From the Caldwell Family Papers, Hayes Presidential Library
William Caldwell, son of William and Jane (Davis) Caldwell, enlisted in the 72nd OVI as a hospital steward at the age of twentyfive. He eventually rose to the rank of Assistant Surgeon to Dr. John B. Rice. He received his medical education from Oberlin College, University of Michigan, Charity Hospital Medical College, and Bellevue Hospital Medical College in New York. Following the War, Dr. Caldwell set up practice in Michigan, but returned to Fremont in 1880 where he lived the remainder of his life.
The selected letters are both written shortly after the Battle of Shiloh. Dr. Caldwell wrote to his parents who were then living in Elmore. The second letter was written to his eighteen year old sister, Juliet, who was attending Oberlin College. Both letters dwell on the events of the Battle of Shiloh. These letters are part of a much larger collection of Civil War letters written by William and his younger brother Robert of the 21st OVI.
Pittsburgh Battle Ground
Apr 10th /62
Dear Folks at Home
Knowing your anxiety I drop you a note in haste to inform you that I am all right. Though I have seen many a Gauntlet for life. I have not taken of my clothes for about one week. Worked night and day with the Hundreds of wounded myself and assisted at numerous operations for amputations. Our surgeon did nobly. He was acting Brigade Surgeon and most of the operations were turned over to him, and I of course assisted. It is unecessary for me to give you any particulars of those two days of accumulated horrors. The papers will give you before this reaches you fuller details of the engagement than I could possibly do. Why should I attempt to fault the horrors of that "day of darkness and amaze". God Bless Gen. Buel for saving us. Had he arrived a few hours later all would have been over with us. But I understand later that it was all a part of the general plan that our forces should retreat in order that the rebels might be outflanked by Buel's column. As we lay on the bank of the Tennessee on the night of that first day of death with the enemy's camp fires in sight and the gunboats throwing their fiery storm over our heads to keep them at bay, who can imagine much less describe our feelings. We had two or three hundred wounded soldiers lying on the bank at the time. Nothing protected us from the Rebel cavalry except a deep ravine by which we were surrounded. But the next day our star was in the ascendant and victory crowned our arms at nightfall, but can you imagine do you wish to imagine the acme of horrors of the second day by which we were enveloped? I cannot describe them I do not desire to. It all seems like a shadowy vision. To see hundreds of the dead lying around you with the groans of wounded calling for water and for surgical attendance which then was limited. The road to the spot where the wounded were brought was crowded, and half could not be brought in on the same day that they were wounded and some lay even two days in the rain in the woods before they were found. We made no distinction as to regiment, union men or Rebels in our attendance on the wounded and out of about one hundred wounds that I dressed myself the second day I came a cross but few of our men, but they were attended to by others of course. Our Regt (72nd) lost in killed and wounded about one hundred including the skirmish of friday. Dr. Rice is making out a list of the killed and wounded and you will probably see it as soon as this. I may meniton Mr. Buffington and Emanual Fink as severely wounded being the only ones from our place [Elmore, Ohio] that I recall now as I put them on board last night and saw them comfortably situated. they will probably be sent to Cincinnati or Paducah all the wounded will be sent from here to some of the large cities.
Our camp was destroyed tents torn down and everything of value taken or destroyed. Our camp was the first attacked and I had to attend to wounded and could not remove a thing and lost all. I saved only the clothes on my back.
My watch was in my trunk and what I prized most of all Juliet's picture, but I have understood since that the likeness was found in the woods by one of our men and I may probably get it. About all of the officers lost their baggage, so that I am not alone in my misfortune. The surgeon JB Rice lost his all in addition to having his horse shot. He saved nothing but his clothing that he wore at the time of the battle. He lost even his sword and his wife's likeness. But it all comes under the head of the "fortunes of War". Mitchels division is here though I am not certain that Robert [Robert Caldwell, brother of William] is here as they are encamped several miles from where we are now and Capt Joseph Bartlet told Dr. Rice last eve that he heard that the 21st Regt was left at Nashville.
The 41st 49th 24th 20th are also here and I am told that the 3d VC arrived yesterday. When we returne to camp I do not know. We are now about five miles from there on the Tennessee right on the [illegible] of the site greatest battle that this continent ever saw, May it be the last!
Our Brigade was the only one in our division that came out of the battle as a brigade. Our Col kept his men together and they fought shoulder to shoulder and controlled every inch of ground and yielded only to superior vastly superior numbers, and then only after our Right and left Regts. The 72nd ocupying the centre had been cut to pieces by the storm of iron and leaden hail that showered upon them from the dense colums of the approaching rebel host. But our men fell back in good order and formed near the river where they lay on their arms during the night and "anxiously awaited the mornin And it came at last and victory came with it. Thank Heaven"
But I must close This disconnected note large numbers of wounded must be attended to and there are but few to do it. May Heaven Smile on the Ladies that sent us that large box of stores for the use of the wounded and sick soldiers. It arrived on the second day of the battle and none to soon as the rebels had taken all our hospt stores.
Do not give yourselves any anxiety about me. I am well though I have slept without shelter for many a rainy night since that memorable Sunday. Our tents have been used for the wounded. But I must bid you good bye for the present and remain your affect son Wm Caldwell
I send this letter to Clyde by a person who is going there. I send you a couple of relics of the battle found in a Rebels pocketbook.
Camp Shiloh Near Pittsburgh Landing Tenn
Apr 18th /62
My Dear Sister
Your kind letter of the 3d inst. was handed me two days ago, but I have been unable to reply until the present. Do not think Juliet that you can write too much about yourselfThat is to me If there is one person in this world, in whose welfare I take a deep interest that person is yourself. I have always felt proud that I was instrumental in getting your pathway turned towards Oberlin, and since you first commenced attending that school I have watched your progress with an interest that only a Brother can feel. And I need not tell you Dear Sister that your progress thus far has been a source of great satisfaction to me, and to us all. But in your ambition to excel remember your health. Prize it above every other earthly excellence. But do you wish me to write about the fight? Do you wish me to tell you of the hundreds nay thousands, who on those two memorable days marched bravely up, and sacrificed their lives on the altar of their country? Of those thousands of wounded soldiers who lay around us on Sunday and Monday as we passed among them, dressing their wounds and alleviating their sufferings as much as lay in our power? I would gladly blot forever from my memory the horrors of those two days. And I will not harrass your sensibilities by details. I expect that before this reaches you a letter will have reached you from home written by me. giving something of an account of the battle. so far as it came under my direct observations, but I will endeavor to fill this large sheet with some additional particulars if I can recall them, at this somewhat advanced date. As I have told you before our Division is in the advance and our Brigade the advance Brigade in the Division. so that on the morning of the attack, our Regiment passed into action among the first. on a slight elevation of ground a few rods from camp. We formed our line of battle. The Boys fought long and well, and retreated only to gain a better position, and then only after two hours hard fighting. It was about seven oclock in the morning when our pickets were driven in and the enemy came in sight of our lines. We were at breakfast when the firing commenced. We immediately made preparations to receive the wounded, a few rods back of the Surgeons Quarters is a small ravine into which we ordered the wounded to be brought.
Among the first was acting Col Canfield mortally wounded while cheering on the 72nd. After about thirty wounded had been attended to on this spot, shot and shell began to fall thick and fast around us, and for the sake of the wounded, we fell back to a less exposed position distant about two miles about the same time all the forces in the advance received orders to fall back and take possession of a certain road. Before we retreated however it became necessary for us to remove our sick from Hospital. this was really a dangerous piece of business as the balls were flying thickly through our camp, and the rebels in sight just coming over the hill, but nerving ourselves with a sense of duty, the Surgeon and myself, got the last sick man from the hospital just as the tent was perforated by many a Rebel bullet. The next position that we occupied was a deep ravine through which ran a beautiful stream of water. We had no sooner commenced unloading our wounded when several shells exploded on the hill just above us. some passed entirely over our heads, endangering no one, and some even exploded in air, almost directly above us and killed a horse attached to a wagon, we thought that it was about time to move one which we did without much ceremony. All this time the fight was raging with undiminished ardor on bothsides. The Medical Director now ordered us to the River where we were to make permanent arrangements for receiving wounded.
This we did, and took a position in a very secure placed protected by the gun boats. General arrangements were now made to have all the killed and wounded of all the Regiments, so far as practicalbe brought to this point and before dark over six hundred had been brought to that station and attended to. That night we were harrassed somewhat by the Rebel Cavalry though the gunboats did excellent service.
We passed a sleepless night, part of the time JB Rice another surgeon and myself sat on a log on the bank of the Tennessee and the gun Boats lay right in front of us in the middle of the river, and every few minutes threw a broadside over our heads. What a magnificent sight! As the long thirty two pounders were run out of the portholes it seemed as if the shot were going to fall directly where we sat, but they passed high over our heads, crashing among the tree tops on their errand of death.
But the morning dawned and with it, Buel's forces came into action and the reverses of Sunday were changed for victories, and the day was soon ours. But thousands of gallant hearts on that day beat no more.
Lieut Rice has returned home on account of ill health. It is probable that he will not return again. But you must allow me to close for the present. As I have to answer a letter from Father.
I send you a few flowers which posess no other excellence than that they were gathered from the battle grounds. Remember me to all my Oberlin Friends and believe me your
go to top of page