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Ambrose Bierce and Henry Morton Stanley at the Battle of Shiloh, 1862

By John Laskey

(From his article '‘The Devil’s Own Day’ - A Simple Story' which appeared in Crossfire No 69, August 2002).

"This is a simple story of a battle; such a tale as may be told by a soldier who is no writer to a reader who is no soldier" (Ambrose Bierce - 'What I Saw At Shiloh')

"Doctor Livingstone, I presume?"

AMerican Civil War Round Table UK / Battles & Campaigns / Ambrose Bierce

The words that most readers will associate with a 20-year-old Confederate volunteer of this simple story of a battle. How about:

"Peyton Farquhar was dead: his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of Owl Creek Bridge"?

It’s the ‘punchline’ from one of the most famous ‘twist in the tale’ short stories ever published; its author Ambrose Bierce (pictured) was a 20-year-old volunteer in the Union Army of the Ohio.

Perhaps they never knowingly met, either then or later, during their successful careers as journalists. But they were on opposing sides at the battle of Shiloh, April 1862 - and they both wrote compelling accounts of their experiences. When I drew their accounts together, I began to notice some eerie parallels. And I became quite certain that they actually faced each other across the field on the second day of the battle. So I thought it would be interesting to splice their stories together, to see if we could move one step closer to an event which they couldn't help remember years later, after fame had overtaken them.

The Forces Gather

Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston was gathering the forces that included Stanley to counter the spectacular successes by a couple of new Union generals, Grant and Pope. Grant had earned his nickname of ‘Unconditional Surrender’ that February, after his workmanlike capture of the formidable Confederate forts that had guarded the Mississippi River against his forces. So successful were the Union combined land and river operations in the West, that it must have looked as if the war would not last another year. In the Deep South, New Orleans had fallen quickly, while to the north General McClellan's army was knocking on the door of the Confederate capitol, Richmond. It must have seemed that the Confederacy was caught between the closing jaws of a great, blue-clad vice, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis was desperate to make good news. In this he could trust his former comrade in arms from the Mexican War: Johnston had learnt from that time a few things about attacking against the odds. Davis took heart from America's most distinguished officer, who had chosen to serve the South, and was only prevented from joining his good friend by the closing upper jaw of that Union vise.

Grant’s next big target was Corinth, an important railroad centre in Mississippi. To achieve the task, he was ordered to concentrate his forces with a significantly larger force under General Don Carlos Buell. The coming events were to make for one of the most enduring feuds between Civil War officers that cast a shadow long after the conflict ended. For the meantime, Grant was happy to reinforce a position that one of his able lieutenants, William T Sherman, had happened across almost by accident. This was Pittsburg Landing, off the Tennessee River, and very near a makeshift wooden church called Shiloh.

• "Army, n. A class of non-producers who defend the nation by devouring everything likely to tempt an enemy to invade" (Ambrose Bierce – ‘The Devil’s Dictionary’)

Stanley wasn't really Stanley at all, but born John Rowlands, in Wales. His subsequent fame in tracking down Dr David Livingstone in the Dark Continent in 1871, and discovering the true source of the Nile gave him a problem – his past. Not surprisingly, his autobiography is unreliable: he had an unhappy childhood, the bastard son of a woman of easy virtue, whose father died a drunk. His desire to better his dim prospects, and perhaps to find a family of his own, caused him to jump his ship at New Orleans, aged eighteen. Readers of his autobiography are treated to some clumsy improbabilities. There is an unlikely gender confusion episode that owes something to Shakespeare. A fight with a cruel slave overseer straight out of ’Uncle Tom's Cabin’. And a touching deathbed scene, that couldn’t have happened because the lady in the case lived on for many years. His name change came from a loose adoptive arrangement by a Louisiana trader Henry Stanley, whose disappearance from the autobiography is one of the most puzzling events of all.

Perhaps the most convincing part of Stanley/Rowland's autobiography is of his service as a Confederate volunteer. Stanley joined up in the rush of enthusiasm for a cause he, like so many others, understood but dimly and on their own limited terms. In camp, he met up with young Henry Parker, whom we might nowadays describe as being rather ‘wet’. Of course, none of these boys (for that was what they were) had much idea of what war was about. They were in for one for the rudest awakenings in American history.

A few days earlier, William Stanley and his friends of the ‘Dixie Greys’ company, 6th Arkansas Regiment must have realised there was something up, since they had been ordered to pack 3 days’ cooked rations, and move north without benefit of knapsacks or tents. Stanley reckoned a quarter of his mates were under 20 and, though they'd seen a battle, they’d not actually fought in one yet. The only significant loss so far had been their Colonel, whose horse had misjudged a bluff overlooking the Tennessee River, taking the Colonel with him.

After a hard and confusing march through downpours, they had encamped in the darkness not far from the Unio

American Civil War Round Table UK / Battles & Campaigns / H M Stanley

n lines, forming part of General Hardee's III Army Corps. Neither Sherman nor Grant were expecting a major attack, and their disbelief allowed a Confederate army of over 40,000 men to rest undisturbed after their gruelling advance.

• "Battle, n. A method of untying with the teeth a political knot that would not yield to the tongue." (‘The Devil’s Dictionary’)

At four o'clock in the morning of 6 April 1862, Stanley took breakfast with his colleagues and formed into line, ready to attack at dawn. Henry Parker wasn’t looking forward to the fight, and his mood infected Stanley. Henry had noticed some violets growing, and Stanley followed his suggestion that they pluck some, putting them in their caps, so that the Yankees might not shoot at this sign of peace. The laughter from their comrades was tempered only by their nearness to the Union front line. Soon, they were shouldering their outdated flintlock muskets, each loaded with a lead ball and three pieces of buckshot, and marching in good order towards their unsuspecting adversaries. In the pre-dawn murk of the thin forest, Stanley thought that on any other Sunday the scene would have been ideal for a picnic.

Officers were courteous in the ordering of their inexperienced men, prefacing direct orders ‘if you please, Mr (so- and -so)’. Stanley and his companions of all ranks were gentlemen volunteers all, and the conscription of unwilling non-slaveholding majority of men in the southern states was not yet necessary. Shiloh would change that. At about 500 yards from the northern line, they received the first shots, pinging and zipping around them. "Those are bullets!" gawped Henry Parker. Stanley recalled the overwhelming noise that was physically stunning, likening it to huge rocks tumbling down the slope of an overturned mountain. Soon, he could see the source of the bullets – globes of pearly smoke, streaked with crimson. Perhaps surprisingly, out of fear and frustration Stanley's anger grew at the ranks of men behind him, as they shot over his head, deafening him and filling his eyes with their smoke. But he could sense rather than feel that the Union line was giving way from the hesitant and thinned ranks of blue before him. The tension in the southern ranks gave way to an overwhelming defiant yelling, which Stanley joined in, excited by the sudden realisation that he was not alone, that other companies like his 'Dixie Greys' were pushing forward in an overwhelming wave! Boosted by these impressions, when someone yelled out that their opponents were running, the southerners surged forward in a berserker fury. They did not stop to catch breath until they found themselves amongst the neatly placed tents of a Union parade ground.

Rummaging through the well-supplied Yankee encampment, Stanley was sure the battle must be over. At one stage, Johnston himself had openly berated a young officer for allowing his men to become distracted by the temptations of an abandoned enemy encampment. Quickly realising the effect of his outburst on the men, he relented by taking a tin cup, having it filled with liquor and drinking their health. Later on he would be seen chinking this tin cup against the rows of drawn bayonets to encourage his rapidly tiring troops. Indeed, Johnston would be one of the first Civil War generals to ‘lead from the front’ - with tragic consequences for the Southern cause.

So Stanley was wrong, and by the time the attack recommenced, the Northerners had brought up some guns, adding a deep bass roar to the rip-crack of musketry, stopping the Southerners in their tracks. It was no doubt with some relief that they were ordered to lie down in order to fire back. But the enemy fire increased its intensity, making the immobile Southerners cower under its weight, and they began to find it impossible to motivate themselves to return fire. Stanley saw several companions who tried to face the storm get cut down. The only way out was up, and perhaps realising this the officers all together ordered the men forward in a rush, giving them little time to think of the danger as they had been able to do while clinging to the ground.

Henry Parker got hit. Stanley heard him cry out pathetically, "Oh, stop, please stop a bit! I have been hurt and can't move!" He saw that Henry's foot had been smashed. They didn't stop then, but not much further on the Dixie Grey’s colour-bearer realised he was alone. He turned to the men to encourage them with the stark fact that he was unhurt. Again, the line surged forward. Their yelling started up all over again, and the Union line flew at the double quick, as Stanley for the second time felt the exultant joy of winning and staying unhurt. But when he reached the second Union camp, he was knocked flat and fell stunned to the ground. He found later – he was not sure how long it took him to recover his senses - that a minie ball had hit the clasp of his belt, denting and cracking it. By this time, ravenous hunger had taken hold of him, and he ate freely from his haversack. It was about 10:00 o’clock in the morning.

Nonchalance or Overcompensation?

General Sherman had convinced himself a major Southern attack was not going to come. Months earlier, he had been heavily criticised in the Northern press after his very outspoken views on what force would be needed to win in the West had been reported by a hostile politician. Perhaps he was now overcompensating. And perhaps, when he realised his error, he might have had a flashback to a painful incident from his days soldiering in old California, when he first came across hot chilli pepper, and, wrongly taking it for tomato sauce, took a good mouthful. Sherman’s boss was equally surprised: General Grant was taking breakfast at the Cherry Mansion, with its pleasant view of the wide Tennessee River, when the concussion of the Confederate artillery interrupted, telling him that all of his plans now needed major - and urgent - overhaul.

A Mathematical Mind

Ambrose Bierce was with Buell’s force. He didn’t have a good education, but he did have a mathematical mind, particularly tuned to drawing maps. It was only much later that his reputation as ‘Bitter Bierce’ and writer of rather unsettling short stories was established. Apart from ‘Incident At Owl Creek Bridge’, one of his most enduring works is his ‘Devil’s Dictionary’, a treasure-trove for cynics, and quotes from which appear in this article. Had things worked out differently for Bierce, he might have stayed a professional soldier. But the army let him down and eventually he settled on journalism: his end is a mystery on par with the motives for Stanley’s inventions. At this time, Union General Hazen used Bierce in the dangerous task of preliminary reconnaissance. After a long march towards Pittsburg Landing, Bierce was preparing to settle down to bivouac with his companions of the 9th Indiana Volunteers. There was no sense of urgency, and Grant’s army at Pittsburg Landing - on the other side of the River - was concentrating on perfecting its drill for the coming advance on Corinth.

Then the sound of the battle reached Bierce’s encampment. The camp’s Stars and Stripes, that had earlier been hanging limp in the still air, seemed to lift its head to listen to the breathing of some great animal below the horizon. The relaxed activity of the camp gave way to a realisation that a major battle was opening far away, confirmed as the flag again streamed to the accompaniment of deep sighing, as "of iron lungs". The men cheered, as bugles called out the ‘assembly’ - an association with imminent action. Bierce compared all the exhilaration to wine, the stirring of the blood as to the kisses of a beautiful woman. Don Carlos Buell’s army was preparing to march to the sound of the guns.

Amidst the sound of heavy cannonading, Stanley now pushed north to rejoin his comrades. Without their clamour and excitement, perhaps still stunned by that clasp-denting blow, he noticed for the first time the horrible aftermath of battle. In a half-square mile of sunlit woodland lay up to a thousand dead and wounded men and animals and military detritus. He began to pick out some detail. There, a plump, ruddy-faced English sergeant they knew – predictably tagged ‘John Bull’ - lay lifeless, staring up at the sun. And a lieutenant, shot though the head, dressed in a glossy new uniform that would see no further wear. Further on, a cluster of around 20 dead men, all tangled up with each other. Everywhere was the smell of blood. He watched a burial party, under a flag of truce, lining up the dead before burying them in anonymous grave trenches. How strange, Stanley thought bitterly, that life, hitherto treated as a sacred thing, protected by civilising law, could here so easily be discarded! What strange warp in society, he mused, could let religion and morality (and, yes, law!) stand aside? But it seemed to him now that the comforts of a civilised life were for times of ease only. He had seen how they could so easily give way in the appeal to man’s bestial nature; when ‘murder’ could be re-categorised and be acceptable, even judged virtuous. By the time he reached his comrades, he had a revelation: that the moral excellence, which he had been searching for since leaving Wales, was an illusion – he had glimpsed the truth at Shiloh.

He caught up with the 6th Arkansas around one o’clock in the afternoon. He had time to realise how fierce the Union resistance to the surprise onslaught had been, and he crouched down with his comrades ready to press the attack. It took some hours, and the arrival of Confederate reinforcements, before Stanley and his comrades were able to move forward. After two hours, the Union line seemed to fall back towards the Tennessee River, and Stanley noticed for the first time the screaming arrival of big shells form the supporting Union gunboats on the river, Lexington and Tyler. Though terrifying, he observed that they did little damage, other than to trees. Even so, the Confederate advance was beginning to slow, with fewer men able to keep up the pace of the advance, and groups were having to pause to recuperate before pushing on further still. Stanley recalled the growing exhaustion and the thirst, from biting into the gunpowder in the paper cartridges, and wondered that he might have become an automata, so little influence did he feel he had on his own inclinations. By about five o’clock that afternoon, they broke through to a third Union camp. Perhaps mindful of their growing exhaustion, their leaders ordered them to occupy the tents. By contrast to the excited looting earlier that morning, the men now barely had the strength left to turn over their spoils. Stanley found some biscuits, and molasses to drink. With the firing slacking to the setting of the sun, he felt able to ignore the gunboats’ ineffectual shells. By eight o’clock he was fast asleep, as heavy rain began to fall.

By this time, command of the Confederate forces had passed to General Pierre Beauregard. Nobody in the 6th Arkansas knew it then, but General Johnston was dead. Anxious to probe the Union line for himself, he had received a slight wound – to an artery. Perhaps unaware of the seriousness of the injury, possibly due to a much older wound received during a duel, he had ridden on until he lost consciousness in his saddle. It was too late to do anything. His body was quietly removed to the captured Shiloh Church. It would not have been good for morale to make the death of the South’s most experienced commander widely known.

• "Bang, n. the cry of a gun. That arrangement of a woman’s hair which suggests the thought of shooting her; hence the name" (‘The Devil’s Dictionary’)

From the far side of the river, Bierce could see the Union gunboats firing at hidden Confederate positions. After a hideous forced march, the 9th Indiana Volunteers had reached the River shore, and waited along with five thousand of Buell’s reinforcements to be ferried over under the rays of the setting sun. As the steamers crossed and re-crossed, Southern shells would occasionally land close by, but they caused as little damage as the Lexington and Tyler did to the Southerners. To Bierce, the noise of the gunboats seemed a lot more impressive than their arriving shells had to Stanley. Occasionally Bierce caught glimpses of thumb-sized figures on the other side – the enemy!

After finally getting on a crossing steamer, he was surprised to find a woman on board. This fine, dramatic wife had taken it upon herself to encourage and inspire the troops, in particular young Bierce. Against the glow of the battle from the oncoming shore, she brandished a small pistol, telling him she’d use it too, if it came to that. He wasn’t sure whether she’d sensed his courage was failing, or whether he ought to be flattered. All the same, he doffed his hat to the beautiful, silly little fool.

At the other side, Bierce’s fear must have increased, since they then had to force their way though hordes of beaten, weaponless, officerless men trying to cross back to the safety of the other side of the river. Grant wrote later that the rear of his army was not the part to reach a judgement on the achievements of the main force. But Bierce couldn’t have appreciated that. While his comrades were furious with the stragglers, he almost admired their courage in choosing a greater certainty of being shot for desertion than taking their chances with the enemy. For their part, the stragglers openly delighted at the prospect of the destruction of Buell’s indignant men.

Breaking free, they marched with the vanguard of Buell's relieving force through the darkening fields, not knowing where they were headed. Eventually, movement orders had to be relayed down the line in whispers as the growing darkness slowed their column to a snail’s pace. Sometimes, they would trip on the dead or injured. Bierce remembered the thunderstorm breaking, the rain coming down in torrents. How ironic, he noted, that many of the injured still begged for water! By the blaze of constant lightning flashes, the men could read their watches. They waited for the dawn.

During the downpour, as Stanley slept and Bierce checked his watch by the light of lightning bolts, Sherman met up with Grant near Pittsburg Landing. Grant had earlier injured an ankle after he had fallen from his horse and the beast rolled over him - his pain, the shrieks from the ‘hospital’ and the storm had combined to cause him to resume a solitary, sleepless vigil under a tree, smoking his trademark cigars. The situation seemed desperate, notwithstanding the arrival of reinforcements, including Buell’s men. "We’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we, Grant?" asked Sherman. "Yes", replied Grant: "lick ‘em tomorrow though".

• "Reveille, n. A signal to sleeping soldiers to dream of battle no more but to get up and have their blue noses counted". (‘The Devil’s Dictionary’)

Awaking from his refreshing sleep an hour before the dawn, Stanley fell in with his fellow ‘Dixie Greys’. They could only muster 50 men, but all agreed that the previous day had been a great victory for the South. Yet at daybreak they were formed into line again – the battle wasn’t over after all! For some reason, Stanley’s Captain then singled him out for special attention: "Now Mr Stanley" he asked, "if you please, step briskly forward!" The young man, smarting from the implied criticism, rushed ahead to fling himself down behind some trees, and began skirmishing with the Union line. It was a turning point in his life. He had not realised that his comrades had not kept up with him. As the Union skirmish line advanced uncomfortably close he realised he was on his own – surrounded by the enemy!

As dawn broke on Monday, April 7, Bierce was surprised to find that any signs of a battle of the previous day must have melted away. Almost by instinct, the troops fell into line, to face what wasn’t clear. But then that same bugle call of the previous day - ‘assembly’. Except this time it might have come from the enemy…Again, Bierce noted the weird effect of the call, floating like a lark in the raw morning air. He felt that, had you put a hand on the hair of any of these men, it would have crackled and shot sparks.

Bierce’s line moved forward behind a skirmish line, no drums beating, no bands playing or colours flying: no nonsense - they meant business. The presence of their artillery would have given them greater confidence, but the guns must have got stuck behind the lines somewhere, struggling forward though the mud. Then, for the first time, Bierce came into an area of the most intense fighting of the day before. Wreckage was strewn everywhere, trees splintered - none had escaped - and horses - dead horses. Dead men, too. One who was yet still alive was a tall Union sergeant, staring upwards, frothing at the mouth. Bierce carefully noted how a bullet had opened his cranium, and how his brains fall away in flakes to the ground. One man, a womanish fellow, Bierce thought, volunteered to despatch the stricken sergeant with a bayonet thrust. Bierce demurred, shocked - that would, he thought, be too unusual. And besides too many were watching.

There were few opportunities for cavalry to take part at any of the actions at Shiloh, though a former Confederate slave owner called Nathan Bedford Forrest had been going to great lengths to scout the approaching Union forces. Bierce thought the Southern riders, whom a few shots from the skirmishers saw off, must have been cavalry. So they kept moving forward, running the final distance to join the main skirmish line that had formed about 40 yards away from a wood. Suddenly, the forest seemed to flame up and disappear with a crash like a great wave hitting a beach, emitting hot hisses of lead bullets, some of which were stopped with a sickening ‘spat’ by the flesh of his men. Twelve of them went down in front of the hidden Confederate battle line that had held its fire until the last moment. Bierce’s platoon fell back, firing into the smoke as they could. Afterwards he remembered an officer walking up to their Colonel and, ludicrously, stating the obvious: "The enemy is in force just beyond this field, sir".

• "Foreigner, n. A villain, regarded with various and varying degrees of toleration, according to his conformity to the eternal standard of our conceit and the shifting one of our interests". (‘The Devil’s Dictionary’)

"Down with that gun, Secesh, or I’ll drill a hole though you! Drop it, quick!" Stanley had half a dozen Union rifles pointed right at him, and his weapon fell as if by itself. Two men grabbed him by the collar, and frog-marched the shocked adoptive Southerner past long, precise lines of well-equipped Union men marching to the front. Some of them, who appeared to Stanley to be of German origin, shouted out at him - they wanted him killed, right there! This brought his sense of dignity back– yes, he’d been captured; but through the misfortune of war! - and he stared defiantly into the faces of his would-be executioners as they levelled their bayonets at him. What excitable, wild-eyed brutes they seemed! If, he thought, such an upstanding person as he might only multiply a thousand times, then the small force of Stanley ‘clones’ could surely exterminate with ease these savage louts from the backwoods of the North... Even so, his two Ohioan captors and some officers were forced to defend him from the clamouring Germans, before he could finally pass from that danger to an even greater one in the rear of the Union line, where shells from his own side were striking men down everywhere.

As Stanley was bundled through the mayhem, he recognised the men from Buell’s army. In between his shame at being captured and his mental search for a culprit, he noted the fine blue uniforms and new, unscuffed knapsacks. Even so, it seemed to him that the men with the privilege of having such fine supplies lacked the confidence of his Southern comrades. If only, he thought, his own side might have had 24 hours of rest and recuperation, then surely these untried Northern men would have crumpled before them!

As the danger passed and both he and his captors began to relax, Stanley began to discuss the war with them. He was too proud to say so then, but these men put the Union cause over very well. They did not claim to fight slavery - they held that the Northern people cared nothing for the slaves, but would everything for the unity of the country. The force of their argument had quietly impressed Stanley by time they reached Pittsburg Landing. There, with hundreds of other Confederate prisoners, he boarded one of the steamers upon which Bierce had crossed the previous evening. They were ferried over to the ‘safe’ side of the River, into captivity.

The 9th Indiana Volunteers formed part of the Union battle-line, interspersed with the guns that had now come up. From the woods, they were faced with a Confederate line supporting its own guns. With his comrades, Bierce lay down in a line of brambles to avoid the shot being blindly blasted in their direction by the Southern guns. The right and left of the facing lines were less exposed, which encouraged the Union troops on either side of his position to press forward. Though lying prone, Bierce envied them - he just wanted to be able to move away for the oncoming shot that, blind or not, seemed to be finding targets. The noise from his own guns was deafening, and Bierce began to fear them more than those of the other side. After all, he was being forced to defend them without seeing what (if any) damage they were doing in return. They were, he thought, feeble bullies that had to be supported. This contrary mood so took him that he felt grim satisfaction every time one of his own guns was destroyed.

Eventually they were relieved, and moved to the heights above a deep ravine nearby. Bierce had learnt that, during the previous day’s fight, a fire had broken out in the ravine’s undergrowth, and that one Illinois Regiment that had refused to surrender had been destroyed there. To satisfy a morbid curiosity, he went down for a closer look. At the bottom, he found himself ankle deep in ashes. Around the edges of the depression lay many bodies, half-submerged in ash. Most seemed from their attitudes to have died not from the battle but from the flames. It would not be the last time that the living and the dead in a Civil War battle would be cremated by brushfires started by guns.

By three o’clock it had started to rain again, and the 9th Indiana Volunteers were exhausted. They were by now indifferent to the sights, sounds and smells of their ‘field of glory’. Now they were supporting the guns again: and they too seemed to have grown tired in their quarrel, as did their deadly antagonists, for they only occasionally roared at each other. It seemed that the battle really was ending. Until Bierce saw, just 200 yards to his front two columns of grey-clad soldiers walking towards them, muskets on their right shoulders. He noticed with surprise that they seemed to be directed by a lone, highly confident man.

The Union artillery moved their mouths towards the oncoming lines and opened fire with canister shot, deadly at short range. As the Union lines adjusted themselves to meet the onslaught, a grey cloud emerged from the trees. It was met by such a tremendous volley from the Union line as seemed to make the trees turn up their leaves. The Confederate line paused, then struggled forward, bayonets fixed. Surely, the awaiting Union line, bayonets still in their sheathes, would simply be overwhelmed! - but a volley from the second Union line was more than the grey wave could stand. It receded, to be immediately replaced by a second line. Bierce thought that those two crashing volleys were all the Union lines could manage, and they fell back. The brigade's reserve regiment then ran forwards to meet the challenge - by the time the 9th Indiana were ordered forward Bierce had been deafened by the firing. He estimated that within an area of 300 yards by 50 yards, six regiments now struggled for the front places, as each attack was met by counter-attack.

Eventually the Confederate line seemed to crumble and, with their bayonets now fixed, the Union men chased them back to their start positions – one of the tented encampments abandoned by Grant’s men the previous day. They did not stay long: two fresh Confederate regiments sited behind the tents opened fire, tumbling them all the way back to the Union artillery line. But the tide had now turned. An ‘invalid’ brigade checked this Confederate riposte as Bierce and his comrades, simultaneously elated and exhausted, flopped down by the guns. A sort of hysteria seemed had settled in as the men realised they had survived. They could be even more certain of that now, as fresh, confident Union regiments marched through their position towards the stubborn Confederate line. Bierce’s comrades held their breath, anticipating the impact - but nothing happened. The Confederates had withdrawn. For Bierce, the battle of Shiloh - but not the War, was over.

• "Yesterday, n. The infancy of youth, the youth of manhood, the entire past of age" (‘The Devil’s Dictionary’)

Since the Confederates had abandoned the field, and shortly afterwards Corinth too, Shiloh was marginally a Northern victory. Yet few in the North, least of all the newspapers, felt it to be so. Stories of ill-prepared Union troops being bayoneted in their tents were a huge blow to Grant’s reputation for success. So were the casualties. Grant was convinced that the South had suffered more, but two thousand men of each side had been killed outright. Each side also had around four times as many men injured apiece, added to which were the prisoners. Grant subsequently fell out with Buell after claiming that it was the reinforcement from General Lew Wallace (subsequently writer of ‘Ben Hur’) who had been the deciding factor. Buell subsequently refused to subordinate himself to Sherman, and went public to complain about Grant expecting him to do so, while also detailing what he considered to be Grant’s ‘mismanagement’ of the war.

From the Southern viewpoint, Jefferson Davis thought the war lost after Johnson died. And soldiers like young Henry Parker and Stanley himself would not fight again. Soon after Shiloh, conscription was ordered in the South. There would be no more ‘gentlemen volunteers’: from now on the Civil War was total war.

After Shiloh, Stanley was taken to Camp Douglas at St Louis. Missouri, where he endured 6 weeks of vermin-crawling imprisonment. After that he didn't need much persuading that the best way out would be to swap his lice-infested grey uniform for a clean blue one. Stanley subsequently went into denial about turning his coat, and on one occasion actually claimed to have bravely escaped his captors. He certainly did join a Union artillery battery, but saw no further action. He became ill, and discharged himself. Much later, when famous for his explorations and finding the famed abolitionist Dr David Livingstone, he managed to persuade the US government that he had not actually deserted, while omitting any awkward references to his earlier service in the Southern cause. After becoming a United States citizen, he reverted to being a British subject, which enabled him in the 1890s to become a Member of the British Parliament and also to graciously accept a knighthood from Queen Victoria. Stanley died in 1904.

Bierce forever after took Buell’s side, declaring that Grant’s "beaten army" had been saved from his "manifest incompetence" by the Buell’s "soldierly activity and skill". He fought on, and was present at the Battle of Chickamauga. At Kennesaw Mountain in 1864 he was badly injured in the head by a bullet. For his outstanding service he was promised a lucrative commission in San Francisco - but was subsequently passed over. So he resigned from the army and took up political journalism, enhancing his reputation for sharp satire after living in London during the 1870s. Of his short stories, 'An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge' is perhaps the best known. There is an Owl Creek at Shiloh, which must have inspired the name, if not the events of that tale. During the 20th century Bierce worked for William Randolph Hearst. He went to Mexico in 1913 in search of an exclusive interview with Pancho Villa - and was never heard from again.

The battle of Shiloh was a landmark in the lives of both men. They recalled it with horror, certainly: yet also, in some strange way with nostalgia, too. Perhaps Bierce can best capture that feeling in one of his less bitter passages: "Youth, there is no such wizard as thou! Give me but one touch of thine artist hand upon the dull canvas of the present; gild for but one moment the drear and somber scenes of today, and I will willingly surrender an other life than the one that I should have thrown away at Shiloh".


• Allen, Stacy D. (2001) – ‘Shiloh! A Visitors Guide’ (Blue & Gray Magazine)

• Arnold, James (1998) – ‘Shiloh: The Death Of Innocence’ (Osprey Military ‘Campaign’ Series)

• Bierce, Ambrose Gwinnet: (Ed.) Hopkins, Ernest Jerome (1967) ‘The Enlarged Devil’s Dictionary’. (Penguin Classics, 2000)

• ‘What I Saw At Shiloh’ & ‘An Affair of Outposts’ (1909) from ‘Ambrose Bierce: Civil War Stories’ (Dover Thrift Editions, 1994)

• Grant, Ulysses S. (1886) ‘Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant’ (Penguin Classics, 1999)(Ed.)

• Hughes, Nathaniel Cheairs, Jr. (2000) Sir Henry Morton Stanley-Confederate’ (Louisiana State University Press)

• McPherson, James M. (1988) ‘Battle Cry Of Freedom’ (Penguin, 1990)

• Sherman, William Tecumseh (1886) ‘Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman’ (Penguin Classics, 2000).


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