Horrors of War: A Chicago Gunner at Shiloh

The following intense and detailed battle account from Private James W. Milner of Battery A, 1st Illinois Light Artillery was written mere days after the Battle of Shiloh. Milner wrote with pride and sorrow of how his battery repeatedly engaged the enemy, but was forced to retreat, leaving a trail of dead and wounded comrades. Losses ran so high that by the second day of the battle, the battery only had men enough to man three of its six guns. His account was originally published in the April 18, 1862 edition of the Chicago Tribune.
Grant's last line of defense at Shiloh
Also known the at Chicago Light Artillery, Battery A belonged to Brigadier General William H.L. Wallace’s Second Division of General U.S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee. Under the command of First Lieutenant Peter P. Wood, the battery carried four 6-lb smoothbores and two 12-lb howitzers into action at Shiloh on April 6, 1862. The battery suffered heavily, losing four men killed and 26 wounded out of the 90 men engaged. It also lost 47 horses killed.

Pittsburg, Tennessee
April 11, 1862

Dear Father:
I thank God that I am still preserved, and am still permitted to communicate with my friends at home with my own right hand.  We have at last has our wish for a hard battle gratified, and never again do I expect to hear the same wish from the lips of our men. We are just as ready now to do our duty as we ever were, but to desire another hard battle; with the same chances of loss to our company is quite a different thing. The papers will give you an account of the battle before this reaches you, and I am glad to learn that no steamer carried the news of the battle from here until we routed the enemy. You will learn the story of the battle in the papers, so I will only inform you in regard what I saw, heard, and felt during those two terrible days.

The Sabbath dawned upon us clear and warm. At watering call, I took a team of extra horses, of which I have charge, and after letting them drink in the brook, led them into a meadow to let them feed on the new grass. While there, I heard what sounded like skirmish firing and thought it best to hurry towards camp. Before I arrived there, however, there was no mistaking the sound and the boom of artillery was heard with the crack of musketry. I found the postilions throwing the harness on their horses, the cannoneers filling the ammunition chests, packing knapsacks, and getting in order to move. After we had taken our positions, numbers of wounded passed our camp and the cowards, just as they did at Donelson, were hurrying by reporting their regiments ‘all cut to pieces.’ Our men ridiculed them and shamed some of them into going back to the front. But soon Parsons Rumsey, a Chicago boy on Gen. William H.L. Wallace’s staff, brought orders for us to move to the front. With the 9th and 12th Illinois, we went to our position on the left. Donelson had taught us what we were to expect, and we approached the scene of action. A few shells burst around us as we neared the line, causing us to involuntarily start a little, and then to laugh at each other for it.

We were now put in position as a reserve; in a place where we had received the severest shelling we had during the two days. Two horses were killed under their riders, and Sergeant Jerry Powell, whose name appears in a former letter, and one who was a particular friend of mine, probably the best gunner, had his right arm taken off by a shell and his ribs injured so severely that he died in a half hour after reaching the hospital. After remaining here about a half an hour, we were move to the left again, in range of the enemy’s shell, which burst around us without effect. Rifle balls fell around here, and while we were inactive availed ourselves of protection behind the trees, but we soon moved forward into battery and opened a fire of solid shot and shell.
General William H. L. Wallace
Died of wounds at Shiloh
My position on the gun is No. 4, the one who fires the piece. After firing here sometime, we moved farther to the front and right. Tom Burton, our gunner, said he would stop firing until he could see the enemy. I stepped upon the trail and watched till I saw the flame leap from the guns of the Rebel battery, showed Tom the direction, and we soon commenced a rapid fire that compelled them to withdraw, and place their battery in another position. A heavy engagement was going on to the left, a cross fire to ours, and as the ranks of the Rebels pressed our men hard, we opened a fire of shell and canister upon them, which was returned by a canister fire against us. But their range was too long to be effective and except when they fired shell; we cared little for the bruise from a spent grape. At last our lines gave way, the enemy pressing hard, and following as our men fell back slowly. We limbered up and were moving to the left when our attention was called to the cavalry of the enemy, who were watching a broken line to dash on. We unlimbered and commenced firing, and steadily the infantry crept a little to the left and rear of us, shoulder to shoulder, and holding their ground well as they poured in their volleys of musketry. The cavalry retired, and the infantry and artillery opened a terrific fire upon us, but still we held our own, pouring in shell and shot as rapidly as we could. We fired a few shots at their colors, stripping one flag, but we soon discovered that they were stuck in the ground and that the infantry parted to the right and left from the colors.

Right in front of our gun a poor fellow lay with a severe wound in the leg and the deafening reports of the guns jarred the air, he kept crawling around the tree by which he lay. I felt sorry for him, but had no time to carry him to a place of safety. While here, our gun became so hot that one charge fired of itself, nearly striking with the recoil that cool old gunner Tom in the face as he was deliberately sighting the piece. Let me say here that as fast as we served our posts, we dropped to the ground, rising again when our turn came. Doing this so quickly it caused no delay. As I lay down, I took my friction fuse from the pouch, hooked it into the lanyard and as soon as No. 3 removed his thumb from the vent, put it in, waited until Tom sighted the piece, stepped aside to watch the effect of his shot, gave the order ‘ready, fire,’ at the same time raising his hand (for I was deaf), and as I pulled the lanyard I fell on the ground. In this way, we probably saved ourselves from a good many wounds.

We were again moved farther to the left, for the enemy were now on our flank. We were near each other now, and they got our range almost as soon as we were planted. The right and center section fired to the front, while the fire of our section was directed against the flanking portion of their lines. Now we began to realize the horrors of war. The infantry poured a storm of balls against them, and as we saw the detested gray coats on the hill across the ravine, we poured in a well-directed fire of shell. As I dropped on the ground, I could see the shell bursting among them, the smoke from our own guns preventing me from seeing our own shots, but I knew Tom would do well. In this action, we suffered. Ed Russell, a young man whom you have often seen behind the counter of Smith’s bank, as gentlemanly a young man as we had in the battery, had his bowels torn out by a solid shot. He lived but a half hour. His last words were as he lay on his face, “I die like a man.” And good man [Daniel R.] Farnham, a Christian man, my tent mate for six months while I remained in squad one, was shot through above the heart while serving the same part that I was. [John L.] Flanigan, the merry hearted Irishman and the intimate friend of Ed Russell was shot through the mouth- also No. 4 on his gun. Several were wounded here, but still stood manfully at their posts. Our horses were shot here and some had to be replaced.
Battery A carried four M1841 6-pound smoothbores into action at Shiloh

When I could, I kept my eyes on the enemy and saw them bringing a battery to bear on the flank of our infantry; and soon a deadly fire raked the line to the right of us. Our lines broke and run, right across our front. We yelled at them to keep away from our fire, but they didn’t hear. I ran forward and waved my hat, but to no purpose and I went back to my post and fired through them. No lying down now; we fired and loaded so fast that it was one continued roar. The infantry would not be rallied; they were panic stricken and we limbered up and were ordered to retire on a walk, for fear of increasing the panic.

After we had moved back some distance, Lieutenant Wood came up and informed a few of us who were following our gun (next to the last when in marching column) that we would have to go and help squad two’s howitzer off the field. I went back with some others and we found the enemy running up the slope and pouring a destructive fire upon us. The nigh wheel horse had been shot before the wheel, and they had to disengage him and the lead and swing teams were so entangled that the drivers were recommended to take them off the field. When I got there, we were just starting; I took hold of two branches that answered for a neck yoke and helped pull. The off-pole horse, the only one and a balky one at that, seemed to catch the spirit of the men and started into a run and we saved the howitzer, having eight men wounded in the performance.

Charley Kimball, a boy of my size who has sold you lots of stone at Singer & Talcott’s yard, was badly wounded in the hip at this time. As I passed squad fourteen, one of the postilions hallowed out and as he fell from his horse, I caught him in my arms (he is six feet three and weighs about 200 pounds so that, of course, I could not sustain his weight). He said, “I guess I am not much hurt after all,” and took off his cap. I examined his head and found that the bullet had chipped off a piece of the scalp, laying bare the bone. He started on and someone else took his place- I think Ona [Omington C.] Foster.

In about a quarter of a mile, we again made a stand and unlimbered. I learned here that our No. 6 was shot (through the bowel), and I had to take his place, giving my tools to the gunner. But one shell was left in the limber. I gave it to No. 5 and looking around discovering the infantry still retreating, the enemy following us close. We limbered up by order of Lieutenant Francis Morgan and walked our horses still. This was our last stand. I now knew we were beaten and in full retreat. I stopped, and with the aid of some infantry, helped one of our guns out of a mud hole, and walked on till we came to a road jammed with wagons; I felt then that I had never witnessed so painful a sight as a disorganized army.
Battery A carried two 12-pound howitzers into action at Shiloh.
Here I found Billy Williams, our No. 6 riding in a baggage wagon. He said to me in a pitiable tone, ‘Jimmy, won’t you come and take care of me? I am shot through.’ I had to refuse. This to me was truly painful. I helped him down and put him into an ambulance and helped [James O.] Paddock in, too. I got up in the ambulance and examined Paddock’s wound, found that he was shot through the liver and that there was no blood coming from the wound, made up my mind that he was bleeding internally, he was very frail, and I thought he must die. [Paddock died April 13, 1862 of this wound.] I put his handkerchief over the wound and went back to my gun. I have learned that Jerry was dead, and my heart was filled with hatred and revenge against the enemy.

When we reached the landing as I talked about the deaths of the boys, I could not restrain the tears, and felt that I could hazard my life in any position to mow down their ranks with canister. After this, I had a feeling of utmost indifference to my fate. I could be taken prisoner, make a desperate resistance, or whatever the order, I would comply. Not surrender, the thought of that never came to my head. We moved almost directly to the landing at the foot of the bluff, and replenished with ammunition; returning, one of the caissons ran off a bridge and fell partly into a ravine, hanging by the off wheels on the edge of the bridge. Our line of battle was again forming, but we were in such close quarters that a gun planted anywhere along the enemy’s line would throw a shell to the farthest part of the ground we occupied, and while we were in this fix, the shell burst on the side of the bluff alongside us. The infantry were crowded in this low ground at the foot of the bluff, and neither eloquence of speech nor cursing could induce them to go to the front.

We moved up the hill and awaited orders. Buell’s reinforcements had arrived and were crossing the river as rapidly as possible. The line of artillery was keeping up a continual roar, and the gunboat was throwing shell as well as she could into their lines. Nelson’s division of reinforcements had arrived and were making for the front as fast as they could. It was now growing dark and we could see the flashes of musketry and gleam of light from the heavy guns. All at once there was an entire lull followed by a tremendous cheer, and again the artillery opened with a deafening roar. We knew at once that our men were charging and the cheer was taken up and echoed along the whole line and among the straggling squads of disorganized troops. It now began to rain and we were subjected to the discomforts of a wet night in the open air. The troops on the line lay on their arms and once in about ten minutes, a flash lighted up the sky, followed by the boom of a heavy gun; again a flash would be seen in front of our lines followed by the sharp report of a bursting shell. A weary night dragged slowly.
A variety of Civil War ordnance on display at the Libby Prison Museum.
(Library of Congress)
With the light of day, the battle was renewed. We had recovered nearly all the ground lost the day before. The fire opened fierce from the start, and we did not wait long for orders to the front. Our position was near the center, and we commenced shelling with the four guns we were still able to man. With the aid of two other batteries, and in spite of the fierce storm of shell, we succeeded in silencing the battery. But it was found that there were not men enough to man four guns and our gun was taken from the field. I volunteered to act as No. 4 on squad one’s gun and stood by watching a heavy engagement at the other end of the field, it was uncertain for a long time, and at one time our lines were driven back and pursued by the enemy nearly a quarter mile. They rallied and in turn drove the enemy, and a most terrific fire was kept up.

Again our lines began to waver, and General [William T.] Sherman galloped across the field and ordered us to the front. We mounted the chests and galloped forward at a swinging pace and went into battery at the front. The lines falling back to us again we had difficulty in keeping the infantry from in front of our guns, not now running as they were the day before but falling back steadily and shooting from behind the trees. I had to pull over the heads of some of them, and as the smoke cleared away, looked to see if any had fallen as we were firing canister now. They appeared to be standing yet and stuck to their positions. We fired canister for some time, running our pieces forward by hand until they fell back to a new position. General Sherman again rode up and ordered us to go to the new front. ‘Come on,’ he said, ‘I’ll lead you,’ and he did. We limbered up, mounted our seats, two postilions leaped in their saddles and we galloped forward through a fierce storm of shell and bullets. ‘Well up to the front,’ said Lieutenant Wood, and we took position in advance of the infantry and poured in a rapid shell of fire.
"Crazy" was a sobriquet thrown Sherman's way often in the
first year of the war. He was eventually proved not so crazy after all.
General Sherman who (as Gen. Wallace says is perfectly crazy on the subject of artillery) told a Louisiana officer in the presence of one of our men it was the grandest thing he ever saw done by artillery, and our caisson postilions, who were ordered to remain behind, said it looked like a charge. This was the liveliest engagement of all for the time it lasted and I really enjoyed it. The enemy gave way, and we were moved farther to the left, we were here supported by the 19th U.S. Regulars, who lay on the ground to the rear of the battery until we emptied our limbers.  We waited some 20 minutes for caissons, the Rebels coming nearer and nearer, and a battery to the right of us limbered up and retired. We limbered up and prepared to move off a little farther to the rear. The Regular officers called on their men to get up and advance. They sprang to their feet, went forward a few paces, and then broke and ran. We moved around to our first position on the hill and filled our chests again. We were tired out.

The rain was falling and I, for one, felt more dispirited here than at any other time. I went to the hospital which was close by and helped a while with the wounded, then returned to my gun and ate a few crackers from my haversack. Soon the cavalry rushed by in large bodies and we knew that the enemy were in retreat. Orders came for us to go to the front and we were led a mile or more farther out. The enemy’s guns were covering their retreat, but our ranks were between us and we could not open fire. We tried to get permission to return to camp for the night, but General Sherman sent his aide to us saying that too much praise could not be given us for our action during the day, and requesting us to remain there all night to be ready at a moment’s warning. I fixed a couple of rubber blankets so as to afford protection from the rain, and slept well.

All the next day, we were kept there, and the next night, the rain still pouring down, we were all wet. We are now in our camp and are comfortably situated again. I have gone into these tedious details to show you exactly what war is. I have since rode over the battlefield, but will spare you the horrid and disgusting details of the thousands of suffering, wounded, and mangled corpses I saw. Suffice it to say that the enemy’s loss far exceeds ours. I had many narrow escapes, but survive without the slightest injury. The wounded of our battery number 28. Four are dead. About 90 of us went into the field Sunday morning. 47 horses are killed and disabled. But we at no time abandoned a piece, and but one empty caisson was left stuck in the mud during the retreat Sunday, which was afterwards recovered.
Burning dead horses after the Battle of Shiloh. Milner's battery lost 47 horses killed during the engagement. 

I am in good health. Write soon. I hurry to close for I am informed of an opportunity to send a letter straight through. It is a request of the battery that none of our letters be published, even if they should be worthy, as we wish our conduct to speak for itself. I am proud of the battery, and without boasting, I know it isn’t surprised anywhere.

Yours & c.,
James W. Milner


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Great detail of artillery in battle. From the detail of piece operation to the human equation in the success of the battery. Loved the description of the men laying down as the gun was being serviced.


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