The continued roar of a million lions: With Morgan’s Horsemen at Shiloh
Long after the Civil War ended, Charles W. Geers of Pilot Point, Texas reflected back on his service with the Confederate 2nd Kentucky Cavalry during the war. The noted Texas newspaperman had received three wounds during his service and had been captured three times, escaping prison twice. He fought in skirmishes and battles too numerous to count, but some of his most vivid memories were those of the two days he spent at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862.
Geers recalled his reaction to seeing the field strewn with the dead. “As we advanced upon that part of the battlefield already won by our boys, we saw the dead and wounded strewn thick upon the ground. Some were torn all to pieces by artillery. We thought of military glory and the cost of it, and one man was heard to say ‘Oh, I wish I was at home plowing in the field.’ The actual sight of so many corpses at first produced a chilly sensation, but this feeling soon wore off,” he wrote.
Geers’ reminiscences were published in a book entitled Reminiscences of the Boys in Gray in the early 1900s.
At the Battle of Shiloh, General [Albert S.] Johnston had about 40,000 men and Grant 44,900 besides the reinforcement of Buell. As the battle line was only three miles long, Johnston thought he could overcome the superior numbers of his enemy by surprise and the suddenness of an assault. General [William J.] Hardee had the honor of commencing the battle on the morning of the 6th, he being in command of the first line. General [Braxton] Bragg had command of the second line and General [Leonidas] Polk had command of the third. General Breckinridge’s 6,000 men constituted the reserve. My regiment, the 2nd Kentucky under Colonel John H. Morgan, occupied the extreme left of Breckinridge’s division.
Everything worked like clockwork. Thus, we made the attack in three lines deliberately and methodically with a good reserve and our flanks well protected. About 5 a.m., the reveille sounded, the lines began to move forward, and the first gun was heard from our skirmishers and then another and another as we pressed on until the musketry grew into a crackling sound which preceded the roar of battle. The wild cheers of the men fairly shook the earth and if there was any fear on the part of anyone, it was not in evidence. A more inspiring scene was never witnessed by any man. The roar of battle and the smell of powder seemed to inspire the men with superhuman courage as they rushed upon the panic-stricken foe.
The field was covered with scrubby wild wood and underbrush and the ground was rugged. Colonel Morgan with Breckinridge went into the battle last and we saw and heard a great deal more than those at the front. Now the incessant volleys of the lines and the artillery made a noise like the continued roar of a million lions. At first our boys did not meet the least check as the Federals ran for their lives, leaving their tents in a panic and the hindmost of them were shot and bayonetted by the Confederates. The Confederates and Federals swept through the camps together.
But the Federals sounded the long roll and the bugles called them to form into line. Hardee swept on and on until a long line of Federal infantry which had formed in the rear of the retreating Federals met him. This staggered his men for a short time only, but they immediately rushed upon this line also with such and irresistible force that the enemy was beaten back. Ere long they stopped and turned again and made fight but were put to flight again leaving hundreds of their comrades in a long line, dead upon the field. Hundreds of them were wounded, crawling like worms, and some of them calling for water.
At about 8 a.m., Bragg’s men came up to relieve Hardee and that fine command moved forward in splendid form and strength. While this maneuver was taking place, the Federals thought they could discover signs of our weakening and they came to a halt and formed. Just then Bragg fell upon them like a cyclone. An awful struggle followed and the roar of musketry and artillery cannot be described. The earth seemed to shake and neither the bugles nor the cries of the wounded could be heard. The roar of the battle was like 10,000 thunderstorms combined. No man not there can have a conception of the terrible struggle, the deafening rattle of the conflict, and the resounding echo of the combined artillery. This was the most stubborn stand the enemy had made by reason of the fact that it came at the time they thought we were weakening. They did not understand that the slack that occurred in transferring Bragg to the front and this misunderstanding caused hundreds of them to be slain by fresh troops. Their ranks were terribly thinned, and they broke again and ran like turkeys.
About 11 o’clock, Polk’s Corps came to the front and now all three of these corps were engaged as was the whole of Grant’s army. At this stage of the battle there seemed to be no commanders of regiments. Before the fight began every officer and subordinate officer had been commanded by General Johnston to “seek and attack the nearest enemy,” and at all hazards to “press forward,” therefore, no officers were needed. At several stages of the battle General Johnston took command of brigades and “placed them where they could do the most good.”
|General John H. Morgan|
While all this was going on, Morgan’s men with Breckinridge’s division looked on in great awe and astonishment. This was a bigger thing than we had ever seen or dreamed of in our philosophy. We had never thought of anything like it. We could tell by the Confederate yell when the Federals ran and we hoped our boys would whip them before our services were needed. As we advanced upon that part of the battlefield already won by our boys, we saw the dead and wounded strewn thick upon the ground. Some were torn all to pieces by artillery. We thought of military glory and the cost of it, and one man was heard to say ‘Oh, I wish I was at home plowing in the field.’ The actual sight of so many corpses at first produced a chilly sensation, but this feeling soon wore off.
By some means, Morgan’s men, receiving no orders, became detached from Breckninridge’s infantry and wandered over the captured part of the battlefield looking at the sights. Soon some of us began to criticize the management of the battle and the entire campaign. Judging from the camps of the Federals, they had everything to eat, wear, drink, and shelter that a soldier might want, and we were astonished that they could be driven away. Of course, all this time the battle raged in front and an occasional shell would burst over our heads coming from a long distance away at the Federal front. Some of the boys laughed at these shells but presently a fragment of a shell hit one of our boys on the shoulder. This was serious and he did not enjoy the joke.
At about noon or 1 o’clock we overtook Breckinridge’s division going into action. We took position on the left of it. Bullets were singing thick and fast about our head and the infantry was singing “Cheer, Boys, Cheer.” The writer was not in a singing mood and of course did not feel like singing. He was thinking of a little prayer which his sister had taught him when she would put him to bed. As Breckinridge advanced, the left center was repulsed by the Federals. The enemy was posted on a high hill supported by lots of artillery and there was a great deal of underbrush in front. It was a strong position from which the smoke, artillery, and musketry was so dense that we could see nothing else.
Breckinridge came forward, however, with Morgan’s men on his flanks and the eminence was taken by storm. About this time a courier came dashing up to Morgan’s men and yelled out “General Hardee asks what cavalry is this?” One of our men went back with the courier and reported to Hardee that it was Morgan’s cavalry. “I am glad to hear that. I will use it to take yonder battery.” When informed of what Hardee said, every man looked grave and the writer said to himself “Holy Moses, have we got to charge into the cannon’s mouth? Have we not had enough glory already?” But the order was never given.
The enemy abandoned his guns to prevent being surrounded and captured. Our left and center now pushed forward but our right received a check. Colonel Morgan now received an order from General Hardee to go to the extreme left and charge the first enemy he saw. Gracious, this was a reckless order, but we were ready to obey it. We proceeded to the point designated as rapidly as our horses could carry us but did not reach it until after 2 o’clock as we had to travel in the rear of the battle line. The water on the ground from the hard rain was deep and red with the blood of men and animals.
A little after 2 o’clock General Johnston was killed. He had exposed himself unnecessarily. He had been in the front of the fight from its beginning and his clothes had been riddle with Minie balls. But he heeded it not. In the enthusiasm of battle he was with his men cheering them to deeds of valor. He was shot in the leg. An artery was severed. He was at the time leading Colonel Statham’s magnificent brigade. He gave no heed to the wound but continued the charge, bareheaded, with his hand elevated riding a large gray horse. The charge was successful. He grew weak and reeled in his saddle. His staff officers came to his assistance, but they could do him no good. They carried him to a ravine where he died in a few minutes. He was one of God’s noblemen and his memory will ever be cherished. Had he lived another day, Grant and Buell would have been wiped from the earth.