1862: “The Fight At Shiloh”

[Author’s Note: Although this letter was written later in the month, we include it here as a Confederate perspective on the Battle of Shiloh.]

Memphis, Tenn.

April 26th 

My dear sweet Wife,

…You are no doubt uneasy and anxious to hear what had become of me and others. Well I will give you a kind of history…

…We arrived in Corinth Some time before the fight at Shiloh. So you might guess that we had a hand in the fight – and I must say it was no tea party – but a hard fought Battle. Yet when ever we pressed the Yanks they gave way and we again charged them but that they ran in every direction…

We continued to press them and run them down the river bank immediately to their gun boats if which had not been there we would have captured the last one of them. They shelled us from the Gun Boats for over 1 hour. I never heard such thunder and such show of shell and C. Yet, these did not damage except to kill one or two men.  – Night coming one [on] we drew off to one of their Camps where we found every thing a soldier could want to which we helped our selves.

Monday Morning the Feds having been reinforced with 40,000 men renewed the fight – about sun up. We commenced drawing off our forces before we were Attacked. Our Brigade fought them all day Monday in covering the retreat of our army – which was done in the very best of order… I had 43 men when I went into the fight and on coming out had 21 having lost in killed and wounded 22…

We are expecting a fight at Corinth… The fate of our cause rests on us here. I know we have right on our side God is also with us and we must succeed will do it. War is dangerous and one cannot tell after coming out of one hard fought battle whether there is a chance to get out of the second, but I will hope for the best…

My love to all – but especially to you my sweet wife. Kiss our dear children a thousand times for me. Remember me to my friends if I have any. Hoping to hear from you soon I remain you devoted husband.

Geo. W. Dawson

Captain George W. Dawson to his wife, Laura Amanda Dawson, on April 26, 1862.

“It Was No Tea Party”

George W. Dawson – captain in the 1st Missouri Infantry (Confederate), was part of General John C. Breckinridge’s reserve. They actively fought and pressed the Union left flank on April 6th – first day of the Battle of Shiloh, eventually ending up along the “Sunken Road” (which probably wasn’t really sunken). For several hours, the Confederates attacked the Union’s defensive position. Eventually, the position was nearly surrounded and concentrated artillery forced many Union soldiers to surrender.

Dawson was in Breckinridge’s command, lower right (red).
By Map by Hal Jespersen, http://www.cwmaps.com, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2176213

Dawson follows the typical pattern of soldiers writing to their loved ones; he downplays the carnage and horrors of the battle. Conceding that “it was no tea party, but a hard fought battle,” he gives an accurate (but veiled) description of the battle. Soldiers often used this writing technique to spare their families and friends anxiety.

Later, in a matter-of-fact way, Dawson reveals that he lost about 50% of his unit in the battle and the fighting retreat. Apparently, he escaped unharmed and would live to fight another day.

“The Fate Of Our Cause”

Corinth, Mississippi, was the new supply base and “operational headquarters” for the Confederates. Dawson recognizes that the coming months will play a significant role in the Southern war effort. He falls back into his belief that God was on the Confederate side, using that belief to take courage for the coming battles, even while he hints that he might not survive the war.

Both sides – Union and Confederate – believed God fought for them. Both believed strongly in their causes, typically “Union” or “States Rights” with numerous other mixed components, including slavery, abolition, tariffs, etc. etc.

Historical Musings

I typically don’t share two blog posts in one day on Gazette665…but a lot happened in the spring of 1862, and I could give up two weeks in the schedule for the Battle of Shiloh. This letter is a wonderful companion piece to the note General Grant sent to his wife about the fighting.

The two letters mirror certain aspects. Both men wanted to assure their wives they had survived the battle. Both give simplified accounts of the fighting. Both close their notes with affectionate messages and kisses for their children.

These letters remind me of the great tragedy of all wars – especially the Civil War. Combatants often have similar experiences (in this case, both were married and had children), but different viewpoints or beliefs or geography force them into different armies. Two similar men find themselves on the same battlefield and writing letters which echo similar content; they were enemies…and yet – in some ways – so similar.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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2 Responses to 1862: “The Fight At Shiloh”

  1. Pingback: 1862: “Hereby Authorized To Call Out And Place In The Military Service…” | Gazette665

  2. Pingback: 1862: “The ‘Most Desperate Fight And Greatest Naval Achievement On Record’ “ | Gazette665

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