The battle around Shiloh Chapel in southern Tennessee was considered to be something like the first big, major battle of the Civil War. By early 1862, there have been plenty of battles and engagements across both fronts, but the casualties and the significance of Shiloh rocked both sides of the war. With staggering numbers of dead, wounded, and captured that rival all previous wars combined, it was hard not to be a little shocked.
On the Union side, we have Ulysses S. Grant, who will come to be nicknamed as “Unconditional Surrender Grant”. Freshly promoted to major general for his captures of Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, and Nashville. This promotion was given in spite of repeated rumors as to Grant’s lack of sobriety. The major general was known for his heavy drinking, but this bad habit reared its ugly head only under two conditions: when he was bored and when he was missing his wife. In the week following the capture of Fort Donelson, Grant’s radio silence to Henry Halleck – newly appointed commander of the Department of the Mississippi – was mistaken as his being off on a bender. Once that little misunderstanding had been cleared up – Grant was consorting with Don Carlos Buell about how best to take Nashville – Grant requested to be relieved of his command until his higher-ups would get off their high horses and think better of him, or as he politely put it “until I can be placed right in the estimation of those higher in authority”. That opportunity came as further plans were made to invade the Mississippi Valley. In that time, Grant had become something of a Rockstar. His picture was featured on the cover of Harper’s Weekly in the east and was steadily becoming more famous with the populace. Halleck’s pride was a little wounded by this and began to suspect that – along with other paranoias – that Grant would soon surpass him. Eventually, he did. One interesting change in the new major general along with his rank was a change in his appearance. His beard that once reached down to the second button on his coat was cut short. Some likened it to a man who was rolling up his sleeves to prepare for some hard work ahead of him. Shiloh was that hard work.
Beside Grant was William Tecumseh Sherman, who would be later renowned for his March to the Sea and siege of Atlanta in the following year. The commander was fresh back from a sort of forced retirement. The army had dubbed him medically insane and sent him home shortly after the war began. However, it was later decided the man wasn’t crazy for his talk about the war being long and bloody, but merely outspoken and high-strung. The fact that he had a brother in the Senate might have had something to do with his reinstatement as well. However, he quickly earned the respect of his men when he showed that he cared for his men and could make sound, rational command decisions. The red-haired man from Ohio might have been a little eccentric, but not crazy.
On the Confederate side, possibly the highest ranking general in the entire war was Albert Sidney Johnston. A Kentuckian by birth, but Texan by affiliation, Johnston was deep in Union territory in California at the start of the war. He left the west coast in favor of the east with the Confederacy, though he was actually against secession himself. A veteran of the Mexican War (like Grant and Sherman), he was considered one of the most enthusiastic commanders in the western theater. Brilliant, strategic, and loaded with charisma, he rallied his men time and again even after his losses to Grant along the Tennessee River. This engagement to come in April of 1862, however, would be his moment of glory and vindication – as he believed it.
Second in command, but no less fabulous, was Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, a Creole from Louisiana. He was initially offered the rank of colonel, but chose to enlist as a private in the “Orleans Guard”, despite his veteran status from the Mexican War and his West Point education. This underrated position didn’t last long when Fort Sumter in South Carolina became endangered by a Union naval advance. His victory at Fort Sumter and Manassas/Bull Run from the previous year showed very well on his resume and was assigned to the Army of the Mississippi, charged with protecting the valley alongside Johnston. He had many nicknames including “The Little Frenchman”, “The Little Napoleon”, and “Bory”. But despite these cute nicknames, he had won the confidence and esteem of his troops. He would need it for the coming battle at Shiloh Church.
Grant and his army have been working their way through Kentucky and Tennessee, their aim was not only to repel any potential attack Beauregard or Johnston may be planning against Illinois – a rather ambitions idea – but also to conquer the important supply lines and communication lines down the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers. Their new target was Corinth Mississippi, a railroad hub for lines that not only went north and south along the river, but also east to west. That is, the Memphis and Charleston, and the Mobile and Ohio. If Grant could control that hub, he’d have easier access to Chattanooga. If he could get there, he had a way into Atlanta and then he could effectively sever the Confederacy in two. Sound familiar? It was just one crucial part in what was called the “vertebrae of the Confederacy”. If one fell, they could all fall like dominoes. It was Beauregard and Johnston’s job to make sure that didn’t happen. They understood the ramifications.
Grant/Union: 18 Brigades – 74 Regiments – Appx. 42,682 soldiers
Johnston/Confederacy: 16 Brigades – 71 Regiments – Appx. 40,335 soldiers
Grant had traveled his way down the Tennessee River and was staying in Savannah, TN with C.F Smith and set up headquarters at a comfortable mansion overlooking the river. His army, however, has embarked down to Pittsburg Landing, where scouts and reconnaissance has declared the ground on the western shore relatively safe for drilling and camping. Smith, however, doesn’t participate in much of the engagement due to a leg injury. Grant, likewise, is nursing a wounded ankle and had to use crutches to get around. Every day, he made the boat trip to check on his troops who were mounting for a march down to Corinth. The only holdup was the arrival of reinforcements from Don Carlos Buell who was coming from the east, and Lew Wallace who was coming in from the north. With their combined forces, he thought it would be no trouble to take Corinth. Without Wallace and Buell, he had a sizable force with his division commanders. Among whom included Sherman, John McClernand, W. H. L Wallace, Benjamin Prentiss, and Stephen Hurlbut. All of which made up the Army of the Tennessee – not to be confused with the Army of Tennessee which was Confederate. There was some assurance, though, that most of the soldier in these divisions were seasoned veterans. Having served with Grant at former engagements, about 2/3 knew what they were doing.
The Confederate commander, too, had called in for more troops. Pulling in John Breckinridge, Braxton Bragg, Leonidas Polk, and William Hardee, the Creole had no intention of waiting for Federal forces to engage him at Corinth. He and Johnston would go out to meet them with relatively green troops who had never fired a gun in their military careers yet. He had formulated a thorough plan for all four divisions to move out from Corinth on two different paths. Breckinridge and Bragg would come in on a more southernly route while Polk and Hardee came in on the north. They would meet at Mickey’s Tennessee and then merge into one force with the divisions staked behind one another before moving on to Pittsburg Landing. He wanted to take them by surprise, but it soon became apparent that nothing about this march would surprise the Union aggressors.
Heavy, cold rains pummeled both armies. This made the roads muddy, especially when the wagon wheels and marching feet churned up the dirt paths. Confusion and delays about their approach also added to the delay. A twenty mile march took three days for them to organize, which infuriated all the commanders. Divisions went missing, Breckinridge ghosted for a time, stragglers were getting out of line, and on top of all that, the Confederates had eaten all three days worth of the rations they were given upon leaving Corinth. The popular belief was that food rations weighed less in the stomach than the haversack. This would leave them tired, cold, and hungry by the third day when they found themselves close to the enemy front. And because of the rain, soldiers were a little skeptic about the quality of their ammunition. Foolishly, they would fire off their muskets to make sure the powder was still good. Of course, all this racket wasn’t helping the element of surprise. It also didn’t help that a cavalry detachment of ten troopers had been captured on a skirmishing expedition and Beauregard believed they would be questioned for information. Little Napoleon went as far to gather together his division commanders and discuss the option of retreating back to Corinth so they could reassess a better plan. Johnston, Polk, and Bragg, along with Breckinridge who had finally decided to show up, all disagreed. Their men were eager for a fight, even if they could hear the Union drumrolls just a short distance off and cheering coming from the direction of the landing, insinuating that Buell had arrived to reinforce Grant. If those reinforcements were there, Beauregard knew he would be outnumbered even worse than before and not even all the surprise in the world could ensure a much needed victory.
Meanwhile in Sherman’s camp around the little Shiloh Chapel, fears and suspicions were rising about a coming attack. A colonel from the 53rd Ohio went as far as to alert the general to the Confederates being “right outside their tent flap”. It didn’t help that this particular regiment was teased for being the “Long Roll regiment”, who constantly called out alarm. Sherman humored him at first, but continually said that the enemy wasn’t upon them. Many subsequent alarms were either ignored or put down. At one instant, he said “Take your damned regiment back to Ohio! There is no enemy nearer than Corinth.” He also reported to Grant that there would not be an attack on their position that day. But, the dude knew better. He knew there had been a few skirmishes and some clashing with the cavalry. The ten they had captured went unquestioned, however, because their best interrogator was not present at the battle. At Grant’s headquarters, he received some delayed good news that Buell wanted to meet him in Savannah “tomorrow”. But the telegram was dated for the day before, so Buell’s “tomorrow” was “today”, but Grant understood it as the next day, being Sunday instead of Saturday. The delay in communications and advances, however, didn’t stop the first opening volleys of cannon fire coming from the south.
The Battle – First Day (April 6th, 1862)
That Sunday morning, a skirmish had broken out due to a three-company scouting group that had been sent out by Prentiss. The Union troops were repelled back by a segment of Hardee’s skirmishers on the far left Confederate flank and raised the alarm amongst the rest of the camps. “The rebs are out there thicker than the fleas on a dog’s back!” a captain reported to Sherman. The red-haired general didn’t take him seriously until he went to see for himself. With an orderly riding beside him, he went out to find the same colonel from the 53rd Ohio lining up his men. He watched as the Confederates were advancing across a field and exclaimed “My God, we’re attacked!” No shit, Sherlock. Sherman was shot through the hand and his orderly was struck down dead by the time he could turn to order up more reinforcements to aid him. He wrapped his wounded hand in a handkerchief and stuck it in his coat breast while also being nicked by another bullet that cut through his shoulder strap. Despite the sending of reinforcements, the hastily formed Union line began to retreat back toward Pittsburg Landing. Some soldiers recalled that the dead blanketed the field so thickly they could walk across without ever touching the ground. Sam Watkins in his Confederate memoires said “Men were lying in every conceivable position; the dead lying with their eyes wide open, the wounded begging piteously for help, and some waving their hats and shouting to us to go forward. It all seemed to me a dream…”
Polk and Hardee made up the left Confederate flank while Bragg and Breckinridge made up the right. The idea was to push the Union to the far left toward Owl Creek and Snake Creek and disconnect them from all escape routes along the Tennessee River. As they advanced, however, this was a little easier said than done. The left flank became distracted and disorganized as they pushed Sherman’s men out of their own encampments. Rebs began to loot the tents and eat the still-cooking breakfasts the Yankees had been preparing just before the ambush. Some soldiers went as far as to stop and read letters from home because they wanted to know about the Yankee girls who wrote the letters. Needless to say, this pissed off Johnston. While the general was going about the lines, encouraging the men, he also berated them for their disorderly conduct. While also trying to maintain morale, Johnston picked up a tin cup from one encampment and proclaimed “Let this be my share of the spoils today”. He went on to use that as a directing tool instead of his saber.
Grant was alert to Sherman’s call for reinforcements and was at the lieutenant’s side by midmorning. He called for more troops from Wallace who was a little farther north of the Pittsburgh Landing and to Brig. General William Nelson. With a crutch strapped to his saddle, he remained as calm as he had at Fort Donelson, despite the intense situation. They, quite frankly, had been caught by surprise just as Beauregard had intended, though the Creole didn’t know it. From there, he gave out his orders and gave special attention to Prentiss – who could be blamed for bringing on the attack – to maintain his position at all hazards.
As if to redeem himself, he did, along a sunken road near what would be called The Hornet’s Nest. Next, Grant tried to mobilize the stragglers and those soldiers who were retreating from the front. On both sides, miscommunication rang out with the call to “Retreat! Retreat!” when no such order was given. Sherman and McClernand’s men were forced back by Hardee and Polk, which bent the Union line in the opposite way than Johnston and Beauregard wanted. The one stiff resistance lay with Prentiss and Hurlbut against Bragg and Breckinridge.
While the Confederates were mostly obtaining their objective and pushing back the Union invaders, disaster struck. Albert Sidney Johnston, who had been nothing but the epitome of a noble and perfect general, had found his limit. While trying to motivate the men on the right flank and lead them through a stunningly beautiful peach orchard – pink blossoms falling through the heavy gun smoke – a bullet became lodged behind his knee. It wasn’t until after a successful charge against Hurlbut’s men through the orchard that Governor Isham Harris of Tennessee saw his commander reel in the saddle. He asked if he was hurt and Johnston replied, “Yes, and I fear seriously.” He was taken back in private and they search for the wound all over.
By the time they found it, his boot had been filled with blood. The femoral artery was severed and the governor didn’t know how to apply a tourniquet to save him. The irony was that Johnston was carrying a tourniquet in his pocket at that very moment and his physician who knew how to help him, was sent off to take care of captured and wounded Federal soldiers on Johnston’s orders. Before medical aid could read him, General Albert Sidney Johnston was dead. The news was kept from the rest of the soldiers so as not to affect their spirits.
Conditions on the Union line were worsening for Prentiss. His back was to a dense cluster of oaks, the Confederates advancing upon him across Duncan’s Field to the south. Hurlbut and W. H. L Wallace had pulled back. Breckinridge and Bragg surrounded Prentiss like a horseshoe. Twelve assaults were made against the sunken road, but the Union commander followed his orders and held the positions at all hazards. Part of these failed charged had a lot to do with the impassable terrain around the sunken road and the H
ornet’s Nest. This part of the battlefield gets its name from a comment that was made by a soldier, as well as the smarting pain of the woodchips flying in every direction as a result of bullets hitting the trees, which resembled the stinging of hornets. Confederates either couldn’t pass through the thicket or couldn’t maintain their lines. Their solution? If you can’t send infantry in, send artillery. Dan Ruggles amassed 62 guns to bombard Prentiss’ line with exploding shells and grapeshot. The reason for this was because of the ridge from which they were firing. The only kind of shot they could get off would soar right over the Federals’ heads. Using timed fuses, Ruggles was able to deploy one of the biggest artillery borages up until that time. Inside the Hornet’s Nest was pure hell. Smoke, shrapnel, and musket fire was everywhere. Soon, that horseshoe became ring. They had no rear or way of escape. They were trapped and endured the attack for two long, terrifying hours before Prentiss finally surrendered.
One might think this small victory would boost the morale of the Confederates. It didn’t. Because of the troops getting distracted with the looting, retreating in the face of the heavy fire – they realized war actually means fighting – , and of course the mounting casualties, the spirit and motivation of the southern troops had all but died. The final attack came from the remains of two Bragg brigades against the Union left flank along the river. However, they were repulsed and Beauregard called the final halt just as the battlefield was darkened by sunset.
Both sides were licking their wounds that night during a heavy thunderstorm. Lightning and ricocheting exploding artillery every fifteen minutes from the two wooden gunboats Grant had brought with him down the Tennessee (the Lexington and Tyler) lit up the dead and groaning wounded on the battlefield. Many soldiers remarked that it was the worst night they had ever spent in their lives. Grant, not disheartened, promised they would “Lick ’em tomorrow”. Why? Lew Wallace, after a major delay, had arrived across Snake Creek with his reinforcements and Buell was also very near. Better late than never. Even with his casualties for the first day, Grant would be going into the second day of fighting with more troops than he had in the previous twenty-four hours.
Nathan Bedford Forrest was aware of these reinforcements coming in, but unable to find Beauregard or rally any of the other Confederate regiments together to strike them now before Buell had a chance to mobilize, nothing was done about his warnings except an order from Hardee to “keep up a strong and vigilant picket line”. Forrest was pissed, and rightly so. Within the Confederate camp, however, they received contrary news. They believed that Buell was nowhere near Pittsburg Landing and had diverted to Decatur. This helped Beauregard to rest easy and even send word to Richmond saying they had won the battle and forced the Federals back. All of this was in the face of Prentiss, who was captured at the Hornet’s Nest. He predicted the tables would turn and when he was presented with contrary evidence, he replied “You’ll see.” Mic drop.
The Battle – Second Day (April 7th, 1862)
At 7 o’clock the next morning, Grant order silence from his gunboats and the Union army was mobilizing. Now with Lew Wallace, Buell, and the reorganized reserve of stragglers from the first day, Grant was ready to do exactly as he promised and whip the Rebels back and reclaim their original encampments. Now it was the Confederate’s turn to be surprised because they didn’t think Grant would come back fighting the way he did. The second day was a total reversal of the first.
Beauregard prepared his men to defend the ground they had just conquered. This wasn’t so easy since his troops had scattered the night before in search of shelter and food. With the raining of shrapnel from the gunboats and the immense fatigue from all the fighting, the soldiers were not prepared. But this didn’t deter the Creole commander. Channeling the spirit of his dead comrade, Johnston, he led them into battle to defend what they had rightfully won the day before. He wouldn’t let this be numbered among the other
Confederate defeats and Johnston would not die in vain. This zeal was short-lived and not entirely shared by the rest of his bone-weary troops. The line continued to fall back throughout the morning and into the afternoon. Accounting for the weather, the added forces to Grant’s army, and the deplorable condition of the soldiers, defeat was imminent. By 2 o’clock, Beauregard’s spirit was broken and ordered a retreat from Shiloh Chapel. By 4 o’clock, the removal was complete and they made time to scavenge what they could from all the Union encampments they had overrun the day before. Breckinridge was ordered to stay in the rear and guard against any pursuit that didn’t come. Grant and his men were content to just get back their encampments and continue the advancement toward Corinth on another day.
The Retreat and Fallen Timbers
Beauregard, despite losing his commander and failing to repel the Union threat, promised his men up and down the line of retreat that they would have their revenge at Corinth. The following day after the final defeat, heavy downpours that carried over from the night before brought sleet and hail upon the miserable wounded in the wagons as they made their way further south across the Mississippi state line.
Sherman was ordered by Grant to make a show of pursuit so the Rebs wouldn’t get any ideas of turning back to give a counter a daring try. Along the Corinth road, he came to a place called Fallen Timbers where a prewar logging project had been abandoned. He found a group of enemy horsemen on the ridge and sent out a group of skirmishers backed up by cavalry. Their detachment was all neat until they encountered some terrain issues and their pretty, professional detail was broken up and messy. Nathan Bedford Forrest, probably still seething after being ignored on the night of the 6th when he saw Buell coming up the Tennessee, also saw Sherman and took his opportunity for revenge. His company charged straight into the skirmishers, who then turned tail and ran. However, while Forrest wanted to keep up the charge, much of his brigade stayed behind and busied themselves with 43 prisoners. Forrest found himself alone in the thick of blue uniforms. Cutting, hacking, and slashing with his saber, he held his own until a Union soldier shot him in the side. The blast shot him clear up from his saddle, but he stayed mounted and grabbed a Federal soldier to use as a shield in his retreat. Once he was out of danger, he threw the soldier off and continued to join his regiment, shocking everyone. Dude had balls.
Union: 1,754 killed, 8,408 wounded, 2,885 captured
Confederate: 1,723 killed, 8,012 wounded, 959 missing
Total from all sides: 23,741
For those doing math at home, this means that about 24% of the guys that went into the battle, didn’t come out in one piece. Also, the total from all wars fought by Americans up to this point (Revolution, 1812, and Mexican War) were matched by two days’ worth of fighting. All these wars totaled 23,273 casualties.
The Confederates would come to call it the Battle of Shiloh, while the Union would know it as the Battle at Pittsburg Landing. No ground had been really won or lost during the battle. Grant and Sherman resumed their places as before and Beauregard was beaten back to Corinth. The Confederacy, though it had continued to lose every battle in the west, did not weaken in its spirits. Beauregard remarked after the battle that he was still convinced they could whip the Yankees if given the chance again. Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, however had said that “When he [Johnston] fell, I realized that our strong pillar had been broken.” Grant, on the other hand, was also emboldened and gave up all idea of saving the Union except by complete conquest. And it showed in all subsequent battles. Now, he would advance onto Corinth and take the railroad hub that would be his gateway to the southern supply lines.
The Civil War (A Narrative, Vol. 1): Fort Sumter to Perryville by Shelby Foote
Company Aytch by Sam Watkins
Battlefield Detectives: Shiloh
Civil War Trust Animated Map: Shiloh
Shiloh: Fiery Trial (National Part Orientation Video)
My Visit to Shiloh Battlefield – October 2018