In the half-light while the Battle of Shiloh still raged near Pittsburg Landing, Tenn., on April 6, 1862, General P.G.T. Beauregard dictated a telegram to Richmond in which he informed Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government of the death of General Albert Sidney Johnston, as well as the “Complete Victory” of Confederate arms that day. The enemy, he said, had been thoroughly beaten and “the remnant of his army driven in utter disorder to the immediate vicinity of Pittsburg and we remained undisputed masters of his…[camps].” The announcement was premature, of course, and later the Creole lamented, “I thought I had Grant just where I wanted him, and could finish him up next day.”
So Beauregard sent a messenger, his old friend Major Numa Augustin from New Orleans society days, with an order telling all commanders to call off the battle and withdraw to the shelter of the Yankee camps. General Braxton Bragg was dumbfounded. Bragg was convinced, as he stated later in his official report, that he was in the midst of “a movement commenced with every prospect of success.”
“Have you given that order to anyone else?” Bragg demanded. He had been acting, during the attack, as Beauregard’s chief of staff. “Yes sir, to General Polk, on your left, and if you look, you will see it is being obeyed,” Augustin told him. Bragg was aghast. “My God, my God,” Bragg cried. “It is too late!”
Bragg’s lament was too true. Every 15 minutes or so, steamers brought another several hundred of Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell’s men across to the landing, and before morning he would have more than 17,000 fresh troops on the field. Not only that, but well after dark the much-sought division of Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace at last concluded its bizarre odyssey from Crump’s Landing and emerged from the Owl Creek swamps near Brig. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s position at the far right end of the Union line. This now gave Ulysses S. Grant nearly 23,000 completely new troops— more men than Beauregard could muster in the entire Confederate army at that point, considering the casualties and stragglers.
It seems almost a criminal error of military intelligence that nobody—not Sidney Johnston, Beauregard or anybody else—thought to put a close watch on the routes Buell might have used to march to Grant’s relief. But in those days the term “military intelligence,” if not exactly an oxymoron, was at best an expression of a vague and more or less unrefined concept that smacked of being “undignified.” Spying on the enemy—though it is absolutely necessary—was considered somehow “sneaky,” even “ungentlemanly,” and usually was relegated to the cavalry.
In fact there was somebody watching out for Buell, and for whatever else lurked in the Confederates’ far right quarter, and that somebody was Nathan Bedford Forrest and his cavalry regiment. All day Colonel Forrest had been itching to do something useful with his horsemen, but in a fight like Shiloh, often the best thing cavalry can do is stay out of the way and guard roads and bridges. Forrest tested that notion once and found it was held for a good reason. Late in the morning as the battle raged around the Peach Orchard, Forrest chafed at his orders to guard against any Federal attempt to cross Lick Creek. As the roar of battle swelled in the west, Forrest reportedly told his men, “Boys, you hear that shooting? And here we are guarding a damn creek! Let’s go and help them!”
Upon reaching the battlefield Forrest rode to the sound of the loudest firing, which, unfortunately, happened to be the Sunken Road in the Hornets’ Nest at its worst, and immediately he sent for permission to charge the enemy. But division commander Ben Cheatham demurred, saying his infantry brigades had already charged several times without success and needed some rest and reorganization, to which Forrest was reported to have declared, “Then I’ll charge under my own orders.”
He formed his command into a column of fours in support of a regiment of Alabama infantry that was trying to drive a body of Federals from a fencerow and charged toward the Sunken Road. Blasted by massed artillery and infantry fire—both of which are anathema to cavalry— Forrest’s bold riders lurched into the knotty thickets of the Hornets’ Nest and immediately found themselves and their mounts hopelessly entangled in the branches of the thick scrub oak. They—most of them, anyway—somehow managed to extricate themselves from the jungled thicket, but it was obvious now, if it wasn’t before, that mounted cavalry has little business in the middle of a serious infantry fight.
After that, Forrest led his regiment to the far Confederate right and hovered behind a series of Indian mounds along the Tennessee River, watching for trouble, of which Buell’s army was the paramount example. In the distance Forrest’s scouts could see some kind of activity on the far shore of the river, and the moving of steamboats, but when they attempted to get closer one of the Federal gunboats opened up and drove them back into the woods.
Night found Forrest suspended between curiosity and suspicion, and he ordered a squadron to strip a dozen dead Federals of their uniforms and sent a reconnaissance team under a Lieutenant Sheridan, dressed in Yankee blue, to get a better look at Pittsburg Landing. Soon they returned during a tremendous rain and electrical storm with news that was at once ominous and promising. Buell’s army had indeed arrived and was crossing the river, Sheridan said, but in his opinion there was such disorder at the landing that a surprise night attack might end the affair on the spot.
Forrest immediately set out in search of a superior officer, the closest being Brig. Gen. James R. Chalmers, who was asleep. After being awakened he replied that Forrest needed to find a corps commander, if not Beauregard himself, for such a portentous operation. Continuing on, Forrest came upon Third Corps commander Maj. Gen. William J. Hardee and told him that if the Rebel army did not immediately launch a night attack, “[We] will be whipped like hell before ten o’clock tomorrow.” Hardee replied that Beauregard was the man to see, but somehow, in the rainstorm and the dark, Forrest was unable to locate Beauregard’s headquarters at the Shiloh church. About 2 a.m. he returned to Hardee but was told only to “maintain his pickets.” If there was in fact a “lost opportunity” for the Confederacy at Shiloh, that was probably it.
Don Carlos Buell stern old martinet with a superiority complex who from the was a beginning did not like Grant or anything else about the Battle of Shiloh. He was most especially disturbed by the horde of stragglers at Pittsburg Landing and hinted—or so Sherman claimed—that he was considering not bringing his army across at all rather than have it mingle with such cowardly riffraff. To Sherman it suggested that the ever-cautious Buell didn’t want to risk the possibility of his army getting whipped by the Confederates, just like Grant’s had been.
But Buell rebutted this years later by pointing out that he began bringing his army across to the landing as soon as it arrived on the opposite bank of the river. Brig. Gen. Thomas Crittenden, however, one of Buell’s division commanders, worried that the cowardice in Grant’s army would be contagious and found himself “so disgusted” by the mob at the landing that “I asked General Buell to let me land a regiment and drive them away. I did not wish my troops to come in contact with them.”
Grant seemed unperturbed by any of this. When the rainstorm began he sought shelter in the cabin atop the bluff, which had once been his headquarters, but found that it had been turned into a surgery that was still operating at full capacity. Repelled by the gory work, he returned to the tempest and took refuge beneath a large oak tree, which is where Sherman found him in the pouring rain stretched out in his overcoat, his slouch hat pulled down, and smoking his eternal cigar.
“Well Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” Sherman remarked.
“Yes,” replied Grant. “Lick ’em tomorrow, though.”
There were many in the army, if not most, who would have declared that Grant was living in a fool’s paradise— but not all. Lt. Col. William Camm at least was confident that they were safe from the Rebel onslaught.
“For the first time we had a continuous line,” he wrote in his diary. “There was no chance to flank us, and of the men who bore the brunt that day there was none left in the ranks that would not have died on the line.”
For the Yankee Army, April 7, 1862, began before sunrise, which was slightly after 5 a.m. What Grant had in store for the Confederates was almost the exact opposite of what they had planned to do to him the day before. Starting from Pittsburg Landing, the Union line would attack in a giant wheeling motion, pivoting on Sherman and Lew Wallace, who held down the far western end of the line, sweeping across the battlefield until they drove the Rebel army against the boggy wilds of Owl Creek, where it would have to surrender. As with everything else at Shiloh, this was easier said than done.
Buell’s divisions, which were nearest the landing, moved out first, crossing Dill Branch, now deserted except for the dead. Musician fourth class John Cockerill, who had been told that his father, the colonel of his regiment, was shot and killed on Sunday, had a miserable night at the landing. He had been near enough to witness the grisly beheading of Union Captain Irving Carson by a cannonball and had curled up in the rain beside a hay bale but was unable to sleep because of the constant firing of the gunboats.
“There was never a night so long, so hideous, or so utterly uncomfortable,” he wrote later. At dawn, however, young Cockerill was awakened by, of all things, strains of the overture from Il Trovatore, “magnificent[ly]” rendered by the 15th Infantry Regiment band, serenading from the top deck of the steamboat War Eagle.
“How inspiring that music was!” wrote Cockerill, “Even the poor wounded men lying on the shore seemed to be lifted up, and every soldier received an impetus”—including Cockerill himself, who grabbed a rifle and, after a jolt from a swig of “Cincinnati whisky,” joined up with the 15th Infantry Regiment and marched on the enemy. As they crossed Dill Branch, it didn’t look like the same ground anymore—and it wasn’t.
Cockerill noted that “the underbrush had been literally mowed off by the bullets, and great trees had been shattered by artillery fire.” Moving on, he found “In places the bodies of the slain lay upon the ground so thick that I could step from one to the other….I remember a poor Confederate lying on his back, while by his side was a heap of ginger cakes and bologna sausage. [He] had evidently filled his pockets the day before with edibles from a sutler’s tent, and had been killed before he had the opportunity to enjoy [them].”
Farther on, Cockerill “passed the corpse of a beautiful boy in gray, who lay with his blond curls scattered about his face, and his hands folded peacefully about his chest. He was clad in a bright, neat uniform, well garnished with gold, which seemed to tell the story of a loving mother and sisters who had sent their household pet to the field of war. He was about my age,” Cockerill said wistfully, and later, when reminded of it, he broke into tears.
All across the line of march it was the same. “The blue and the gray were mingled together, side by side. Beneath a great oak tree I counted the corpses of fifteen men, lying as though during the night, suffering from wounds, they had crawled together for mutual assistance, and there all had died.”
As they neared the Peach Orchard, Cockerill remembered, they came upon “an entire battery of Federal artillery which had been dismantled in Sunday’s fight, every horse of which had been killed in his harness, every gun of which had been dismantled, and in this awful heap of death lay the bodies of dozens of cannoneers.”
Among the most piteous sights, everywhere on the field “were the poor wounded horses, their heads drooping, their eyes glassy and gummy, waiting for the slow coming of death. No painter ever did justice to a battlefield such as this, I am sure.”
Soon enough they encountered the Confederate army. Lieutenant Ambrose Bierce had found himself experiencing an odd sort of disappointment that morning when Colonel William B. Hazen’s brigade moved out “straight as a string,” but through woods that seemed strangely unmarked by yesterday’s battle. But shortly, “we passed out of this oasis that had singularly escaped the desolation of battle, and the evidence of the struggle was soon in great profusion.” Bierce marveled that every single tree that remained standing was covered in bullet holes “from the root to a height of ten to twenty feet,” [and] “one could not have laid a hand [anywhere on the trunk] without covering several punctures.” Soon Hazen’s men began to come upon the dead, and a few of the living wounded, including a Federal sergeant whose brains were oozing out through a hole in his skull. So brutalized had things become that one of Bierce’s men asked if he should put the victim out of his misery with his bayonet, but Bierce said no. “It was [an] unusual [request], and too many others were looking,” he said.
The brigade kept moving through open fields and past the Bloody Pond and the Peach Orchard. Ahead they caught glimpses of Rebel cavalry, but no infantry, and Bierce had convinced himself that the Confederates, “disheartened” by the arrival of fresh Union troops, had retreated to Corinth, Miss. Onward they marched unmolested, until they came to “a gentle acclivity, covered with an undergrowth of young oaks.” He could not have known it then, but Bierce was looking at the rear of the Sunken Road.
The brigade pushed into the open field and halted; then there were orders to press forward. When they reached the edge of the oaks, Bierce said, “I can’t describe it—the forest seemed all at once to flame up and disappear with a crash like that of a great wave upon the beach.” There was “the sickening ‘spat’ of lead against flesh, and a dozen of my brave fellows tumbled over like ten pins. Some struggled to their feet, only to go down again. Those who stood fired into the smoking brush and retired. We had expected, at most, a line of skirmishers”; instead, he recalled bitterly, “what we found was a line of battle, holding its fire till it could count our teeth.”
If there could be any humor in such a sanguinary encounter Bierce was the one who found it, relating the “ludicrous incident of a young officer who had taken part in this affair walking up to his colonel—who had watched the whole thing—and gravely reporting, ‘The enemy is in force just beyond that field, sir.’ ”
From the tangled protection of the Sunken Road the Confederates were giving the Yankees a dose of their own medicine. Advance was impossible for the Federal troops, and the two armies “flamed away at one another with amazing zeal,” Bierce said, “while the riddled bodies of my poor skirmishers were the only ones left on this ‘neutral ground.’”
Cannons were brought up. Brig. Gen. William “Bull” Nelson’s division’s artillery had been left behind at Savannah, Tenn., because it could not be moved on the mud march through the swamp, but Buell sent him two batteries from elsewhere, including one commanded by Captain William Terrill, a West Point–educated Virginian whose entire family was in the Rebel army. This was a heavy battery consisting of 12-pounder cannons that “did much execution,” and it fell to Bierce’s platoon to protect, or “support,” them. “The shock of our own pieces nearly deafened us,” Bierce groused while his men lay in the woods with the battle “roaring and stammering” all around them. “Oh, those cursed guns,” he said with trademark sarcasm. “Had it not been for them, we might have died like men.”
What had happened was this. At dawn the noise of heavy firing from the direction of Owl Creek had startled Beauregard, who with almost a sense of leisure savored the notion of finishing off Grant and destroying the main Federal army in the West; in fact, the Great Creole halfway expected to find the Yankees had evacuated downriver during the night.
Grant, of course, had done no such thing, and Beauregard, now alerted that strong reinforcements must be on the field, hastily began assembling a defensive line with which he at least hoped to halt the Federal offensive and turn it into a stalemate. He sent Hardee to the far right, Bragg to the far left, and Leonidas Polk’s First Corps and John C. Breckinridge’s Reserve Corps to the center to put regiments in place and make a stand.
If Beauregard had sent people to keep close tabs of Buell’s whereabouts, at least he could have ordered the men to construct defensive fortifications during the night, which likely would have made all the difference in the world. Instead, he found himself in the same position that the Yankees had been in yesterday—having to defend against massed assaults with whatever protection was at hand. That the Hornets’ Nest provided good natural cover was some consolation; it would have to be, since Beauregard could scarcely muster 20,000 men of arms in the entire Confederate army.
The main Union thrust would be in the center, around the Hornets’ Nest, just as the Confederates’ efforts had been the day before. There the Rebels had gathered an odd assortment of depleted regiments and the ragtag of a few brigades totaling probably no more than 4,000 men to contend with the roughly 9,000 fresh troops of Nelson’s and Crittenden’s divisions.
The fighting, some of it hand-to-hand, seesawed all morning and into the afternoon, with Confederates pushing the Yankees back across farm fields and into woods, only to find themselves ambushed by fresh Federal troops and driven back to their original line. As the day wore on, Beauregard was hard-pressed to shuffle regiments from one part of the field to another as more commanders cried for help. It was as maddening as using one’s fingers to plug ever-multiplying holes in a bursting dike.
It went on like this all morning, small, fierce, desperate attacks—until the weight of numbers began to tell and the Rebels began to give ground. Back across the bloodstained Peach Orchard they went, across Sunken Road, giving up ground but making the Yankees pay for every yard. Pat Cleburne’s brigade, the mere sight of whose once proud white-moon-on-a-black-field flag had shaken the Yankee soldiers the day before, could now put only 800 men in the line out of his original 2,700.
When Ambrose Bierce’s company of Federals was finally relieved of its support duty at Terrill’s battery, he found himself wandering in a part of the now-emptied Hornets’ Nest that had caught fire yesterday. “Death had put his sickle into this thicket,” Bierce said, “and fire had gleaned the field.” Here lay the bodies, “half buried in ashes; their clothing was half burnt away—their hair and beard entirely,” he said. “Some were swollen to double-girth, others shriveled to manikins.”
As the hours wore on, more were wounded and carried off or killed. Most men in the Confederate ranks began to sense they were fighting a futile battle; by now most everyone knew that Buell and Lew Wallace were on the field, and the implications thereof were clear. Still they persisted, sullen, bitter and deadly, though without the savage fury of yesterday because they had been simply fought to a frazzle.
The tension mounted as Beauregard watched the Yankee host prepare to drive his troops from the Shiloh church. It was about 2 p.m. and men were streaming back from the roaring, flaming, stinking cauldron of the fight on Bragg’s front.
The Creole found himself surrounded by reluctant regiments that balked at returning to the fray. No one wants to be the last man killed in a losing battle, and words could not move these shaken men; their commanders tried, Beauregard tried, Governor Isham G. Harris of Tennessee tried—to no avail.
So Beauregard “seized the banners of two different regiments and led them forward to the assault in the face of the fire of the enemy,” recorded Colonel Jacob Thompson, one of his aides, adding in a pensive note, “I became convinced that our troops were too much exhausted to make a vigorous resistance.” No one could say that Beauregard was not a brave leader. Thompson rode to him with a plea that “you should expose yourself no further…but to retire from Shiloh Church in good order.”
This seemed the crux of the battle. The Shiloh church soon was recaptured; the Yankees were closing in; nearly all the gains of the previous day had been lost. Still Beauregard fought on, more out of a sense of honor and fury than anything else. Finally Colonel Thomas Jordan rode up and, employing a Napoleonic-sounding military figure of speech, compared the present condition of the Rebel army to “a lump of sugar, thoroughly soaked with water, yet preserving its original shape, though ready to dissolve— would it not be judicious to get away with what we have?” he asked.
With this dainty metaphor jangling harshly in his ears, Beauregard surveyed the mounting chaos in front of him, as more and more men straggled out of the fight, and solemnly replied, “I intend to withdraw in a few moments.”
Breckinridge was sent for and told to serve as rearguard. With that, the Confederate army began its painful withdrawal from the Battle of Shiloh. The wounded continued to be carted off in heaps, but much of the captured artillery and other valuable loot from the Yankee camps was lost due to lack of transportation. Beauregard did, however, get away with 34 national, state and regimental stands of colors to prove the Confederates had not come to the fight as pikers. Night soon closed in over another smoke-stained, fiery sunset and, as if to add insult to injury, as the Rebel army slouched south toward Corinth a dismal drizzle of rain began to fall.
Adapted from Shiloh 1862 by Winston Groom (National Geographic Society, March 2012).
Originally published in the May 2012 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.