Dawn was just starting to break over the Union army camp in southwestern Tennessee on Sunday morning, April 6, 1862. It was an unusually peaceful morning for the young men in Federal blue. Their Army of the Tennessee had recently emerged victorious in engagements with Rebel forces at Forts Donelson and Henry. More than 15,000 Confederates had been taken prisoner in those two actions. All organized Rebel resistance in the area appeared to be shattered; the nearest Confederate force of any size was at Corinth, Mississippi, 20 miles away.
So confident were the army’s leaders of their safety that no defensive works had been constructed around the Union camp, and their commander, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, was 20 miles away at a meeting with Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell, head of the Army of the Ohio. Grant had not even bothered to leave an officer in temporary command during his absence. The Army of the Tennessee awoke that sleepy Sunday morning near the old Shiloh Meeting House, some three miles west of Pittsburg Landing, secure in the knowledge that all the fighting was over for the immediate future.
They were wrong. Less than two miles to their south were 40,000 Confederates, organized into four corps of the Army of the Mississippi, under the command of General Albert Sidney Johnston, one of the most respected military minds on either side of the Mason-Dixon Line. Johnston, dispatched to the Western theater of the war by an increasingly alarmed Confederate high command, was faced with both a seriously deteriorating situation, on one hand, and a golden opportunity, on the other.
Johnston’s situation that April was serious, if not desperate. At the beginning of 1862, the Confederate defense in the West was anchored on the Mississippi River, with a fortress at Columbus, Ky. The center was held by Forts Henry and Donelson on the Cumberland River near the Kentucky-Tennessee border; the right flank was anchored near Bowling Green in central Kentucky. The year opened with a blow on the eastern flank, when Union Brig. Gen. George Thomas shattered a Rebel force under Maj. Gen. George Crittenden at Mill Springs, Ky. Thomas’ victory was followed shortly by Grant’s astonishing successes at Forts Henry and Donelson. The Rebel hold on Tennessee’s state capital at Nashville was effectively broken.
With his right flank shattered and his center pierced, Johnston had no choice but to evacuate the heavy fortifications at Columbus and fall back deeper south. At the beginning of April, Grant was following close behind at Pittsburg Landing, with Buell following the eastern bank of the Tennessee and a joint army-navy task force closing in on Memphis.
Despite the favorable strategic situation, the Union forces had some serious tactical disadvantages. They lacked a unified command structure, with their forces scattered throughout three separate commands–Buell’s 25,000-man Army of the Ohio, Grant’s 42,000-man Army of the Tennessee and Maj. Gen. John Pope’s joint riverene force moving south along the Mississippi. The three forces were in no position, therefore, to immediately support one another.
By evacuating the Columbus forts and the Nashville garrison, as well as stripping seaport garrisons on the eastern seaboard, Johnston succeeded in putting together a force of 40,000 men at Corinth. His nearest foe, the Army of the Tennessee, was a scant 20 miles north, with only 37,000 men (another 5,000 had been left behind at Culp’s Landing). The Yankees, overconfident and undertrained, were blissfully unaware of the danger they were in.
Johnston knew that if he struck quickly, he could engage Grant’s force with numerical superiority before Buell’s troops could move to reinforce. Coupled with the elements of luck and surprise, it would be a strong hand to play. If the Union army could be destroyed or routed, its up-to-now highly successful offensive in the West would be stopped cold. Confederate recapture of middle and eastern Tennessee would be a virtual certainty, and an invasion of the North would also be in the cards. Johnston took the gamble; he quickly moved his force toward Shiloh.
The Union soldiers waking that morning didn’t know it, but within the next 72 hours they would fight what was at that time the largest land battle on the North American continent, involving nearly 100,000 infantrymen from three armies and various naval units. This day would prove to be the costliest day of the entire war in proportion of casualties to numbers of men involved–more than 23,000 would fall before the last shot was fired on Monday evening. The casualty rate of 24 percent would be exactly the same as suffered by the combatants at Waterloo.
Although there had been spirited action between pickets and cavalry for the past several days, no high- ranking Union officer believed there was serious Confederate opposition any closer than Corinth. In fact, Brig. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, commanding the army’s 5th Division, notified Grant by dispatch that very morning that he believed the Rebel force consisted of only two regiments of infantry, a battery of artillery and some cavalry.
Two officers disagreed with Sherman’s assessment. One was the commander of the 53rd Ohio Regiment. A badly frightened and seemingly paranoid man, Colonel Jesse J. Appler had sounded so many false alarms during the advance that the regiment was given the derisive nickname, ‘the Long Roll Regiment,’ by other troops. Sherman was so annoyed by Appler’s panicking that he sent over a staff officer with the caustic comment, ‘General Sherman says: ‘Take your damned regiment back to Ohio.’ ‘
The other doubter was an insomniac brigade commander in Brig. Gen. Benjamin Prentiss’ 6th Division. Colonel Everett Peabody, a former railroad engineer and a-by-the-book sort of officer, had complained already about the ‘kind of loose’ camp life of the army. He had suggested to Prentiss that the division be placed on combat alert, but his cautious suggestion was hooted down by the general and his aides.
Still, there were signs of an impending Confederate attack. Several black camp followers had reported seeing Rebel cavalry on the afternoon of April 5, and Prentiss’ own pickets had reported seeing about a dozen ‘butternuts’ skulking through the underbrush near their camp. More ominously, captured Rebel skirmishers had taunted, ‘If you ain’t mighty careful, they’ll run you into hell or the river before tomorrow night.’
Captain Gilbert D. Johnson of the 12th Michigan Infantry, on picket duty, reported that night that he could see long lines of campfires and hear bugles and drums in the distance. He and another officer went to Prentiss with the disturbing news, but Prentiss brusquely told them that everything would be all right. When Peabody heard the same report, however, he sent out five companies of the 25th Missouri and 12th Michigan, saying he did not intend to be taken by surprise.
The Union skirmishers moved toward an open cotton field as the first streaks of dawn showed on the horizon. Shortly before 5 a.m., shots rang out and a second lieutenant from the Missouri regiment fell–Shiloh’s first casualty. By no means would he be the last.
The unlucky patrol had run headlong into the 9,000-man assault corps of Confederate Maj. Gen. William Hardee. For over an hour, the Federal force refused to give ground, even as more and more enemy attackers continued to approach. The sudden increase in the volume of firing at length was noted at 6th Division headquarters, and reinforcements from the 16th Wisconsin and 21st Missouri regiments were dispatched to the patrol’s aid.
Soon, all four regiments were thrown back in great disorder, stumbling back toward Prentiss’ position, as well as Sherman’s. (Ironically, the men retreated directly into the camp of the 53rd Ohio, whose panicky colonel had so irritated Sherman the day before.) The eleventh-hour warning, brief though it was, gave other Union forces just enough time to prevent them from being surprised in their bunks–all because a brigade commander had been unable to sleep.
That alert officer, Colonel Peabody, hearing the firing, had ordered his men to arms. As they were preparing to advance,an angry Prentiss rode up and accused Peabody of bringing on the battle by sending out the ill-fated patrol. ‘Colonel Peabody,’ he shouted, ‘I will hold you personally responsible for bringing on this engagement!’
Peabody curtly noted that he was ‘personally responsible’ for all his actions. Hurrying south of camp, he deployed his brigade along a ridgeline and tried to staunch the army’s wound. But exultant Confederates continued pouring through the woods, shouting their high-pitched Rebel yell. Peabody, already bleeding from four wounds, tried one last time to rally his men. Then, as he was shouting an order, a fifth enemy bullet struck him in the face, killing him instantly. With macabre foresight, Peabody had predicted his death earlier that morning, shaking hands with his staff and bidding them farewell.
Sherman, racing toward the 53rd Ohio’s camp, caught a flash of movement in the woods to his right, 50 yards away. Raising his spyglass to scan the movement, he whirled around as an Ohio officer called, ‘General, look to your right!’ Just then an entire Confederate brigade burst from cover, heading straight at the general and his party. ‘My God,’ blurted Sherman, ‘we are attacked!’
A volley of bullets zinged through the air, striking an orderly at Sherman’s side. At the same time, a load of buckshot struck the general in the hand. Dropping his telescope, Sherman dashed toward the rear, calling back to the Ohioans to hold their position while he brought up more troops.
Luckily for the Federals, they were in a position where they could only be directly assaulted from the south. The Tennessee River was on their east, Snake Creek bordered the north and Owl Creek guarded the west. Along the exposed southern front, Sherman’s badly rattled 5th Division held the forward position, along with Maj. Gen. John McClernand’s 1st Division and Prentiss’ 6th Division. They were supported by the divisions of Maj. Gen. W.H.L. Wallace and Brig. Gen. Stephen Hurlbut. Several miles north of the immediate fighting was Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace’s 3rd Division, at Crump’s Landing.
Facing the Union divisions was a Confederate force of four corps, arrayed in three distinct battle lines. The first rank consisted of Hardee’s 9,000 men. Immediately behind him was Maj. Gen. Braxton Bragg, with 11,000 troops. The third rank consisted of two corps, commanded by Maj. Gens. Leonidas Polk and John Breckinridge. Additionally, the Confederates boasted 4,300 cavalry and more than 60 artillery pieces. This force fell full-bore on the Union position about an hour after the first contact between Prentiss’ patrol and Hardee’s advance guard.
Johnston hoped initially to sweep up the Union left flank along the Tennessee River and take Pittsburg Landing, thus preventing a linkup with the Army of the Ohio. To perform this maneuver, he had to brush aside the initial Federal resistance and then move a large portion of his force to the river and up toward the landing.
In the heat of battle, the experienced Johnston made three serious errors. First, he chose a poor attacking formation. With his corps lined up, one behind the other, he lacked the ability to move in an orderly fashion, and the units soon became intermingled once they had made contact with the enemy. Second, Johnston badly misjudged the road coming up from Corinth; his estimation of the rugged terrain was not much better. The rough countryside and lack of good roads prevented the easy maneuvering of sizable forces toward the river, even if the enemy would allow such a movement. Third, Johnston underestimated the spirited resistance of the Union forces, many of whom were green as grass when the battle opened.
Grant, who was nine miles downriver at Savannah awaiting a meeting with Buell, was just sitting down to breakfast when he heard the gunfire coming from Shiloh. He immediately knew that the army was under heavy, if unexpected, attack. He ordered the advance guard of Buell’s force, Brig. Gen. William ‘Bull’ Nelson’s division, to proceed to Pittsburg Landing and be ferried across to reinforce the Army of the Tennessee. Grant then boarded his dispatch boat, the Tigress, and proceeded upriver to rejoin his forces.
Along the way, Grant passed Lew Wallace at Crump’s Landing and ordered him to put his 3rd Division on alert to join the main body, seven miles south. Wallace assured Grant that he had already done so. Then, shortly after 9 a.m., four hours after the initial contact had been made and three hours after the battle had begun in earnest, the Union army’s commanding general finally arrived on the battlefield.
Confederate forces crashed into Sherman’s and Prentiss’ divisions. Amid furious fighting, the two Union forces were driven from their encampments with heavy casualties. Many of the soldiers, particularly in Sherman’s division, broke and ran. Meanwhile, McClernand, seeing a hole open up between Sherman and Prentiss, rushed his 1st Division into the gap. In the rear, W.H.L. Wallace and Hurlbut funneled their forces to the right and left of Prentiss.
Grant reached the battlefield about 10 a.m. and held a hurried conference with Sherman, who told him that the battle was going well but that he was worried about running out of ammunition. Grant, wearing his full major general’s uniform, complete with formal sword and sash, assured the rumpled Sherman that he had arranged for more ammunition to be brought to the front. Galloping through the woods toward Prentiss’ position on a sunken wagon road in the center of the line, Grant was nearly killed when a Mississippi battery fired a charge at his group, a piece of shell striking his sword just below the hilt and breaking his scabbard and blade in two. After this, Grant never bothered to carry a sword in battle.
Grant told Prentiss to hold his position at all hazards–so long as Union forces held the sunken road, the enemy would not be able to advance to the river and fall on the army’s relatively undefended left flank. Prentiss replied that he would try. Grant returned to the landing and sent orders to W.H.L. Wallace and Hurlbut to hurry their divisions to the front. He then sent staff officers in search of Lew Wallace’s 3rd Division and Bull Nelson’s Ohio troops.
While Sherman and McClernand fell back along the left flank, W.H.L. Wallace, Prentiss and Hurlbut held the center. Gunfire was so intense along the sunken road that it was dubbed the ‘Hornets’ Ness.’ Again and again, the Confederates charged the formidable Union position, yelling like ‘maddened demons ‘ in the words of one Iowa opponent. Major General Braxton Bragg, directing the Southern assault, stubbornly and futilely kept up the doomed frontal assaults, even as they were blown back like scythed wheat by the storm of Union fire. ‘The flag must not go back again ‘ Bragg commanded, sending his troops forward again–but never in sufficient numbers to carry the fortified Union line.
Meanwhile, off to Prentiss’ left, Hurlbut’s troops took shelter in a 10-acre peach orchard incongruously in full bloom during the terrible battle. Albert Sidney Johnston, seeing his advance floundering along this front, rode into the fray aboard his favorite charger, ‘Fire-eater.’ Passing along the Confederate battle line, he clinked the men’s upraised bayonets with a little tin cup he had picked up earlier that morning. ‘I will lead you ‘ he assured the men.
The ensuing charge was successful, driving an entire Union brigade from the orchard, but success came at a high cost. Johnston, dashing conspicuously through heavy gunfire, had been struck behind the right knee by a Federal minie bullet. In the excitement of battle, the experienced soldier neglected the wound, calling out at one point, ‘They didn’t trip me up that time!’ But as the charge wound down, Johnston suddenly reeled in his saddle and fell into the arms of Tennessee Governor Isham Harris, who was serving as a volunteer aide during the battle.
Frantic efforts were made to save Johnston’s life, but they were unavailing. ‘Johnston, do you know me? Johnston, do you know me?’ Harris repeatedly asked. At about 2:30 p.m., the highest-ranking field general in the Confederacy died, having neglected a wound that almost certainly would not have been fatal with the proper attention. Ironically, Johnston had dispatched his own staff physician a few minutes earlier to look after the Federal wounded. And a field tourniquet that might have staunched the deadly flow of blood was found later in Johnston’s pocket.
Command of the Southern forces now fell to General P.G.T. Beauregard, who also realized that the Hornets’ Nest must be taken. He called a brief respite to organize his reserves and allow Brig. Gen. Daniel Ruggles to assemble a force of 6 2 cannons–the largest concentration of artillery then seen on the continent. This artillery opened a hurricane-like fire on the Union positions at a deadly range of 300 yards.
Hurlbut’s 4th Division fell back under the onslaught. W.H.L. Wallace tried desperately to lead his 2nd Division away from the deadly fire, but fell mortally wounded with a bullet to the head. With its command structure shattered, the 2nd Division simply fell apart, ceasing to exist as an organized fighting force.
This disintegration on his flank left Prentiss alone and sure’ rounded. Remembering Grant’s order to hold at all hazards, Prentiss fought on alone for two hours in the face of Ruggles’ cannons and the massed might of the Confederate army. But at 5:30, realizing further resistance was hopeless, he surrendered what was left of his command. Some 2,200 members of the 6th Division, considerably less than half the division’s original strength, went into Rebel captivity.
A lull now fell across the battlefield. It took time to round up all the Federal prisoners, and jubilant Confederates stopped to gawk at the enemy. Many had never seen a Union soldier– much less a general–being marched off in captivity. Some grabbed regimental flags from the 12th and 14th Iowa regiments and dragged them back and forth in the mud, while officers tried frantically to restore some sort of order.
Confederate units had become hopelessly mixed during the fighting at Hornets’ Nest, and Beauregard was able to rally only portions of two brigades for a final assault on the Federal left at Dill Branch ravine, a quarter-mile from the river.
There, the Southerners ran into solid opposition from Hurlbut’s troops and the advance guard of Buell’s Army of the Ohio, led by physically imposing Bull Nelson. The Federals were supported by heavy artillery from the gunboats Tyler and Lexington, which hurled 20-pound shells into the Rebel ranks. The shells did little actual damage, but the horrible shrieking noise demoralized many of the now exhausted Confederates. Beauregard called a halt for the night.
After the war, Beauregard was criticized by some Confederates, including the incorrigible Bragg, for missing a golden opportunity to win the battle outright. But Bragg and his supporters failed to point out that their own daylong failure to carry or flank the Union position at Hornets’ Nest had effectively doomed the Southern offensive. When Beauregard halted, his soldiers had been in battle for 12 straight hours, his units were disorganized and fresh supplies of food and ammunition had not yet arrived from the rear. At any rate, Beauregard believed he would finish off the Federals the next morning.
Grant, however, was through retreating. He had lost two full divisions, and the remaining three were down to halfstrength, at best. But 20,000 fresh troops from Buell’s command were in the process of crossing the Tennessee River on his left flank, and Lew Wallace’s 5,000-man 3rd Division, which had mysteriously failed to arrive on the battlefield during the long day’s fighting, at last arrived from Crump’s Landing, five hours behind schedule. With the added support of Union gunboats at their backs, the Union forces were now in a formidable defensive position.
When Sherman arrived at Grant’s headquarters later that evening, he found the general–broken sword and all– chewing on a soggy cigar in the rain, which had begun soaking the battlefield.
‘Well, Grant’ Sherman said to his friend, ‘we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?’ ‘Yes,’ replied Grant, ‘lick ’em tomorrow, though.’
The Confederates, by comparison, were considerably weaker than they had been at the start of the battle. Beauregard still believed he could re-engage the next morning. A dispatch from Colonel Benjamin Hardin Helm led him to believe that Buell was en route to Decatur, Ala., away from Grant’s army. The report was entirely inaccurate, but Beauregard believed it. One Confederate officer knew better. Cavalry Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest had observed Buell’s men crossing the river by ferry. He frantically tried to warn Beauregard, but was unable to locate the Confederate commander.
Night was a time of reorganization and reappraisal. Grant prepared to renew the battle with an attack by seven divisions, four of them fresh and at full strength. The Confederates tried to find rest and food for the coming day, when they believed they would shatter the Union army, once and for all. Thanks to the enemy gunboats, however, they did not have a restful night. The Tyler and Lexington kept up a harrassing bombardment throughout the night, hurtling shells into the rainy darkness at the rate of two every 15 minutes.
When dawn broke on April 7, US. Grant was ready. At 7 a.m., he launched his counterattack, with Wallace’s fresh 3rd Division on the right, three fresh divisions of the Army of the Ohio on his left, and two battered divisions in the center. The Confederates, although not expecting a Northern counterattack, resisted stubbornly. Sherman, for one, later commented that the fighting was more intense on the second day than it had been on the first. But gradually the outnumbered Confederates gave ground. By 2 p.m., Beauregard realized he was beaten and gave orders for a fighting withdrawal to Corinth. By 4 p.m., the withdrawal was complete.
The Union forces were reluctant to give pursuit, partly because they were as battered and exhausted as the Confederates and partly because Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck, Grant’s superior, had forbidden spirited pursuit. Despite this, Sherman collected a number of troops the next day and moved down the road toward Corinth. At an abandoned lumber camp called Fallen Timbers, he ran into a rear guard conducted by the brilliant Forrest and broke off contact.
The butcher’s bill was still to be counted. Casualties for the North, including killed, wounded, captured and missing, numbered more than 13,000. For the South, nearly 11,000 men had become casualties, and the much- respected Johnston had been killed. To put the battle into perspective, more men fell in the battle than had fallen in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Mexican War combined. The ferocity of the battle stunned both regions.
Despite fewer casualties, the South had lost the battle. The Confederates had failed to destroy the Army of the Tennessee, prevent it from linking up with the Army of the Ohio, or hold the territory they had captured during the first day’s fighting. The loss at Shiloh put Memphis in an untenable position, opening the Mississippi as far south as Vicksburg. The cutting in two of the South became only a matter of time.
As critical as the battle had been for the South, it was even more critical for the North. Had the Union lost, western Tennessee and Kentucky would have been recaptured and the vital Mississippi waterway secured. An invasion of the North through southern Illinois or eastern Missouri would not have been out of the question. More important, a Union defeat at Shiloh would have eliminated two of the North’s three best generals–Phil Sheridan was the third. Even if they had avoided death or capture,-Grant and Sherman would have been disgraced for losing at Shiloh and would have had no further impact on the Northern war effort.
Thus, in a must-win battle for both sides, the North had prevailed. Small wonder that the Confederate defeat in the woods surrounding an obscure Methodist meeting house in rural Tennessee caused New Orleans writer George Washington Cable to lament, ‘The South never smiled again after Shiloh.’
This article was written by Christopher Allen and originally appeared in the January 2000 issue of America’s Civil War magazine.
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