Soldiers on both sides expected the Federals to retreat after the first day at Shiloh; Grant had other ideas.
Elements of three of General Buell’s five divisions were at Pittsburg Landing by dawn April 7, and the placement of those Army of the Ohio brigades on the left allowed Grant to squeeze his army’s line even more—much as he had done on the right once Lew Wallace’s division had arrived the previous evening. The arrival of these fresh troops was fortunate because the Army of the Tennessee was in shambles, particularly Generals Benjamin Prentiss’ and W.H.L. Wallace’s divisions. Many of the men were gun-shy, with Lt. George Nispel writing that his cannoneers in Battery E of the 2nd Illinois Light Artillery had hastily built a small parapet of dirt in front of their position, “thinking the enemy during the darkness…might make an attempt to charge and capture our guns.”
The night was long and miserable for all involved. Grant’s army had lost the majority of four of five division camps. Lew Wallace’s troops had none of their tents or equipment, and Buell’s forces likewise had left theirs down the river at Savannah, Tenn. Upon informing Colonel John A. Davis of the 46th Illinois that his men had no food, a captain was told to tell his men to “sit down and suck your thumbs.” One fortunate Illinoisan in Brig. Gen. Stephen Hurlbut’s 4th Division noted, “We were furnished with some crackers and raw meat which was eaten without cooking, as we dare not make a fire.”
Sleep was also hard to come by, with Lt. Col. William Camm of the 14th Illinois lying down to keep warm with his brigade’s wounded commander Col. James Veatch, who “moaned and moved so that I could not rest.” The storm that developed and rolled through the area on the night of April 6 only made it worse. Colonel C. Carroll Marsh, commanding the 2nd Brigade in Maj. Gen. John McClernand’s 1st Division, related that his men “gladly seized this opportunity for a little rest, but a drenching rain soon setting in prevented much sleep.”
Adding to the misery were the gunboats Tyler and Lexington nearby in the Tennessee River. Thinking it was a bright idea at the time, Brig. Gen. William “Bull” Nelson of the Army of the Ohio’s 4th Division, a former naval officer, had the boats fire salvos at 10- or 15-minute intervals throughout the night, intending to harass and keep awake the Confederates, only to have it have the same effect on the Federal troops. Numerous other maladies affected the soldiers that night, with one exhausted artilleryman who had worked his rammer all day describing “the regular old school-boy leg ache, such as I used to lay awake nights and yell with when I was a little shaver, after a hard day’s play.” Yet the men made the best of their situation, with some even taking time to sing hymns. Illinoisan George Smith remembered one soldier struck up “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” and others joined in until four verses had been sung in the darkness.
Grant could attest to his men’s misery. His army had been pounded that day, and he had seen horrors that had almost made him sick—vastly overshadowing anything he had seen during the Mexican War or even earlier in this war. Not the least sickening was the abrupt death of one of his scouts, Capt. Irving Carson, who was decapitated by a Confederate cannonball while standing right next to Grant. A “six pound ball struck an oak tree close by and glancing took off the head of General Grant’s adecamp [sic] Capt. Carson,” recalled a witness, an Indiana soldier. “And passing through our comp[any] ranks took off the legs of poor George White.” Though covered with blood and brains, and bothered by a throbbing ankle, Grant continued traveling his line that evening, joined by Buell. “Boys, remember the watchword is Donaldson [Donelson],” he encouraged his men, misquoted later by an anonymous observer.
Other misadventures had occurred that day for Grant, who, according to one of his escorts, “continuously rode along the line of battle, through the hottest of their fire, for the whole distance of about five miles.” Grant was nearly wounded when canister struck and bent his sword scabbard—an event Grant later claimed took place on the battle’s second day but most historians believe actually occurred on the first. Who knows what it would have done to his leg if the canister had struck an inch or two in either direction? At another point, Grant was upbraided by one of his own officers. While awaiting Nelson’s troops, Grant unwittingly wandered in front of several signal officers, hard at work communicating across the Tennessee River. Lieutenant Joseph Hinson, who had already been angered trying to keep Grant’s men out of the way, barked at his commander, “Git out of the way there! Ain’t you got no sense?” A calm Grant simply apologized and rode away. It should be noted that the signal detachment was repaid in kind during the night when another officer, unaccustomed to the name or seeing the unit’s crossed fags insignia, took them as Confederate spies and put Hinson and his comrades under guard.
Amid the chaos, as he suddenly had some calm moments to sit a think, Grant began to look for a place to make his headquarters. He first gathered himself beneath a large oak tree just atop the high ground at the landing. With the rain coming in, he decided after midnight to walk over to the small cabin he had used earlier. By this time, any structure was being used as a hospital for the wounded, and a weak-stomached Grant could take no more than a few seconds amid the terror and screams of the wounded in the cabin. Despite his swollen and aching ankle and the torrents of precipitation, he decided to return to what he called his “tree in the rain.” It was there that Grant, collar pulled up and hat close down on his face, made some of the most significant decisions of the war.
Grant had continually moved reinforcements to the front and established a final line of defense the first day, but that was about it. As Hurlbut later wrote, “It was…a series of independent conflicts, on our side, controlled, as best they might be, by the division or detachment upon which the attack fell, but with no unity of movement nor possibility of combined action, extending over the whole, or any considerable part of the field.” Buell in turn found fault for “the want of cohesion and concert in the Union ranks” and “the absence of a common head.”
“It was little more than a fearful melee at best,” recalled one veteran, but it worked. Colonel William T. Shaw of the 14th Iowa tried to explain the phenomenon: “They outgeneraled us, but we outcolonelled them.” Still, it was that lower-level grit that put Grant in a position to come out on top. His decision to trade space for time as the battle unfolded had succeeded. Grant, remembered 5th Division commander Maj. Gen. William Sherman, was using methods adopted during his victory at Fort Donelson back in February. “[A]t a certain period of the [Fort Donelson] battle,” Sherman recalled, “he saw that either side was ready to give way if the other showed a bold front, and he was determined to do that very thing” again at Shiloh. Grant was convinced that his army’s losses would be offset once Lew Wallace’s division arrived on the battlefield from their camps north of Pittsburg Landing, even if Buell was still absent. He later claimed, perhaps incorrectly, that “victory was assured when Wallace arrived.”
It all could be thrown away, however, and fairly easily. History is replete with examples of military commanders who retreated when they did not have to after a disastrous, but not fatal, day of fighting. As with George McClellan on the Virginia Peninsula or Joseph Hooker at Chancellorsville, both of whom still possessed vast advantages in terms of numbers of troops, a lesser commander than Grant could have retreated during the night. Doing so would no doubt have given the Confederates a major victory much like they enjoyed at Chancellorsville in May 1863 and have blunted enthusiasm for the continual Union advance toward the important railroad town of Corinth, Miss., also buying time for Rebel Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn to arrive with new troops. Moreover, it must be noted that the idea was actually on many minds that night. John Rawlins later indicated that Buell came to Grant while he was at the landing and asked what preparations he had made for withdrawing. “I have not yet despaired of whipping them, general,” Grant replied. Although Buell later denied it, the mentality fits each of the actors. More believable were the accounts of Grant’s own officers. “Shall I make preparations for a retreat?” Lt. Col. James McPherson asked Grant. “Retreat? No!” Grant responded, “I propose to attack at daylight, and whip them.”
In particular, Sherman was man enough to admit he was thinking in terms of retreat. He came to Grant under his tree in the rain with the idea of broaching the subject, as “the only thing just then possible, as it seemed to me, was to put the river between us and the enemy and recuperate.” At the last minute he became embarrassed and blurted out, “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” A determined Grant, his mind already made up, responded, “Yes, lick ’em to-morrow, though.”
With retreat out of the question, the choices left to him were to hold his line on the defensive or attack. Once again, a lesser commander than Grant might have held his line and let the Confederates waste themselves away in futile attacks, never going on the offensive to win a major victory. Although this strategy would have garnered a technical victory, it would not have produced the clear victory Shiloh became. There are many historic examples of this strategy—generals such as William Rosecrans and Buell at Corinth, Stones River and Perryville. Although all are considered Union victories, they are not in the realm of a clear-cut win like Shiloh, and in fact are sometimes referred to as draws, especially on the tactical side. In each case, the defending general, having been driven back, was content with holding a defensive line and not counterattacking. History records those battles as lesser-scale wins.
Grant was not of the defensive mind-set, of course, especially with so many reinforcements available to him. Thus he made the courageous decision to counterattack in the midst of having been beaten back all day long. Just three days later, he wrote of his “feeling that a great moral advantage would be gained by becoming the attacking party.” Sherman later elaborated on the decision, writing, “We agreed that the enemy had expended the furor of his attack, and we estimated our loss and approximated our then strength, including Lew Wallace’s fresh division, expected each minute.” He also noted Grant thought that with Lew Wallace’s division and those of his own five divisions who had “recovered their equilibrium,” he would “be justified in dropping the defensive and assuming the offensive in the morning.” The idea was probably premature because Buell was evidently needed to go on the offensive. One maritime officer noted as much in wondering whether Buell would arrive in time: “We will not make as good use of our victory as we could if he was here.” Grant nevertheless made his decision. “He then ordered me to get all things ready at daylight the next day to assume the offensive,” Sherman remembered. Similar orders went out to the other division commanders and also to Buell’s generals.
There would thus be a second day at Shiloh, with the Union on the offensive “as soon as the day dawned,” as Grant had planned. To make sure the troops were ready, he had ammunition wagons moving throughout the night. One Federal wrote that “6 of our teams were ordered to haul ammunition all night to the battle field for Buell,” whose army had no transportation. Many of Grant’s soldiers had a hunch this would happen; one of Lew Wallace’s troops wrote, “No one talked of tomorrow. We knew we had to fight a victorious enemy who was expecting an easy ending to the battle, nothing less than an unconditional surrender, but we knew in our hearts that we were going to lick them.” And this second day’s fighting—rarely examined in detail or regarded as very important among historians—would be a major factor in the battle. If the first day put Grant in position to win the battle, the second day’s fighting would determine the extent of that victory.
Adapted from Shiloh: Conquer or Perish, by Timothy B. Smith (University Press of Kansas, 2014)
Originally published in the May 2015 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.