Posted by: Aaron Lisec | April 6, 2012

Man Can Die But Once: William H. L. Wallace and the Battle of Shiloh

The Battle of Shiloh began on the morning of April 6, 1862, a Sunday.  Confederate troops attacked a Union camp at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, near the Mississippi border.  For two days the battle raged over river bluffs, farm fields, orchards, forested ravines, wagon roads, and a few rough-hewn log buildings, including a Methodist church known as Shiloh.  Estimates vary but as many as 110,000 soldiers took part: 45,000 Confederates and 65,000 Union troops, including the Union reinforcements that tipped the scales on the second day, forcing the Confederates back toward Mississippi.

William S. Morgan map of the battlefield at Shiloh; pencil on paper. Michael K. Lawler Papers, SCRC.

Afterward, 1700 soldiers on each side were dead, and the combined casualties (dead, wounded, and missing or captured) totaled 23,000.  It was then the largest battle yet waged on the North American continent.  Veterans who later fought in other great battles during the Vicksburg and Atlanta campaigns reportedly told new recruits that nothing compared to the ferocity of Shiloh.

The battle hinged in part on the Union’s tenacity in defending several key points during the afternoon of the first day, April 6.  The most famous of these was the Sunken Road, which the Confederates called the Hornet’s Nest.  Concentrated artillery and hand to hand fighting killed several hundred as troops from Iowa, Illinois, and Ohio held off repeated attacks by men from Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana.  Union troops finally surrendered, but too late in the day for the Confederates to exploit the advantage.  Reinforcements arrived overnight and helped retake the ground lost the previous day.

William H. L. Wallace

One of the commanders at the Hornet’s Nest was William H. L. Wallace, a lawyer from Ottawa, Illinois.  Wallace was a Mexican War veteran who distinguished himself as colonel of the 11th Illinois in the Fort Donelson battle seven weeks before.  Promoted to brigadier general of volunteers, he commanded one of five divisions at Shiloh.  After hours of fighting, he ordered his men to withdraw, but Wallace himself was shot through the eye as his staff were driven off.  Confederates covered him with a blanket against the overnight rain, and when the Union retook the position in the morning, his brother-in-law, Cyrus E. Dickey, found him still breathing.

By coincidence, Wallace’s wife Ann had arrived the previous day to visit her husband.  Wallace was taken to Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters at the Cherry Mansion in Savannah, Tennessee, where Ann tended him for three days.  He had survived the wound but on April 10 he died, likely from infection, telling Ann “We meet in Heaven.”

SCRC holds only one letter from Wallace, but it occupies a special place in our Civil War collections.  Wallace wrote to Ann on January 13, 1862, from Bird’s Point, Missouri, on the Mississippi River.  His regiment had been ordered to join the expedition that was to capture Forts Henry and Donelson on the Kentucky-Tennessee border a month later.  But now he and his troops had seen little if any action, and he was excited and nervous.  He wrote that he had done all he could to make his men comfortable against snow and ice on the journey ahead.

“Going as we do, without knowing where or on what particular mission of course makes us all feel somewhat anxious, and it makes me feel that I am in the hands of a kind and overruling Providence who will order all for the best.  I feel & have ever felt since I embarked in this cause that the hand of God was in it, and that out of all this seeming evil He would evoke the greatest good.  Men, even the ablest & the best, are but instruments to accomplish his ends–and if He wills that they perish on the field or live to return to their homes, all is for the best.  Man can die but once, & to fall in support of the constitution and the government our fathers established under so many evidences of Divine favor, is no mean ending of this period of existence.  But I am looking to the worst contingency.  Beside this is the prospect of doing what I may to reestablish the government & then return unscathed to enjoy all the delights of a house hallowed by the presence & love of the best of women…. God bless you darling.  I feel comforted in the assurance that I have your prayers & Blossoms prompted by you.  Kiss the dear little “coot” for me–My love to Tilly–I love you dearest of all on earth–Good bye”



  1. Wonderful letter! Thanks for sharing. Love the integrated, zoomable jpegs within the text.

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