The Battle of Shiloh
After taking Fort Donelson, Ulysses Grant had wanted to move on the
Confederate base in Corinth, Mississippi, where Albert Sidney Johnston, the Confederate
commander in the West, was known to be assembling troops. Grant was ordered to delay
his advance until Union General Don Carlos Buell, who had been operating in East
Tennessee, could join him.
Early on April 6, 1862, Johnston’s army, which had come up to the federal lines
undetected, struck Grant’s army, which was encamped at Pittsburg Landing on the
Tennessee River. The Battle of Shiloh followed.
Grant’s Federal army was not fully prepared for the thousands of screaming rebels
who burst out of the woods near Shiloh church on that early Sunday morning of April 6.
They first hit the two green divisions of William Tecumseh Sherman and of Benjamin M.
Prentiss. Sherman performed this day with coolness and courage. He was everywhere
along his lines at Shiloh, shoring up his raw troops and inspiring them to hurl back the
initial assaults, which caused staggering losses on both sides. Sherman himself was
wounded slightly and had three horses shot under him. On his left Prentiss’s men also
stood fast at first, while up from the rear came reinforcements form the other three
divisions, two of which had fought at Donelson.
Waiting for Buell’s arrival at army headquarters nine miles downriver, Grant heard
the firing as he sat down to breakfast. Commandeering a dispatch boat, he steamed up to
Pittsburg Landing and arrived on the battlefield about 9:00. The fighting by this time had
reached a level unprecedented in the war. Johnston and Gen. Pierre Gustave T.
Beauregard committed all six of their divisions early in the day. All of Grant’s soldiers in
the vicinity also double-timed to the front, which stretched six miles between the
Tennessee River on the Union left and Owl Creek on the right. Grant sent a courier to
summon Lew Wallace’s division to the battlefield. But Wallace took the wrong road and
had to countermarch, arriving too late to participate in the battle on April 6. Grant’s five
divisions had to do all the fighting that first day at Shiloh.
Johnston went personally to the front on the Confederate right to rally exhausted
troops by his presence. There in midafternoon he was hit in the leg by a bullet that severed
an artery and caused him to bleed to death. The South would anguish the loss of Johnston
who was one of its ablest commanders.
Beauregard took command and tried to keep up the momentum of the attack. By
this time Confederates had driven back the Union right and left two miles from their
starting point. In the center, though, Prentiss with the remaining fragments of his division
and parts of two others had formed a hard knot of resistance along a country road that the
rebels called the hornet’s nest. Grant had ordered Prentiss to maintain that position at all
hazards. Southern commanders launched a dozen separate assaults against it. Although
18,000 Confederates closed in on Prentiss’s 4,500 men, the uncoordinated nature of rebel
attacks enabled the Yanks to repel each of them. The southerners finally pounded the
hornet’s nest with sixty-two field guns and surrounded it with infantry. Prentiss
surrendered his 2,200survivors at 5:30, an hour before sunset. Their tough and
courageous stand had bought time for Grant to post the remainder of his army along the
Pittsburg Landing ridge.
Lew Wallace’s lost division was arriving and Buell’s lead brigade was crossing the
river as Beauregard decided he would not authorize a final assault in the gathering
twilight. He sensed that his own army was disorganized and fought out.
On April 7 Buell and Grant put 25,000 fresh troops into action alongside 15,000
battered survivors who had fought the first day. The number of Beauregard’s effective
troops, due to casualties and straggling, now stood at about 25,000. Grant never wavered
in his determination to counterattack.
Across the lines Beauregard had sent a victory telegram to Richmond: After a
severe battle of ten hours, thanks be to the Almighty, we gained a complete victory,
driving the enemy from every position. If Beauregard had been aware of Grant’s
reinforcements he would not have been so confident.
The Second day at Shiloh began with a surprise attack, but now the Yankees were
doing the attacking. All along the line Buell’s Army of the Ohio and Grant’s Army of
Western Tennessee swept forward, encountering little resistance at first from the
disorganized rebels. In mid-morning the confederate line stiffened, and for hours the battle
raged as hotly as on the previous day.
By midafternoon the advancing Union troops had pressed the Confederates back
to the point of their original attack. Not only did the Yanks have fresh troops and more
men, but also the southerners’ morale had suffered a blow when they realized they had not
won a victory after all. At about 2:30 Beauregard issued the order to retreat. The Union
troops were too fought out and shot up for effective pursuit over muddy roads. Both the
blue and the gray had had enough fighting.
Coming at the end of a year of war, Shiloh was the first battle on a scale that
became commonplace during the next three years. The killed and wounded at Shiloh were
nearly double the battle casualties at Manassas, Wilson’s Creek, Fort Donelson, and Pea
Ridge combined. Gone was any romantic innocence of war. Sherman described piles of
dead soldiers’ mangled bodies?without heads and legs. The scenes on this field would
have cured anybody of war. Although victorious, Grant was accused of lacking
elementary caution by some and found himself somewhat vilified in the North over the
amount of Federal casualties in this battle.