Civil War soldiers were closely bound to the home front. Letters, packages of food, and visits from friends and loved ones were common. For the first year of the war the front for most Illinois soldiers was located in the neighboring states of Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Because people back home in Illinois kept in close touch with the troops, shifts in the attitude of the soldiers were followed by shifts in popular perception of the war.
|Members of Battery A, First Light Artillery, also known as the Chicago Light Artillery. This photograph was taken at Camp Smith, near Cairo, Illinois. (June 1861)|
James Milner was a young artilleryman in the Chicago Light Artillery (later Battery A, 1st Illinois Artillery). The letter which was originally a private communication to his father, Robert Milner, was printed in the Chicago Tribune on Friday, April 18, 1862. James Milner enlisted in the army immediately after Abraham Lincoln's call for volunteers. The unit was made up of middle class Chicagoans, many of whom were members of the YMCA and the St. James Episcopal Church in Chicago.
|There is a memorial altar to the unit's dead in the vestibule of St. James and a beautiful Leonard Volk sculpture in Chicago’s Rosehill Cemetery on which is inscribed the names of the men Battery A lost at Shiloh.|
|Capture of Union forces at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, by Confederates, Sunday, April 6, 1862.|
|Repulsing the combined Confederate attack at the Peach Orchard, Shiloh, Tennessee, Sunday, April 6, 1862.|
|Reccapture of Union artillery by the First Ohio Regiment at Shiloh Church, Monday, April 7, 1862.|
Battery A was placed into the center of Grant's last-ditch battle line. As darkness fell, the Union soldiers at one end of the line, although they had fought and lost all day, signaled their determination to resist what they thought would be a final rebel onslaught by issuing a "tremendous cheer." At that moment, there was a lull in the firing "and the cheer was taken up and echoed along the whole line and among the straggling squads of disorganized troops." During the long, wet nightmare night that followed, the men of Battery A talked about "the boys" who had died. "My heart was rilled with hatred and revenge against the enemy... I could not restrain my tears and felt that I would hazard my life in any position to mow down their ranks with canister. After this I had a feeling of utmost indifference as to my fate."
"With the light of day the battle was renewed. We had recovered nearly all the ground lost the day before. The fire opened fierce from the start, and we did not wait long for orders to the front. Our position was near the center, and we commenced shelling with the four guns we were still able to man." At one point, General William Tecumseh Sherman personally directed the battery forward to stem a Confederate counterattack. No sooner had that action ended when: "General Sherman again rode up and ordered us to a new front 'Come on,' he said, 'I'll lead you,' and he did. We limbered up, mounted our seats...and we galloped forward through a fierce storm of shell and bullets. 'Well up to the front,' said Lt. Wood, and we took up position in advance of the infantry and poured in a rapid fire of shell. General Sherman who (as Gen. Wallace says is perfectly crazy on the subject of artillery) told a Louisiana officer in the presence of one of our men, it was the grandest thing he ever saw done by artillery... It was the liveliest engagement of all, for the time it lasted, and I really enjoyed it."
With the help of reinforcements from General Don Carlos Buell's Army of the Ohio, Grant was gradually able to push back the Confederate Army. At 3:30 p.m., General Pierre G. T. Beauregard was forced to order a general retreat, but the Rebels were not the only soldiers who had reached the end of their tethers. Just before the moment of victory, Milner wrote that: "We were tired out. The rain was falling, and I for one felt more dispirited here than at any other time." No sooner did they retrieve a few crackers from their haversacks than the men noticed cavalry rushing to the front "and we knew that the enemy were in retreat." Battery A was again ordered to the front as part of a general effort to pursue the enemy.
Two days after the battle, Milner wrote to tell his father he had survived. "I have gone into these tedious details to show you exactly what war is. I have since rode over the whole battlefield, but will spare you the horrid and disgusting details of the thousands of suffering wounded, and mangled corpses I saw." Shiloh altered the young Chicagoan's view of war: "We have at last had our wish for a hard battle gratified and never again do I expect to hear the same wish from the lips of our men. We are just as ready now to do our duty as we were, but to desire another hard battle, with the same chances of loss to our company, is quite a different thing."
The account of James Milner provides insight into the reaction of Illinoisans to the shocking reality of the battle of Shiloh. The battle was a turning point in Midwesterners' attitudes toward the Civil War. Shiloh took the lives of more Americans than had died in all the previous wars fought by the United States. Before the battle, Grant had believed the rebellion was on the brink of defeat. After the bloody two-day contest, he realized that the Confederacy would yield only after a long, difficult war of conquest. Shiloh steeled Midwesterners to the painful truth that the Civil War would be a long, drawn-out conflict.
After Shiloh, many Chicagoans assumed a much harsher posture toward the South. The editors of the Chicago Tribune likely printed Milner's letter to his father (against the young soldier's expressed wishes) in order to give readers a clear sense of the trial of battle and to stir in them the same reaction the death of his comrades aroused in Milner "revenge." Letters from other soldiers also began to make their way into the press with rumors of rebel atrocities. Confederate guerrillas were reported to have cut the nose and ears off a captured Union soldier. Other stories recounted poisoned wells, the refusal to bury Union dead, and the "making of tools and utensils of their bones." As the enemy became demonized, more and more voices on the home front and in the army began to call for harsh measures against all Rebels. "I begin to think the better way would be to utterly desolate wherever we went," an officer from Elgin, Illinois, wrote home. "If I had control when this army had marched through the Gulf States no landmarks would be left to show the boundaries of the towns, counties, or states." Shiloh began the evolution of the Civil War toward total war.
By Theodore J. Karamanski
Editing by Neil Gale, Ph.D.
 Note: Milner's account of the Battle of Shiloh appeared in the April 18, 1862, edition of the Chicago Tribune under the headline: "The Pittsburg Battle."