HEADQUARTERS 54TH REG1MENT O. V. I.,
CAMP SHILOH, TENNESSEE, April 14, 1862.
MY DEAR SISTER:
Well, my dear Helen, the great fight has been fought; I have had my part in it, and, save a slight scratch not worth mentioning, have come out safe. The papers, of course, teem with accounts, which you have doubtless read until you are satisfied; but, at the risk of stale news, I will give you my experience of the battle, of which I believe I saw as much as “any other man.”
On the Thursday preceding, my command had been ordered upon a most fatiguing night march, which lay for six miles through a dense swamp to a point near a ford, where we lay for some hours in ambuscade for the purpose of taking a body of rebel cavalry. On Friday we marched back to camp. On Saturday, nearly the whole regiment was turned out on fatigue duty to build some bridges and a road to cross artillery, and on Saturday night I was ordered to hold my command in readiness for an expedition to march as early as eight o'clock on Sunday. All this service was intensely fatiguing to the officers and harassing to the men, but to the last order I probably owe my life, for, having been prompt in its execution and my horse being saddled, no sooner had the long roll sounded, than my men were in line. The attack was very sudden, and within three minutes our tents were literally riddled with the balls of the enemy's skirmishers. We marched the battalion to a kind of peninsula formed by a dense ravine on the one side and a creek on the other, and there formed the line of battle.
From the fatigue duty I have spoken of, and certain camp epidemics prevalent, our forces had been very much weakened, and we took into the field but about fifteen hundred men. To this force were opposed eight thousand of the enemy's infantry, supported by artillery and cavalry. Now, to the better understanding of my account, you must recollect what I have before written you, that the Second Brigade of Sherman's Division occupied the extreme left wing of the army, whose front lines extended many miles; that my regiment occupied the extreme left of the brigade, and observe that the enemy having surprised the centre which was broken, and having routed and captured the greater part of Prentiss’ command, to whom we looked for support, stole down our front and attempted to outflank us, and now at about nine o'clock on Sunday morning we joined battle. Having seen by my glass the vastly superior force of the enemy, I determined to sell our lives as dearly as possible, but never to surrender, and ordered my Zouaves to lie on their bellies, and, waiting the attack, not to fire until the foe was within twenty yards. We were ranged along the brow of the hill, slightly covered with a small growth of timber, and between us and the advancing ranks was an open plain. On they came, steadily, and save the tread of the well-trained soldiers, led by General Hardee in person, not a sound was heard; at last they were upon us, and then commenced the deafening roar of volley after volley; for four hours and a half the deadly hand-to-hand conflict raged. (I took 390 enlisted men into battle, I left 187 upon the field, killed or badly wounded, but from me they took no prisoners. The 71st Ohio . . . abandoned us early in the action, but the 55th Illinois were staunch. The brigade lost 587 killed and wounded, but most of these are from the 54th Ohio and 55th Illinois). At last our ammunition began to fail, and I never shall forget the despairing looks of some of the boys, who would come clustering around my horse and say, “Colonel, what shall I do; my cartridges are all out?” But, fortunately, the enemy's fire began to slack. My men all fired low, every man made his mark, and though our own men could hardly get round among their own killed and wounded, the field was strewn thick with the dead of the foe. By this time I was in command of the brigade, Colonel Stuart having been wounded and compelled to retire. I fell back in good order for better position and until I could be reinforced with ammunition; my forty rounds were all gone. At last an orderly from General Grant came up to promise the required supply and to order us to a position at which we could cover a battery. I forgot to tell you that the enemy had planted a battery upon a height, commanding our first position, and were shelling us all the while the first fight was going on. One of my horses was struck once by a piece of shell and twice by rifle balls. No sooner had we taken position by the batteries than the attack was renewed with greater vigor than ever; but now the heavy guns from the gunboats in our rear began to throw their shells clean over us and into the ranks of the enemy; never was sweeter music to my ears than their thunder; the shades of night drew on, the enemy began to slacken fire, and, as shell after shell dropped and burst in their midst, gradually retired. Our men dropped exhausted on their arms; all day the battle had raged, all day they had suffered privation of food and drink, and now began to fall a copious shower of rain, which lasted steadily till morning; through that shower without a murmur they slept, and the next morning at seven o'clock I, having been formally placed in command of the brigade by order of General Sherman, began the march towards the right wing, where we were to take position. General Nelson, who with General Buell had brought up reinforcements during the night, had commenced manoeuvres at daybreak. As early as eight o'clock my brigade was in the line of battle and under a heavy fire of shell. At about nine o'clock we were ordered into action, which was hotly contested all the day long. About four o'clock I was ordered to the command of another brigade, or, more properly, a concentration of skeleton regiments, which I had got into line, and, leaving my own command with Lieutenant-Colonel Malmborg, carried my new command far into an advanced position, then returning, brought up my own brigade upon the left of Shiloh Chapel. Now the Pelican flag began to waver and droop. All the day long we, that is, my immediate command, were opposed to the “Crescent City Guards,” the pet regiment of Beauregard, to whom in the morning he had made his whole army present arms, and whose flag he had at the same time planted, saying of us, the Northern army, “Thus far, but no farther shalt thou go”; vain boast; at even tide, like a gull upon the crest of the wave in the far-off ocean, it fluttered and went down.
I drew my forces up in good order under the eye of General Sherman, and Monday night again under a most drenching shower, which lasted all the night through, the men even now without food or drink lay upon their arms, and on Tuesday morning were again in line; the enemy had gone, but not their occupation; all day they stood guard upon the outposts, and the next day we marched the whole regiment onward for three miles and a half to bring in the wounded of the enemy. That day I took thirty-two prisoners, and brought in the bodies of an Arkansas colonel and Major Monroe, of Kentucky, the latter one of the most distinguished men of the State, and both of them I had decently interred. Oh, Helen, if you had seen the horrors of that battle, as I saw them when the rage of battle had passed, the heaps of slain, the ghastly wounds, had you heard the groans of the dying, had you seen the contortions of men and horses; but why dwell on the theme which abler writers will so vividly portray? I have given you one hasty sketch of the humble part it was my good fortune to be able to play in one of the greatest dramas of the age. Thank God for me, for in His infinite mercy He alone has preserved me in the shock of battle; pray for me always. One more conflict, and I leave a memory for my children or make a name for myself. My flag is still unstained, my honor still bright.
SOURCE: Walter George Smith, Life and letters of Thomas Kilby Smith, p. 195-8