GRANT AT SHILOH: A LETTER OF WILLIAM R. ROWLEY *** “The battle of Shiloh, or Pittsburg landing, has been perhaps less understood, or, to state the case more accurately, more persistently misunderstood, than any other engagement between National and Confederate troops during the entire rebellion,” wrote General Ulysses S. Grant near the close of his life.1 Immediately after the two days of battle, April 6-7, 1862, controversy settled over the battlefield. Was Grant surprised by the Confederate attack? Why was he nine miles away when the battle began? Why were some 5,000 U. S. troops under Major General Lewis Wallace absent during the first day of battle? Did Grant eventually win the field because of the death of his Confederate counterpart, General Albert Sidney Johnston? Or did Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio save the second day of battle after finding Grant’s army in panic-stricken disarray on the banks of the Tennessee River?
One man in a position to answer these questions on the basis of personal knowledge was Captain William R. Rowley. Born in Gouverneur, New York, in 1824, he had taught school in Brown County, Ohio, and in Jo Daviess County, Illinois. In 1849, he was appointed an assessor and collector in Jo Daviess County, and continued to serve the county as deputy circuit court clerk, sheriff, and finally, circuit court clerk, a position he held for twenty years. When war
[pg. 2] came in April, 1861, Rowley became better acquainted with Grant, his neighbor in Galena, as both men worked to organize and equip the local volunteers.
Rowley himself entered the war on November 20, 1861, as 1st Lieutenant in Colonel John E. Smith’s 45th Illinois, also known as the Washburne Lead Mine Regiment. On January 20, 1862, Rowley wrote to Congressman Elihu B. Washburne praising Grant: “I think you will have no cause to be ashamed of the Brigadier you have manufactured.”2 Rowley also stated that Grant would be agreeable to having Rowley serve him as an aide, and Washburne was asked to arrange this. The appointment was made on Feb. 24, and Rowley thereafter served Grant both in the field and by sending favorable reports to Washburne.3
Rowley, then represented Grant’s strongest link with his Republican supporters in Galena, especially Washburne. As a man constantly with Grant, Rowley was well-informed, and Grant sometimes used him as a channel for forwarding requests for favors to Washington. The letter below, addressed to Edward Hempstead, was copied by Hempstead and forwarded to Washburne, and the text comes from the copy in the Washburne Papers, Library of Congress.
Head Quarters Army in the Field
Near Pittsburg Tenn April 19th 1862
E Hempstead Esqr
Dear Sir Yours of the 14th Inst is just recd and I will proceed at once to answer your enquiries on the score of old friendship. First as to the Genls being intemperate, I pronounce it an unmitigated slander. I have been on his Staff ever since the Donelson affair (and saw him frequently during that) and necessary in close contact with him every day, and I have never seen him take even a glass of liquor more than two or three times in my life and then only a single at a time. And I have never seen him intoxicated or even approximate to it. As to the story that he was intoxicated at the Battle of Pittsburg, I have only to say that the man who fabricated the story is an infamous liar, and you are at liberty to say to him that I say so. As to the Question was the Gen at the town of savannah at the commencement of the fight, I answer he was. There was the point where our head quartes were established as being the most convenient for all part of the command, some of the troops being stationed at Crumps Landing 4 miles above, some at Pittsburg, and the new arrivals all coming to Savanna made it necessary to establish Head Quarters at that place.
[pg. 3] Although the General was personally at Pittsburg almost every day, and had made arrangements to remove there permanently as soon as Buells forces should arrive. On tile morning of the 6th we embarked on the Steamer as soon as the fireing commenced at Pittsburg, (the distance is about 8-1/2 miles) and we arrived there at about 1/2 past 7 oclock stopping at Crumps landing where L Wallace & his command were encamped long enough to order his Division under arms ready to move at a moments notice. And meeting the messenger who was sent to Savanna to notify us of the attackt only two miles below Pittsburg, where we arrived before the attackt had become general all along the line, from which time Gen Grant was in the saddle constantly and always, where the fight was the hottest. as to our being surprised it is simply all humbug and the sensation stories about officers and men being bayonetted in their tents would do to publish in the ledger “to be continued”4 but newspapers of character aught to be ashamed to give circulation to such absurdities, as I do not believe that in truth a single man was killed by a bayonet during the two days fight. I did not see one. And I think I saw as much of the fight as any one, being constantly engaged in carrying orders from one part of the field to the other. The simple statement of the whole matter is this. We were attackt by vastly superior numbers on Sunday and were crowded hard and forced gradually to contract our lines, during the whole day but at no time did we imagine that we were whipped or would be. Grant always insisting that we were able to whip them & would do it as soon as Wallace and Nelson (who had arrived at Savanna the night before) should arrive with their forces. word had been left with Nelson when we started from Savanna to start immediately with his Division for Pittsburg but owing to the state of the roads they did not begin to arrive on the opposite side of the River until after noon. Orders had also been sent to L Wallace, as soon as it was found the fight was becoming general to bring up his Division but as it did not make its appearance as soon as was expected I was sent through the lines by the General to ascertain the reason, and found that they had mistaken the road and were four miles out of the way, and necessarily had to retrace their steps to avoid coming in where the enemys forces were the strongest & running the risk of being cut off. the consequences was they did not get in until dark in the mean time our forces were gallantly contesting the ground inch by inch until dark. as to the story “that Prentiss was surprised I have only to say that I myself saw Prentiss after noon gallantly fighting at the head of his Division. It was I think about 2 oclock P M when he was outflanked and himself and a part of his command captured. Most of our troops behaved well but some of the raw regiments broke and run and among them their officers. these stories you hear emanate it is necessary that they should have some excuse for their cowardice and the best way to direct public attention from themselves is to direct it in some other course: As to your question Did General Grant lead the last charge on Monday? I answer he did, as I was present and saw it, having been sent by him to bring up the troops.5 it was the turning point of the day and ended the close fighting I hear nothing of the troops having lost confidence in their Division commanders. If those newspaper correspondents who take so much pains to vilify men who are engaged in fighting the battles would shoulder a musket and go into the field themselves I think they would do more to advance the cause, than in pitching in undiscriminately as they do. so far as Gen Grant is concerned they are losing their time and trouble as he has no political asperations as they seem to fear and will never be a candidate [pg. 4] for President. His greatist ambition is to see this war pushed to a close, and then go Home to his family and business. One question more I had forgotten. why we were at Pittsburg in the face of the enemy not entrenched. as to the entrenchments this is a heavily timbred country and one where entrenchments amount to nothing, and we came here to fight. if we had staid at Chicago or Cairo I have no Idea the fight would have taken place, but it did take place & we gave them a glorious thrashing. Col Smith (J. E) & Dr Kittoe6 are both here and well
Yours &c W R ROWLEY
P S I can probally explain to you some of the reasons why this man chapman7 has such an interest in Lying about Gen Grant. When he was at Donelson he made himself so obnoxious that Gen Grant issued a special order, directing him to be removed outside of our lines, and to remain there. that will probally explain why he interests himself so much.
The 45th behaved well and lost heavily their loss in killed & wounded was 194 too much can not be said in their praise Col J E carried himself through gloriously
W. R. R
A few days later, Rowley wrote directly to Washburne about Shiloh, although the major purpose of the letter was to request assistance in the promotion of Grant’s aides Clark B. Lagow and William S. Hillyer to colonel. Both were promoted in July, with commissions dated back to May 3. This letter is also in the Washburne Papers, Library of Congress.
Head Quarters Army of the Tennessee
Pittsburg April 23d 1862
Friend Washburne I have intended ever since the Battle at this place to have written you a letter, but the hurry and confusion incident to such a fight as we have had prevented, and I do not know even now if I should take the time did not business matters spur me up to it. First however a word with reference to the Thousand and one stories that are afloat with reference to Gen Grant suffice it to say they have the same foundation as did those that were circulated after the Battle of Donelson and no more: It is sufficient to say that Gen Halleck is now here and the conduct of the Battle and all the details meet his entireapprobation and the stories in circulation have their origin in the efforts of Cowardly hounds who “stampeded” and now would be glad to turn public attention from themselves, and direct it elsewhere, together with the eagerness of Newspaper Correspondents to get items I who was on the field know that had it not been for the almost superhuman efforts of the Gen’ added to the assistance he had from his officers we would have been forced to Record a defeat instead of one of the most Brilliant victories that was ever won on any field….
Yours &c W R ROWLEY
1. Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant (New York, 1885-6), I, 369-370.
2. Rowley to Washburne, Jan. 30, 1862, Elihu B. Washburne Papers, Library of Congress.
3. The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant (Carbondale and Edwardsville, Ill., 1967- ), 4, 277n-278n.
4. The New York Ledger was a successful magazine of the day specializing in popular fiction. See Ulysses S. Grant Association Newsletter, VIII, I (Oct., 1970), 4.
5. In his Memoirs, I, 350-351, Grant writes of personally assembling troops for a final charge at Shiloh, but does not state that he led the charge.
6. Dr. Edward D. Kittoe of Galena, then surgeon of the 45th Ill., later a member of Grant’s staff.
7. Frank G. Chapman, reporter for the New York Herald, whose early but inaccurate report of Shiloh received much attention. J. Cutler Andrews, The North Reports the Civil War (Pittsburgh, 1955), 177-179.
NEWS NOTES *** In commemoration of the close of the Ulysses S. Grant sesquicentennial year, the Illinois State Historical Society is sponsoring a conference, “Ulysses S. Grant in Perspective,” at Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, April 27-28, 1973. Richard N. Current, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, will address the conference on the response of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant to issues raised by the Civil War and Reconstruction. The conference is co-sponsored by Northern Illinois University and Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. Papers will be presented by Michael Les Benedict, Ohio State University; Thomas L. Connelly, University of South Carolina; Ralph G. Newman; Mark Plummer, Illinois State University; John Y. Simon; and Arthur Zilversmit, Lake Forest College. Commentators on the papers will include Christopher N. Breiseth, Sangamon State University; Roger D. Bridges, Illinois State Historical Library;
[pg. 6] Victor Hicken, Western Illinois University; Robert W. Johannsen, University of Illinois, Urbana; and Paul Kleppner, Northern Illinois University. Illinois State Historian William K. Alderfer will preside over a round table discussion in which the conference speakers will participate and answer questions from the audience. For details about the conference and copies of the program, contact Roger D. Bridges, Director of Research, Illinois State Historical Library, Old State Capitol, Springfield, Illinois 62706.