The Desperate Unceasing Battle: the 61st Illinois at Shiloh

Today's blog post features an intense first hand account of the Battle of Shiloh as seen by Private Peter D. Whitsel of the 61st Illinois. The 61st Illinois was part of Colonel Madison Miller's brigade (the Second) of Benjamin Prentiss' Sixth Division; about midway through the fight, the 61st Illinois was detached from the brigade and sent to support a battery on the far right of the division. This assignment proves the salvation of the regiment as it allowed them to retreat safely and not be scooped up when Prentiss was surrounded that afternoon. 

Whitsel's story was featured in the September 17, 1896 issue of the National Tribune.

“An April Sunday: Desperate, Unceasing Battling on Shiloh’s Field”

          “Co. H, turn out!”
          “Why can’t they let us eat in peace? This is the third time we have been ordered out before sunrise, and here only a week.”
          “Right face by fours! Forward! Double quick! March!”
          Evidently the officers are in a hurry. It is warm running this April Sunday, and many a soldier hangs his overcoat on a stump, intending to get it when he comes back. I did myself. Presently the crisp crackling of musketry ahead of us comes to our ears, insinuating that a real battle may be in store for us. We joyfully hail the thought, and trot onward with nimble feet. About a half mile from our quarters we halt, left face into battle line, and advance 100 yards.  Simultaneously a rebel column thrusts itself forth from the woods in our front, marching with the precision of a dress parade- four deep, guns at a right shoulder shift, and bayonets fixed.
          ‘Don’t shoot!” commands Captain Daniel Grass, as some of us discharge our muskets. “Don’t shoot until you can see their eyelids.”
          Tramp, tramp comes the column of rebels until it stretches along our entire front. What gleams those shining muskets send forth as the bearers wheel into battle line and calmly approach! The captain shouted “All ready boys!” But we are too late. In clockwork unison, the front ranks of the rebels drops on the knee, every musket sinks to the horizontal, and the whole body disappears behind a huge curtain of smoke. I promptly discharge my gun, then glance along our line. Two men of Company C are dragging a third toward the rear; three men of Company B are lying prostrate, and farther on are still wider gaps in the line.
          As I ram home another cartridge, the man who stands next to me lifts his gun into which he has excitedly forced a second bullet. The explosion is tremendous and splits the barrel from the last steel ring to the muzzle. ‘Captain,” yells the terrified victim. “What’ll I do with the gun- the blame gun?”
          “Take it home and show it to your grandchildren,” replied Grass derisively.
          The answer destroys my nervousness and I begin to fight more intelligently. We retreat to the woods back of us before we can make any deep impression upon our enemies. In this place, we remain until the supporting regiments, the 18th and 21st Missouri, and 16th Wisconsin, whose positions are so favorable are forced in. The unarmed 18th Wisconsin loses several men before it can be withdrawn. A prompt retreat saves us from capture, but we rally within a few hundred yards and resume the deadly practice.  We form a part of Gen. Prentiss’ command and here he compliments us for our defense of the forest.
          All morning we have seen the rebels filing off to the left and now, at Hurlbut’s urgent call, the 61st Illinois is detached and sent to his assistance.  This fortunate order saves the regiment from the capture that awaits the rest of Prentiss’s men.  After a hurried march, we arrive at our destination and my company is fortunate as to find a fair shelter behind a prostrate log. The rebels are less than 300 yards distant and are continually trying to approach, unmindful of the severe losses they constantly sustain. Thus far, I have not touched the 40 rounds of ammunition in my cartridge box, having been supplied with 20 extra rounds when the battle opened, but now I lie in one position and shoot away every cartridge I can find. Old Dan Grass, as he is affectionately called, mounts the log and stalks slowly up and down before us, a conspicuous target for an enemy bullet. And all the while we are begging and imploring him to descend from the log and get his person out of danger. At length, he complies and walks back and forth behind us for a time, but finding this too tame, he returns to the log and resumes his perilous promenade.
          As fast as I can load, I rise to shoot, and once, as I sink down again, a bullet cuts my jacket strap and desperately wounds Lyons just behind me. With difficulty, he is conveyed to a place of safety and abandoned. Every few moments, someone thoughtlessly touches the heated barrel of his musket. An explosive curse instantly follows, the weapon is kicked down the hill, and one of the many guns that are scattered about is appropriated. “Captain,” says Dutton, “Salisbury and I want to go up on the hillside yonder and take this shooting match squirrel fashion.” [1]
          “Go ahead,” replies Grass, who is an old acquaintance. So up the hill creep the old hunters until they reach a good position. Then, kneeling calmly on the ground, they stretch their left arms far along their muskets, steady the muzzles against trees, and open fire upon the enemy almost at pistol range. Two such men are worth an ordinary company.
          The white horse of Albert Sidney Johnston is often seen in our front, and now and then we try a shot at the rider. At length, our failing ammunition is completely exhausted and as our guns are one size smaller than the regulation muskets, we can derive no benefit from the cartridge boxes that are scattered around so plentifully except by paring the lead. The situation is becoming very serious when a squad of stooping men swarm in suddenly from the rear and drop breathlessly beside us. They are our relief, and they arrive none too soon. Quite forgetting Dutton and Salisbury on the hillside, we half rise and run desperately toward the rear.

          It is now 1 o’clock and we are getting well heated with our work. The ammunition is piled near the sutler tend of the 11th Illinois Cavalry, and here, after a prolonged search, we find a supply of .58 caliber cartridges. The sutler is still in his shop and even enjoying a brisk trade until, just as we enter, a solid shot perforates a long row of barreled apples and plunges on toward the river. The sutler yells “Take her boys,” and is soon pursuing the cannon ball, and in an instant the tent is rifled of its contents. ‘Old Ike has all he wants,” announces Pugh[2] as his fills his arms with plug tobacco. ‘I’ll take care of his spirit,” says Gallagher[3], uncovering a long box of apple jack. I arrive late and secure nothing but a prize package of writing paper containing a pencil.
          “Come boys, no time to fool here,” calls the captain. “Fall in! Pugh, drop some of that tobacco!” We form on the right and will have to do some tall running on the wheel. “Forward, right wheel, march!” comes the command from Major Ohr, who in the absence of Col. Fry, has charge of the regiment. We have foolishly formed at right angles to the rebels and must wheel into position. “Forward on the right!” We increase our fast walk to a trot and then into a run and still the line bulges outward in the center. Again comes that long drawn command from the far left, “Forward, double quick on the right!” Now we are bending our heads and straining every nerve but still the line rounds outward. Once more we heart that relentless “Forward! Double quick on the right!” Human endurance is at an end. Long John Hallet[4] raises his head and without slackening his speed, yells through his trumpeted hand, “Go to hell on the left!”
          At length, we find ourselves far off to the right front in support of a battery- the 1st Missouri, which is unlimbered on the summit of a knoll. We lie just back of the battery and in front of the ravine where the horses are held. We are not allowed to fire of the artillerymen before us, but our position is extremely dangerous. Lieutenant Knight[5] is reclining upon his left hand and surveying the enemy. A shell bursts over his heads and a fragment darts into the earth between his outspread fingers.  “Look here boys,” says he without removing his hand. “They have a tree battery somewhere.” Jellison[6] trots away on his hands and feet to the cover of a tree a few paces distant. Just as he reaches it, a cannon ball cuts the tree in two 20 feet over his head. Down comes the top and Jellison, never pausing, gallops back to the old line and resumes his position without a word or smile. We laugh, even in the roar of that desperate conflict.
          The laugh dies away as an artilleryman, wounded in the bosom, crawls back to us to gasp out his life. The boys turn him on his back, tear his clothing to shreds and attempt to stanch the crimson fountain at his breast; but their effort is useless; he dies and is forgotten. Now the rebels come on in a headlong charge and the noise is simply stunning.  Joe Landrus[7] is unable to conquer his excitement Taking a hurried aim, he fires under the battery wheels at the advancing column. His example is contagious and we are on the point of opening a general fire when a Lieutenant comes, swearing, back from the battery and quiets us. Now comes another artilleryman with a painful wound in his hand. He holds it in the little stream of water for a few seconds, then ties it up, and he returns to his post.
The rebels are almost upon us when the battery, having reserved its fire, belches forth a dense volume of cloudy smoke. We strain our eyes to penetrate it, and when it finally wrinkles away into transparency, we can see no enemy.  And so it goes on for hours. I open the package of paper and begin a letter to my father but am presently interrupted. We hear unearthly yells to our right and left- yells, that, coming nearer, resolve into the words, “Belmont! Belmont! Belmont!”
Our supports are again driven in and we must run or surrender. Here come the horses out of the ravine as fast as their desperate riders can urge them. The artillerymen give them a parting volley; then, almost before the contents of the guns have reached their destination, the battery is in full retreat. A flash, a curse, and they have passed. Without any orders we spring after them at the top of our speed. Dan Grass does say, “Get out of here, boys; every man for himself, and the devil take the hindmost!” But his words are lost in the air. Gallagher, the athlete, easily outstrips us all and when he disappears in the confusion, he is lost forever to the 61st Illinois. As I run a solid shot passes so near my head that the wind from it slews my cap down over my eyes. A Minie ball buries itself in a tree right beside me. The captain, turned at the sound, with a quick “Boy, are you hurt?”
“No,” I reply.
“Well, then run.”
Now we go right through the camp of the 32nd Illinois and one bound carries me directly over the prostrate corpse of an officer. One glance and I see a long heavy chain looped around his neck from a gold watch that peeps from his pocket, all stained with blood from a ghastly bullet hole in the poor fellow’s temple. I see him even now. At length, we pant through the interstices in a sturdy line of veterans and hear the iron roar of their muskets as they salute our pursuers. We are saved with a loss of only 38 per cent. But now is no time to be thankful for our escape. We are formed on the right of the line through which we have just passed and open a hot fire upon our drivers. The shades of night are approaching before we are forced from this position; but at length, we take refuge under the heavy guns that fringe the bank of the Tennessee. A lull ensues while the might of the Confederacy is crouching for the spring that is to carry Grant into the river. Here come the desperate fiends in a charge the likes of which the aged world seldom seen.
All is darkness, confusion, turmoil. The roar of the light artillery, the deep baying of the heavy gunboats, the incessant rattle of musketry, this is the toil, this is the grandeur of stern browed war. We see no enemy. We merely load our weapons and discharge them into the ocean of smoke that rolls around us. Over our heads whiz the grape and canister from the guns behind us, and the smoke settles down like a pall. At length the artillery ceases its fire, and our officers come and tell us to stop our work for the rebels are repulsed. We give three weary cheers and then begin our preparations to pass the gloomy night- and the first day of Shiloh is over.

[1] Privates John C. Dutton and George W. Salisbury.
[2] Private Isaac W. Pugh
[3] Private Edward Gallagher. Whitsel’s comment later that Gallagher was “lost to the 61st Illinois forever” may be a facetious reference to the fact that Gallagher is borne upon the rolls of the regiment as a deserter effective August 18, 1862.
[4] Private John Hallet was captured later in the war and died at Andersonville prison on February 9, 1865.
[5] Second Lieutenant Andrew J. Knight
[6] Private Samuel B. Jellison
[7] Private Joseph H. Landrus


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