April 1862: "The battle field in the day of battle is awfully exciting: afterwards terribly disgusting."By Joan Fink, Volunteer
Letter from Horace Newton Fisher to John Ward, 8 April 1862
"The Waterloo of this hemisphere" is the description used by Lieutenant Horace Newton Fisher to portray the devastation wrought by the Battle of Shiloh in this 8 April 1862 letter. Lieutenant Fisher, an aide-de-camp on the staff of Brigadier General William Nelson, wrote this letter to John Ward, a family friend living in Louisville, Kentucky, in hopes that Mr. Ward would telegraph Fisher's family in Massachusetts to notify them that he had escaped with "not even scratches." In addition to supplying estimates of the number of casualties for both the Union and Confederate armies, Lieutenant Fisher relates how he narrowly missed having his head shot off by a cannonball.
Horace Newton Fisher was born in 1836 in Brookline, Massachusetts. When word reached Fisher, who was hiking in the Pyrenees, that Fort Sumter had been attacked, he immediately arranged passage back to Boston. Fisher's father advised him not to rush to enlist in the army and they agreed that if the war had not ended by 1 January 1862, Fisher could join. Fisher wanted to be part of the most significant battles of the war which, in his estimation, would be fought west of the Alleghenies in the border states of Kentucky and Tennessee. Thus, on 1 January 1862, he forfeited the opportunity to use his family connections to gain a commission in a Massachusetts regiment and departed for Cincinnati, Ohio.
In Cincinnati, Fisher met General William Nelson, then commander of the Fourth Division of the Army of the Ohio. General Nelson offered him a staff position as a volunteer aide-de-camp at the rank of lieutenant. According to his son, Horace C. Fisher, Fisher did not accept any salary during his military service; rather he used the ample funds that he had brought with him to pay for passage for wounded soldiers to return to their homes.
In early April of 1862, General Nelson had received orders to march to Pittsburg Landing to join Major General Ulysses S. Grant. General Grant had positioned his entire force in Pittsburg Landing in preparation for an attack against Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston, who had concentrated his armies in nearby Corinth, Mississippi. On 6 April 1862, however, Johnston led a surprise attack on Grant's army. Catching the Union troops unprepared, Johnston's forces were able to quickly advance and inflict a great number of casualties. Arriving from their camp in Savannah, Tennessee, in the early evening of the battle, General Nelson's troops, including Lieutenant Fisher, immediately worked to relieve Grant's troops. The next day, Major General Don Carlos Buell arrived with fresh troops and the Union army took the offensive, eventually driving the Confederate troops back toward Corinth.
In this letter, Lieutenant Fisher describes both the exhilaration and the horror of war noting that "the battlefield in the day of battle is awfully exciting: afterwards terribly disgusting" (page 2). Fisher also offers a brief description of his own close call with a cannonball that took off the head of a man in close proximity to him. (A more detailed account of this incident is included in a 10 April 1862 letter to his father.) At the conclusion of the letter, Fisher "thanks my stars for my lucky escape" (page 4) noting that so many lives had been lost in this battle.
This letter demonstrates that early first-hand accounts of battles were not always trustworthy sources of information. Fisher's "low" estimate of 100,000 Confederate troops exceeds the number of Confederate soldiers involved in the battle by more than 50,000. Likewise, while General Johnston was killed at Shiloh as Fisher reports (page 2), Generals Ruggles and Bragg both escaped the battle unscathed. And George W. Johnson, provisional governor of Tennessee, was killed in the battle, but he was a private, not a general as Fisher indicates in the letter.
After the war, Fisher returned to Brookline where he raised a family and wrote political treatises, including one on the principles of colonial government. Horace Newton Fisher died in 1916.
Sources for Further Reading
This letter is one of dozens of Civil War letters contained in the Horace N. Fisher Morse papers held by the MHS.
Cunningham, O. Edward, Gary D. Joiner, Timothy B. Smith. Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862.New York: Savas Beatie, 2007.
Davis, Charles E. Three Years in the Army: The Story of the Thirteenth Massachusetts Volunteers from July 16, 1861, to August 1, 1864. Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1894.
Fisher, Horace Cecil. A Staff Officer's Story: The Personal Experiences of Colonel Horace Newton Fisher in the Civil War.Boston: s.n., 1960.