....now-a-days, as you know, I refuse to even kill a chicken...but...a soldier on the fighting line is possessed by the demon of destruction


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Jul 23, 2017
Southwest Missouri
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Leander Stillwell
61st Illinois Infantry
I distinctly remember my first shot at Shiloh. It was fired when we were in our first position, as described in my account of the battle. I think that when the boys saw the enemy advancing they began firing of their own motion, without waiting for orders.

At least, I don't remember hearing any. I was in the front rank, but didn't fire. I preferred to wait for a good opportunity, when I could take deliberate aim at some individual foe. But when the regiment fired, the Confederates halted and began firing also, and the fronts of both lines were at once shrouded in smoke. I had my gun at a ready, and was trying to peer under the smoke in order to get a sight of our enemies. Suddenly I heard some one in a highly excited tone calling to me from just in my rear, "Stillwell! shoot! shoot! Why don't you shoot?" I looked around and saw that this command was being given by Bob Wilder, our second lieutenant, who was in his place, just a few steps to the rear. He was a young man, about twenty-five years old, and was fairly wild with excitement, jumping up and down "like a hen on a hot griddle." "Why, lieutenant," said I, "I can't see anything to shoot at." "Shoot, shoot, anyhow!"

"All right," I responded, "if you say shoot, shoot it is;" and bringing my gun to my shoulder, I aimed low in the direction of the enemy, and blazed away through the smoke. I have always doubted if this, my first shot, did any execution—but there's no telling. However, the lieutenant was clearly right. Our adversaries were in our front, in easy range, and it was our duty to aim low, fire in their general direction, and let fate do the rest.

But at the time the idea to me was ridiculous that one should blindly shoot into a cloud of smoke without having a bead on the object to be shot at. I had shot squirrels and rabbits, and other small game, in the big woods adjacent to our backwoods home, from the time I was big enough to carry a gun. In fact, I began when I was too small to shoot "off hand," but had to fire from a "rest,"—any convenient stump, log, or forked bush. The gun I used was a little old percussion lock rifle, with a long barrel, carrying a bullet which weighed about sixty to the pound. We boys had to furnish our own ammunition,—lead (which we moulded into bullets), gun-caps, and powder. Our principal source of revenue whereby we got money to buy ammunition was hazel-nuts, which we would gather, shuck, and sell at five cents a quart. And the work incident to the gathering and shucking of a quart of hazel nuts was a decidedly tedious job.

But it made us economical in the use of our ordnance stores, so we would never throw away a shot carelessly or unnecessarily. And it was a standing rule never to shoot a squirrel anywhere except in the head, save as a last resort, when circumstances compelled one to fire at some other part of the body of the little animal. And so I thought, at the beginning of my military career, that I should use the same care and circumspection in firing an old musket when on the line of battle that I had exercised in hunting squirrels. But I learned better in about the first five minutes of the battle of Shiloh.

However, in every action I was in, when the opportunity was afforded, I took careful and deliberate aim, but many a time the surroundings were such that the only thing to do was to hold low, and fire through the smoke in the direction of the enemy. I will say here that the extent of wild shooting done in battle, especially by raw troops, is astonishing, and rather hard to understand. When we fell back to our second line at Shiloh, I heard an incessant humming sound away up above our heads, like the flight of a swarm of bees. In my ignorance, I at first hardly knew what that meant, but it presently dawned on me that the noise was caused by bullets singing through the air from twenty to a hundred feet over our heads.

And after the battle I noticed that the big trees in our camp, just in the rear of our second line, were thickly pock-marked by musket balls at a distance of fully a hundred feet from the ground.

And yet we were separated from the Confederates only by a little, narrow field, and the intervening ground was perfectly level. But the fact is, those boys were fully as green as we were, and doubt less as much excited. The Confederate army at Shiloh was composed of soldiers the great majority of whom went under fire there for the first time, and I reckon they were as nervous and badly scared as we were….

There was a battery of light artillery on this line, about a quarter of a mile to our right, on a slight elevation of the ground. It was right flush up with the infantry line of battle, and oh, how those artillery men handled their guns! It seemed to me that there was the roar of a cannon from that battery about every other second. When ramming cartridge, I sometimes glanced in that direction. The men were big fellows, stripped to the waist, their white skins flashing in the sunlight, and they were working like I have seen men doing when fighting a big fire in the woods.

I fairly gloated over the fire of that battery. "Give it to them, my sons of thunder!" I would say to myself; "Knock the ever-lastin' stuffin' out of 'em!" And, as I ascertained after the battle, they did do frightful execution.

In consideration of the fact that now-a-days, as you know, I refuse to even kill a chicken, some of the above expressions may sound rather strange. But the fact is, a soldier on the fighting line is possessed by the demon of destruction. He wants to kill, and the more of his adversaries he can see killed, the more intense his gratification. Gen. Grant somewhere in his Memoirs expresses the idea (only in milder language than mine) when he says:

"While a battle is raging one can see his enemy mowed down by the thousand, or the ten thousand, with great composure."

The Story of a Common Soldier
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Ole Miss

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Regtl. Staff Shiloh 2020
Dec 9, 2017
North Mississippi
What a remarkable man he was. Such ability to express his thoughts in such a clear manner is so rare. Thank you for sharing with us