civil War Trust

Ambrose Bierce, perhaps the best writer of the war, wrote powerfully of Shiloh in his essay, “What I Saw of Shiloh”

The Battle of Shiloh inspired Herman Melville to write his eighteen-line poem, “Shiloh: A Requiem” (April, 1862)

John Greenleaf Whittier to write his poem, “The Watchers”

The Drummer Boy of Shiloh 

Battlefield Nurse Describes What She Saw at Shiloh

A battlefield nurse, Belle Reynolds, who had followed her husband from Peoria, Illinois to Shiloh, described what she saw:

Major Belle Reynolds, a Civil War nurse

Major Belle Reynolds, a Civil War nurse

“. . .We . . .came to an old cabin, where the wounded were being brought. Outside lay the bodies of more than a hundred, brought in for recognition and burial — a sight so ghastly it haunts me now.

“. . . And that operating table! . . . one by one, they would take from different parts of the hospital a poor fellow, lay him out on those bloody boards, and administer chloroform; but before insensibility, the operation would begin, and in the midst of shrieks, curses, and wild laughs, the surgeon would wield over his wretched victim the glittering knife and saw; and soon the severed and ghastly limb, white as snow and spattered with blood, would fall upon the floor — one more added to the terrible pile.

“. . . At night I lived over the horrors of the field hospital and the amputating table. If I but closed my eyes, I saw such horrible sights that I would spring from my bed; and not until fairly awakened could I be convinced of my remoteness from the sickening scene. Those groans were in my ears! I saw again the quivering limbs, the spouting arteries, and the pinched and ghastly faces of the sufferers.” (1)

A Confederate soldier wrote after Shiloh, “Death in every awful form, if it really be death, is a pleasant sight in comparison to the fearfully and mortally wounded.” (2)

– Submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Vermont Humanities Council Executive Director  


1. Don’t Know Much About the Civil War: Everything You Need to Know About America’s Greatest Conflict but Never Learned, Kenneth C. Davis, pp. 228-9

2. Civil War Wives: The Lives and Times of Angelina Grimke Weld, Varina Howell Davis, and Julia Dent Grant, Carol Berkin,  p. 164


Civil War Nurse: Major Belle Reynolds

Belle Loomis (Macomber) Reynolds

“Civil War nurse achieves rank of major”, The Washington Times

She Went to the Field: Women Soldiers of the Civil War, Bonnie Tsui, 2006

 The General/Buster Keaton’s The Great Locomotive Chase

“On April 12, 1862, Union raiders staged a daring seizure of a Confederate train pulled by the General, a locomotive headed north from Big Shanty (present-day Kennesaw [Georgia] . . .) toward Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the Union lines.” The Walt Disney film The Great Locomotive Chase (1956) is based on the raid, as is The General (1927), starring Buster Keaton. “While Keaton casts the Confederates as the heroes of his narrative, The Great Locomotive Chase [offers a far more serious and straightforward telling of these events,] focuses on the raiders and portrays their leader, James J. Andrews, as the film’s protagonist.” (1)

– Submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Vermont Humanities Council Executive Director


1. The Civil War in Georgia: A New Georgia Encyclopedia Companion, John C. Inscoe, ed. (2011), p. 267.

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Filed under Civil War Book of Days: 1862

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