The Battle of Shiloh, fought in middle Tennessee on April 6 and 7, 1862, was the bloodiest in North American history to that time, forcing both Southerners and Northerners to recognize the true ferocity of the year-old Civil War. The clash followed the loss of two Confederate forts, Henry and Donelson, near the Kentucky border. Constructed in the autumn of 1861, they were intended to bar navigation up the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, respectively. Their February 1862 loss to Union forces under Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was catastrophic for the South. Capture of the former permitted Union gunboats to range at will up the Tennessee as far as Muscle Shoals, Ala. Capture of the latter enabled Federal troops to seize Nashville, Tennessee’s capital, without a fight. Grant won promotion to major general.
Control of the waterways enabled Grant’s 49,000-man army to get within 20 miles of the crucial town of Corinth, Miss., the junction of two critical railroads. General Albert Sidney Johnston, commander of all Confederate forces in the western theater, knew he had to hold the city and by early April had assembled a 55,000-strong army. At dawn on April 6 Johnston sent 44,000 of those men, divided into four corps, on a massive surprise attack against the Union encampments near Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee, near a church named Shiloh. Some Federal units resisted fiercely, but many collapsed. For the first couple of hours the battle went almost entirely Johnston’s way.
Then things began to go awry. Having taken the trouble to organize four corps, Johnston had sent them into action one behind the other, and once the battle began, all order fell apart. Brigades that were part of one corps found themselves intermingled with brigades of another, and the surprise attack turned into a disorganized mess—little more than a gigantic shoving match.
Johnston hadn’t a prayer of fixing that mess because, as it turned out, he hadn’t a prayer of staying alive. In midafternoon a bullet clipped him in the leg, severing an artery. It was a serious wound, but one Johnston could have survived had anyone near him known how to apply a tourniquet. With Johnston’s death the disorganized mess became messier than ever, as ragged Confederate brigades informally banded together to press the ill-coordinated attack.
Even so, at day’s end many Yankees believed they had been whipped. Among those who doubted the situation was reversible was Brig. Gen. William T. Sherman, who approached Grant that evening and said, “We’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” Grant’s cigar flared briefly. “Yes,” he replied. “Lick ’em tomorrow, though.”
That is exactly what happened. Reinforced during the night by an army under Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell, on April 7 Grant’s forces began shoving back the disorganized Confederates and by midafternoon had recovered the encampments overrun the day before. Union losses totaled 13,000, but Confederate losses were just as severe, and the Rebels limped back to Corinth. Although Grant faced harsh criticism for allowing himself to be surprised, he had nonetheless won one of the great strategic victories of the war. Western and middle Tennessee were now securely in Federal hands.
■ If you build a fort, be sure you can actually defend it.
■ Surprises are nice at birthday parties —less so on the battlefield.
■ When you take the trouble to craft a tactical plan, don’t abandon it at the crucial moment.
■ If you’re an army commander, try not to get shot. If you are shot, have someone nearby competent in first aid.
■ Just because you take a butt-kicking on the first day doesn’t mean you can’t lick ’em on the second.
■ Organization is paramount—rabbles rarely win battles.
■ Battles can be exponentially worse than you think they will be.
■ He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day. So does he who simply runs.
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.