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John W. Foster-Battle of Shiloh Letter

Updated: Jun 8, 2019

In the narrative I am in the process of putting together, one of the Federal leaders is Colonel John W. Foster of the 65th Indiana. The 26 year old was the military commander of the district between the Green and Cumberland Rivers in Western Kentucky, with his headquarters in Henderson, Kentucky. His very difficult job was eradicating the area of Confederate guerrillas, especially those that belonged to the command of Adam "Stovepipe" Johnson. But, his story begins months before he took command in Henderson in July 1862. In fact, he was a veteran of Fort Donelson and Shiloh, where he served with distinction as Major of the 25th Indiana Infantry.

The horrific fight at Pittsburg Landing stunned the nation, and after the battle had ceased he wrote a lengthy and detailed letter of his experiences to his father. The letter was eventually published in multiple newspapers, giving readers a vivid sample of the combat on those two days in April. People also came to know the name John W. Foster. Below is the letter he wrote. Foster was Harvard educated and his style of writing shows his exemplary education. For some context, the 25th was a part of Veatch's brigade, McClernand's divions, Army of the Tennessee and was posted near the western part of the battlefield near the Corinth Road, with Sherman's division on the western flank.

Map courtesy of the Civil War Trust.

Pittsburg Landing, Tenn., April 7, 1862

DEAR FATHER-Tired, worn out, almost exhausted, I have just brought the remnant of the noble Twenty-fifth Indiana back into our old camp from the front of the hardest fought, most strongly contested and bloodiest battlefield upon the American continent. But I can not lie down without first preparing a short account of it, to assure you of my own personal safety, the gallant conduct of our regiment, and the glorious triumph of our arms. A terrible conflict of two full days of continuous fighting has this evening left us in possession of the field, which was at one time almost lost.

Yesterday (Sunday) morning, about 6:30 o’clock, just after we had finished breakfast, we were attracted by a continuous roar of musketry, with occasional discharges of artillery on our extreme left, near the river. In a few minutes we were in line of battle and moving forward to the attack. We had hardly left the camp before we saw the roads full of our flying men, and all along the route for the two miles we passed over were strewn guns, knapsacks and blankets, and we found to our dismay that our front had been completely surprised, one whole division scattered and retreating in utter confusion, and the enemy in force already a mile within our camps.

We were drawn up in line of battle, our brigade, under command of Colonel Veatch, in a skirt of timber bordering a large field, on the outer edge of which our troops were engaging the enemy. But the enemy pressed on in overwhelming force, and just as the troops in front of us began to waver we discovered that the enemy had flanked us on the right and was rapidly advancing (in what force we knew not, but the woods were perfectly swarming) to attack our brigade on the right and rear. So it becomes necessary for us to change our front to the rear to meet them.

The Fifteenth Illinois was on the right, the Fourteenth Illinois in the center, and the Twenty-Fifth Indiana on the left; the other regiment-the Forty-sixth Illinois- by the rapid flanking of the enemy becoming detached from the brigade, was not with us again during the whole action. This brought the first fire upon the Fifteenth Illinois, which stood but was soon overpowered; likewise the Fourteenth. In the meantime the troops in front and on the left were completely routed by the enemy and came pell-mell right through our lines, causing some little confusion, and hardly had they passed through to the rear before the enemy were upon us, and here the fire of musketry was most terrible.

Our men tried to stand up to it, but everything was breaking to pieces all around us and it was more than we could do, short of annihilation. We poured in a few well-directed volley’s and reluctantly left the field, many of our men firing as they fell back. The loss here was very heavy, All the field officers of the Twenty-fifth Illinois were killed instantly, and many commissioned officers; two of our Lieutenants were killed and three wounded, and one of our Captains is either killed or a prisoner. We will make through search for him on the field in the morning. We left dead on this field fifteen men killed almost instantly on the firs fire, and a large number wounded. At the first fire Lieutenant Colonel Morgan was wounded in the leg (not seriously), and was immediately carried off the field. From this time I led the regiment in person. I did all I could to make the men contest the ground firmly as they fell back, and on the first favorable ground about one hundred yards from the first line of battle, I planted the colors and mounted a fallen tree, and waving my hat with all my might, I cheered and called upon the men to rally on the flag-never to desert their colors. All of the left wing responded to my call most nobly, and rallied with considerably alacrity under a most galling and dangerous fire. I did not see Colonel Morgan fall, and supposed he had charge of the right wing, but the various captains collected a large number of men, and as soon as I got under cover of the regiments on the left and rear they brought their men up and joined me, and I thus had still quite a battalion, notwithstanding the killed and number wounded, and the straying or lost ones. The men who came to me at this time had been “tried in the furnace” and were true men, and during all the trying scenes of the rest of the day and of today they never faltered in obeying my commands and did most bravely.

As soon as our brigade was collected Colonel Veatch moved us over to the right to support General McClernand’s Division, which was being very hard pressed by the enemy, said to be commanded by Beauregard. The left, so our prisoners report, was commanded by Bragg and the center by Johnston. They also report that the column that attacked our brigade in the morning of which I have just spoken, numbers 12,000 under Bragg, and that the whole force was near 100,000, but we do not know-only that it is very large, sufficiently so to attack our extensive camp on all sides in heavy force.

In the afternoon our pickets reported the enemy advancing against us, on the left of General McClernand. As soon as we had drawn them well up by our picket skirmish, under Captain Rheinlander, the Fourteenth Illinois flanked them and was just beginning to pour upon them a heavy fire, while we were moving up to the assistance of the Fourteenth in fine style, when the whole mass of our left, which had for five or six hours been steadily and stubbornly contesting the victorious advance of the enemy in that direction, gave way in all directions, about half-past three, and came sweeping by us in utter and total confusion-cavalry, ambulances, artillery, and thousands of infantry, all in one mass, while the enemy were following closely in pursuit, at the same time throwing grape, canister and shells thick and fast among them.

It was a time of great excitement and dismay. It appeared that all was lost; but I was unwilling to throw our regiment into the flying mass, only to be trampled to pieces and thoroughly disorganized and broken. So I held them back in the wash on the side of the road until the mass of the rout had passed, when I put my men in the rear of the retreat and by this means fell into a heavy cross fire of the enemy, but I preferred that to being crushed to pieces by our own army. Here we lost a number of men killed, and many wounded.

Among those who fell, wounded badly in the leg, was Sergeant Major William Jones, who had stood right by me fearlessly through the whole day. This route decided that day’s work. We were driven back nearly to the river landing, but still the ground was strongly defended all the time, but the enemy kept pressing us in all the time, and if at this time they had made a bold and united charge all along their line we would have been totally and utterly routed; but a half-hour’s apparent cessation of heavy firing gave our scattered forces time to rally, while the first two regiments of Buell’s long-expected advance took position on the hill in the rear, and our forces fell back and formed with them near the landing for a final stand.

About 5 o’clock in the evening the enemy made a heavy charge and attempted to carry this position. The contest was most terribly; the roar of musketry was one continuous peal for near half an hour. All that saved us was two heavy siege pieces on the hill and the firmness of our men on this last stand. Night closed in on us, with almost the whole of our extensive camps in the hands of the enemy. It was a gloomy night for us all, and to add to our discomforts we had a heavy rain with no shelter. But we had saved enough ground to make a stand upon, and during the night 20,000 fresh troops from Buell’s army were transported across the river and Lew Wallace moved up his division from below our right.

This morning at dawn of day began one of the grandest and most terrific battles ever fought. Buell moved forward on the left and center, and Wallace on the right, with their fresh troops while Grant’s army steadily followed them up and held the ground firmly as it was gained. From early in the morning until 3 o’clock in the afternoon the roar of musketry and artillery was one almost continuous thunder. It was grand beyond description. I have not time to tell you of in in this letter, and you will have it fully described in the newspapers.

The enemy fought with great desperation and steadiness, but Wallace continued to press them on the right, driving them to the left, and Buell pressing them on the left, driving them to the right, until they were completely outflanked, when at 3 o’clock our brigade was ordered up to the front and center and directed to charge the retreating enemy, but they traveled to fast for us. Nothing but cavalry could reach them. We remained on the outposts until evening, and then came in to get a good night’s sleep in our camp after the fatigues of a two days’ steady fight. The night is terribly disagreeable-rainy and chilly-and tens of thousands of troops are sleeping on the bare ground with no covering, just as we did last night.

Indiana has borne an honorable part in the great battle. I know that the Ninth, Eleventh, Twenty-Fifth, Thirty-first, Thirty-second, Forty-fourth and Fifty-seventh Regiments were engaged, and I think the Twenty-third and Twenty-fourth, with several others, I have no doubt, though I have been too busy on the field to know much of it; have not even had time yet to see Colonel Morgan or our wounded officers and men. The Forty-second was busy here today, but I hardly think it was in the fight, though it may have been. Thompson’s Battery is said to have done noble work. Aleck [Quartermaster A.H. Porter] was busy with the trains and baggage. The enemy came right up to our tents; the camp was shelled; he had to move wagons and baggage to the landing; did his duty well. But we are back again tonight.

I tried in this terrible conflict to do my duty well, and I am willing to leave to my officers and men the judgement.

I forgot to mention Colonel Veatch. He acted with great coolness and courage, and was always with his brigade in the thickest of the fight. He had two horses shot under him, but escaped unharmed. Your affectionate son,

John W. Foster

For a great video on the actions of Veatch's Brigade and the 25th Indiana, check out this video below:

*Coons, John W., Indiana at Shiloh, 1904, Indiana Shiloh National Park Commission


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