Sunday, Bloody Sunday

Sunday is a day of rest, or it should be–all the more so if it is Easter Sunday.  April sixth, 1862 started out that way for the Union troops camped along the Tennessee River in west Tennessee.  At Pittsburg Landing, where most of General Grant’s men were, all seemed placid.  Most men were sleeping in; a few early risers had begun breakfast, others were just lolling about, enjoying their leisure.  There had been some shots in the distance when it was still pitch black, but no one took notice—probably a nervous guard or two, is all.  As men dreamed dreams of home and loved ones, blood-curdling yells broke the peace.

The following day, April 7, General Buell's army counter-attacked and drove the Confederates back, saving Grant's army; Grant however, claimed credit for the victory.
The following day, April 7, General Buell’s army counter-attacked and drove the Confederates back, saving Grant’s army; Grant however, claimed credit for the victory.

Men awoke, groggy and disoriented, to suddenly find a bayonet descending on them the next second.

As Ambrose Bierce observed, “many of Grant’s men when spitted on Confederate bayonets were as naked as civilians; but it should not be allowed that this was not because of any defect in their picket line.  Their error was of another sort: they had no pickets.”

The outlying camps were quickly overrun. Federals who heard the commotion ran to grab their guns and rushed to the front, only to find themselves too late, as successive waves of howling Rebels outflanked and overran successive Yankee positions.  By the end of the day the shattered remnants of Grants army were mostly crowded by the edge of the river, like condemned men awaiting their doom.

In the weeks leading up to the battle, Grant had had ample time to build redoubts, entrenchments and other defenses to protect against surprise attack, yet failed to do so.  Grant was not even at Pittsburg Landing, making his headquarters a number of miles away at Savannah, Tennessee.

Nor did Grant’s many regiments of cavalry and infantry do any patrol work outside their own bivouacs as they may easily have done.  Still, one must give credit where credit is due: Grant knew how to write a great after action report, and in it everyone but himself found some blame, save for his flame bearded—and some said crazy—friend General Sherman.  Buell “went slow,” Wallace “went slow;” but apparently the Butternuts of Johnston & Beauregard’s army did not go slow that day.  Luckily, the Confederates failed to overrun the riverboat landing by sunset on the first day–they were too exhausted from their stunning victory.

As fate would have it, during the night a fresh Federal army came across the river under General Don Carlos Buell to save the day—only that day would be April seventh, not the sixth.

Ambrose Bierce First Lt Don Swaim
Ambrose Bierce, at the time only a sergeant in Hazen’s brigade, was eyewitness to the second day’s battle and witnessed how demoralized Grant’s army was. He blamed Grant’s carelessness for their defeat.

If you read any one of the many books on Shiloh, the word that almost always comes to mind is “bloody.”  While there would be many battles that would prove as gory as Shiloh, this was the first fight where the bloodletting proved to be on such a staggering scale for both sides.  Many a young man with a sweetheart at home never got to hold her in his arms ; many a son was never to ever see his mother or sister.  Many who fell that day earned a mass grave with other unnamed souls in unhallowed ground.  Is it any wonder that ever since that awful Sunday those who have traversed the many acres that make up Shiloh battlefield have reported feeling strange feelings, hearing strange sounds and seeing strange sights?

Pittsburg Landing shortly after the battle. It was here, during the night, that most of General Buell's army was ferried over to rescue Grant's men from their leader's incompetence. Proper credit for the victory was never given to Buell.
Pittsburg Landing shortly after the battle. It was here, during the night, that most of General Buell’s army was ferried over to rescue Grant’s men from their leader’s incompetence. Proper credit for the victory was never given to Buell.

There is, for example, the tale of the phantom drummer.  I won’t recite the full story here, for it is told in full in Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground; suffice it to say that on more than one occasion visitors to the national park have heard the sound of a distant drum, pounding out the “long roll,” when no re-enactor or musician is present anywhere on the grounds.  Other visitors to Shiloh claim to have heard the sounds of gun-fire, or the moaning and screams of wounded men, desperately crying out for help.

Since most visitors leave the park by sunset, only a select few have actually seen apparitions on the grounds.  A few locals, driving through the terrain at night encounter strange fog and swear it’s filled with the shadows of figures slowly moving through it.  Park rangers I have talked angrily deny any such things ever occur.

Park officials, of course, are always concerned about trespassers and uncanny accounts such as these could lure some folk to go where and when they aren’t allowed.  Far be it from me to add to their concerns.  Still, many folk believe the restless dead of Bloody Shiloh cannot so easily be mollified.  So, if you go, you may only feel an eerie silence as I did; is it just your imagination?  Perhaps; or perhaps there is something more that yet abides on the blood-drenched fields of Shiloh.

Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War for a compendium of true accounts of Civil War ghosts and haunts
Go to Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War for a compendium of true accounts of Civil War apparitions and other paranormal events.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ambrose-bierce-and-the-period-of-honorable-strife-cover
Ambrose Bierce, famed American author, served as a soldier in the front lines throughout the Civil War. Bierce’s wartime experiences were the transformative events of the young author’s life. Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife for the first time chronicles this pivotal period of Bierce’s life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more about the restless shades of Shiloh and the Civil War, also see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground and Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War.

Ambrose Bierce: Spymaster?

Ambrose Bierce First Lt Don Swaim
Ambrose Bierce, best known as fiction writer, muckraking journalist and cynic, was also a soldier during the Civil War, among whose duties may have been that of spy-master.

Having spent several years researching, then writing and revising Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, the first tome devoted solely to noted American author Ambrose Bierce’s wartime service during the Civil War, one would think that I had uncovered all there was to know about the wartime career of Bierce.  One would think. But alas one would be wrong.

In truth, while I corrected many false impressions and incorrect assumptions created by some of his previous biographers, the reality is that the more I uncovered about Ambrose Bierce and his service during the Civil War, the more questions arose about him.  Some questions may only be of interest to those already devoted to Bierce and his work; other mysteries about Bierce’s life and career are fascinating quandaries which we may, or may not, some day find a solution.  One such quandary that tantalize this present author concerns  what facts may lie behind Ambrose Bierce’s career as a spy—something which he only mentioned in print once, yet is a subject I think many would greatly love to learn more abou.

I had come across reference to his espionage activities hidden in amongst the papers regarding his war service, deeply buried in the National Archives.  The reference to it is fleeting—a one sentence mention on one monthly muster card.  Prior to his brief service as spy, Bierce had done a brief stint as his brigade’s Provost Marshal—a role that entailed duties aa a general purpose MP and disciplinarian—and about this duty he shared considerably more to his readers in his postwar newspaper columns than he did his espionage work.

In the Western Theater of the war where Bierce served, the Provost Marshal’s department also sometimes doubled as a counter-espionage bureau, at least in Nashville.  But it doesn’t seem as though that espionage was part of Bierce’s cop duties when he was assigned to Provost Marshall duty in the early part of 1863..

An artist's impression of the life of a Civil War spy, after Harper's Weekly.
An artist’s impression of the life of a Civil War spy, after Harper’s Weekly.

From about mid-1863 on, Lt. Bierce served as his brigade’s topographical engineer—in effect its mapmaker.  Lest one think that a dull desk job, understand that during the Civil War topographical engineers were required to go out into the field and not only survey roads and physical features, but scout out enemy emplacements and fortifications as well, a task which frequently entailed infiltrating behind enemy lines.  It was a matter of some importance to commanders to know whether a strategic ford or bridge was held by the enemy and if so in what strength.  During the war, scout and spy were often interchangeable terms—and both could earn the soldier in question a summary execution by the opposing side–something which Bierce wrote about in his short stories.

Still, it seems clear that Lt. Bierce was not just penetrating behind enemy lines on mapping expeditions, but also coordinating a network of civilian spies, at least for a brief time.  I only recently stumbled across Bierce’s own brief reference to his espionage work in his rambling discussion, generally inaccurate, of naval firepower during the Spanish American War.  After pontificating how 12 inch guns couldn’t possibly be used at sea (wrong!) he then informs the readers of his column:

“In our Civil War, as in most wars, spies were employed by both sides and some made honorable records, each among his own people. I once had command of

The use of field or "spy" glasses were a much safer way of observing enemy forces, but not always as productive of results as going behind enemy lines.
The use of field or “spy” glasses were a much safer way of observing enemy forces, but not always as productive of results as going behind enemy lines.

about a dozen spies for some months—gave them their assignments, received and collated their reports and tried as hard as I could to believe them. I must say that they were about as scurvy a lot of imposters as could be found on Uncle Sam’s payroll (that was before the pension era) and I should have experienced a secret joy if they had been caught and hanged. But they were in an honorable calling—a calling in which the proportion of intelligent and conscientious workers is probably about the same as in other trades and professions.”

Allan Pinkerton, a Scottish radical Socialist turned American spymaster, was Lincoln's chief of intelligence. Unfortunately much of his information regarding the Rebel army was faulty.
Allan Pinkerton, a Scottish Socialist turned U.S. spymaster. He was Lincoln’s chief of intelligence. 

Bierce gave his San Francisco readers no chronology for his career as spy-master–but I can.

Based on his service record and what I have learned of his military career, his work as spymaster would have been in the late spring of 1863.  Beyond that, however, the five w’s of Bierce’s espionage activities remain an enigma.

Unlike some soldiers who wrote voluminous tomes on how they won the war, Bierce largely avoided such self-serving promotions and so, save for some fortuitous discovery, details about Lt. Ambrose Bierce’s work as espionage operative must remain an enduring enigma.

 

 

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife is now in print with the University of Tennessee Press.  For those interested in Bierce’s fictional works, I recommend the press’s three volume Short Fiction of Ambrose Bierce which not only includes all his best known works but quite a few lesser known gems.

 

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover
Based on extensive primary research, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife in now in hardcover via the University of Tennessee Press.