Tried in the Furnace: A Hoosier at Shiloh

Thrust into command of his regiment at Shiloh, future Secretary of State John Watson Foster did everything in his power to keep his Hoosiers in line. “I did all I could to make the men contest the ground firmly as they could. I tried with all my might; I cheered and called upon the men to rally on the flag, never to desert the colors,” he wrote in a letter to his father April 7, 1862. As part of Colonel James Veatch’s brigade of General Stephen Hurlbut’s division, the 25th Indiana , after putting up a stout defense of the Review Field, was driven back to the banks of the Tennessee. “Our men tried to stand up to it, but everything was breaking to pieces all around us and it was more than we could do, short of annihilation,” Foster averred.

          Major Foster, soon Lieutenant Colonel Foster, had a distinguished career in the Civil War which carried on to a long career in law after the war. The Harvard Law graduate was working in Cincinnati, Ohio as an attorney when the war broke out; he returned home to Indiana where he was commissioned major in the 25th Indiana, taking part in the campaign in Missouri and the assault on Fort Donelson before arriving at Pittsburg Landing. Foster served with the 25th Indiana through August 1862 when he was promoted to be colonel of the newly formed 65th Indiana Infantry. As part of Burnside’s Army of the Ohio, the 65th Indiana had the honor of being the first Union regiment to enter Knoxville in September 1863. Foster’s health led him to resign his commission in March 1864 only to take up his sword again two months later, leading the 136th Indiana Infantry, a 100-days regiment that served through the summer of 1864 guarding railroad lines near Nashville, Tennessee.

          After the war, Colonel Foster edited the Evansville Daily Journal (from which the following letter was published) and was very active in politics. He served successively as the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Russia, and then Spain, before serving as the nation’s 32nd Secretary of State in the final six months of President Benjamin Harrison’s administration. His son-in-law Robert Lansing served as Woodrow Wilson's secretary of state and his grandson John Foster Dulles served as Eisenhower's secretary of state. 

          The following account, written to Foster’s father Matthew, was published in the April 14, 1862 edition of the Evansville Daily Journal.

John Watson Foster served in the 25th, 65th, and 136th Indiana regiments during the war before going on to a lengthy career as a diplomat and attorney after the war. His first command experience came under fire at Shiloh when the lieutenant colonel of the 25th Indiana was wounded. Foster wrote the regimental after action report. 


Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee

April 7, 1862

          Dear Father: Tired, worn out, almost exhausted, I have just brought the remnant of the noble 25th Indiana back in our old camp, from the front of the hardest fought, most strongly contested, and bloodiest battlefield upon the American continent. But I cannot lie down without first preparing a short account of it to assure you of my own personal safety, the gallant conduct of our regiment, and the glorious triumph of our arms.

A terrible conflict of two full days of continuous fighting has this evening left us in possession of the field, which was at one time almost lost.  Yesterday (Sunday) morning about half past 6 o ‘clock, just after we had finished breakfast, we were attracted by a continuous roar of musketry with occasional discharges of artillery on our extreme left near the river. In a few minutes we were in line of battle and moving forward to the attack. We had hardly left the camp before we saw the roads full of our flying men and all along the route for two miles we passed over were strewn guns, knapsacks, and blankets, and we found to our dismay that our front had been completely surprised, one whole division scattered and retreating in utter confusion, and the enemy in force already a mile within our camps.

Colonel James C. Veatch, 25th Indiana

We were drawn up in line of battle, our brigade under the command of Colonel James Veatch, in a skirt of timber bordering a large field on the outer edge of which our troops were engaging the enemy. But the enemy pressed on in overwhelming force and just as the troops in front of us began to waver, we discovered that the enemy had flanked us on the right and was rapidly advancing (in what force we knew not, but the woods were perfectly swarming) to attack our brigade on the right and rear.  So, it became necessary for us to change our front to the rear to meet them. The 15th Illinois was on the right, the 14th Illinois in the center, and the 25th Indiana on the left; the other regiment, the 46th Illinois, by the rapid flanking of the enemy became detached from the brigade and was not with us again during the whole action. This brought the first fire upon the 15th Illinois which stood it nobly but was soon overpowered, likewise the 14th Illinois. In the meantime, the troops in front and on the left were completely routed by the enemy and came pell-mell right through our lines, causing some little confusion and hardly had they passed through to the rear before the enemy were upon us and here the fire of musketry was most terrible. Our men tried to stand up to it, but everything was breaking to pieces all around us and it was more than we could do, short of annihilation. We poured in a few well directed volleys and reluctantly left the field- many of our men firing as they fell back.



          The loss here was very heavy. All the field officers of the 15th Illinois were killed instantly and many commissioned officers; two of our lieutenants were killed and three wounded and one of our captains is either killed or a prisoner. We will make a thorough search for him in the morning. We left dead on this field 15 men killed almost instantly at the first fire, and a large number wounded. At the first fire Lieutenant Colonel William H. Morgan was wounded in the leg (not seriously) and was immediately carried off the field. From this time, I led the regiment in person. I did all I could to make the men contest the ground firmly as they could. I tried with all my might; I cheered and called upon the men to rally on the flag, never to desert the colors. All of the left wing responded to my call most nobly and rallied with considerable alacrity under a most galling and dangerous fire.

 “I did all I could to make the men contest the ground firmly as they could. I tried with all my might; I cheered and called upon the men to rally on the flag, never to desert the colors.” ~ Major John W. Foster, 25th Indiana Infantry

I did not see Colonel Morgan fall and supposed he had charge of the right wing- but the various captains collected a large number of their men and as soon as I got under cover of the regiments on the left and rear, they brought their men up and joined me and thus I had still quite a battalion, notwithstanding the killed and wounded and the straying or lost ones. The men who came to me at this time have been ‘tried in the furnace’ and were true men, and during all the trying scenes of the rest of the day and today, they never faltered in obeying my commands and did most bravely.

   

Lieutenant Colonel William H. Morgan
25th Indiana Infantry

      As soon as our brigade was collected, Colonel Veatch moved us over to the right to support General [John] McClernand’s division which was being very hard pressed by the enemy, said to be commanded by Beauregard. The left, so our prisoners report, was commanded by Bragg and the center by Johnston. They also report that the column that attacked our brigade in the morning, of which I have just spoken, numbers 12,000 under Bragg, and the whole force was near 100,000, but we do not know, only that it was very large, sufficiently so to attack our extensive camp on all sides in heavy force.

          In the afternoon our pickets reported the enemy advancing against us on the left of General McClernand. As soon as we had drawn them well up by our picket skirmishers under Captain [John] Rheinlander, the 14th Illinois flanked them and was just beginning to pour upon them a heavy fire, while we were moving up to the assistance of the 14th in fine style, when the whole mass of our left, which had been for five or six hours steadily and stubbornly contesting the victorious advance of the enemy in that direction, gave way in all directions about half past 3 and came sweeping by us in utter and total confusion- cavalry, ambulances, artillery, and thousands of infantry, all in one mass; while the enemy were following closely in pursuit, at the same time throwing grape, canister, and shells thick and fast among them. It was a time of great excitement and dismay- it appeared that all was lost; but I was unwilling to throw our regiment into the flying mass, only to be trampled to pieces and thoroughly disorganized and broken. So, I held them back in the wash on the side of the road until the mass of the rout had passed and when I put my men in the rear of the retreat, and by this means fell into a heavy cross fire of the enemy, but I preferred that to being crushed to pieces by our own army.

          Here we lost a number of men killed and many wounded. Among those who fell wounded was Sergeant Major William Jones, who stood right by me fearlessly through the whole day. This rout decided that day’s work. We were driven back nearly to the river landing, but still the ground was strongly defended all the time, but the enemy kept pressing us in all the time and if, at this time, they had made a bold and united charge all along their line, we would have been totally and utterly routed, but a half hour’s apparent cessation of heavy firing gave our scattered forces time to rally, while the first two regiments of Buell’s long expected advance took position on a hill in the rear, and our forces fell back and formed with them near the landing for a final stand. About 5 o’clock in the evening, the enemy made a heavy charge and attempted to carry this position. The contest was most terrible- the roar of musketry was one continuous peal for near half an hour. All that saved us was the two heavy siege pieces on the hill and the firmness of our men on this last stand.

Captain John W. Poole
Co. G, 25th Indiana

          Night closed on us with almost the whole of our extensive camps in the hands of the enemy. It was a gloomy night for us all, and to add to our discomforts we had a heavy rain with no shelter. But we had saved enough ground to make a stand upon and during the night 20,000 fresh troops from Buell’s army were transported across the river and Lew Wallace moved up his division from below on our right.

          This morning at dawn of day began one of the grandest and most terrible battles ever fought. Buell moved forward on the left and center, and Wallace on the right with their fresh troops while Grant’s army steadily followed them up and held the ground firmly as it was gained. From early in the morning until 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the war of musketry and artillery was one of almost continuous thunder. It was grand beyond description. I have not time to tell you of it in this letter and you will have it fully described in the newspapers. The enemy fought with great desperation and steadiness, but Wallace continued to press them on the right, driving them to the left and Buell pressing them on the left, driving them to the right, until they were getting completely outflanked, when at 3 o’clock, our brigade was ordered up to the front and center and directed to charge the retreating enemy, but they traveled too fast for us. Nothing but cavalry could reach them. We remained on the outposts till evening and then came in to get a good night’s sleep in our camp after the fatigues of a two day’s steady fight. The night is terribly disagreeable- rainy and chilly- and tens of thousands of troops are sleeping on the bare ground with no covering, just as we did last night.

          Indiana has borne an honorable part in the great battle- I know that the 9th, 11th, 25th, 31st, 32nd, 43rd, and 57th were engaged, and I think the 23rd and 24th with several others I have no doubt, though I have been too busy on the field to know much of it- have not even had time yet to see Colonel Morgan or our wounded officers and men. The 42nd was here today, but I hardly think it was in the fight though it may have been. Thompson’s battery is said to have done noble work. Aleck was busy with the trains and baggage- the enemy came right up to our tents- the camp was shelled; he had to move the wagons and baggage to the landing. Did his duty well. But we are back again tonight.

          I tried in this terrible conflict to do my duty well and I am willing to leave to my officers and men the judgment. I forgot to mention Colonel Veatch. He acted with great coolness and courage, always with his brigade in the thickest of the fight. He had two horses shot under him but escaped unharmed.

JNO. W. FOSTER

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