BY THE TIME he reached Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River in March 1862, William Tecumseh Sherman was a changed man. That is, he wasn’t “insane” anymore, or a “nervous Nellie,” or “flighty,” which was how the press had portrayed him six months earlier when he lost command at Louisville for expressing fear he was going to be attacked and then having the gall to tell Washington that 200,000 Federal troops would be needed to subdue Rebels in the Mississippi River Valley. Instead, after a period of recuperation, Sherman (“Cump,” to his friends since West Point days) regained his confidence: A sharp, bristling personality, he began to channel the staunch singularity of purpose he would demonstrate for the remainder of the war.
Before one of the Civil War’s most brutal battles, one of its finest generals ignored signs of danger—and paid a steep price
For now, though, Sherman seemed to be overcompensating for the Louisville disgrace. From the time of his arrival at Pittsburg Landing he refused even to entertain the possibility of an attack by the large Rebel army known to be converging just 20 miles south at Corinth, Mississippi.
As the senior Regular Army officer, he should have known better. Commanding one of the six Yankee infantry divisions recently arrived at the landing, Brigadier General Sherman was nominally in charge of day-to-day operations at the encampment, while Major General Ulysses Grant (“Sam” to his West Point classmates) exercised overall control from Savannah, Tennessee, nine miles downstream on the Tennessee, his headquarters an opulent mansion offered to him by William H. Cherry, a wealthy slave-holding planter and Union sympathizer.
Owing to the riparian topography, the Union position at Pittsburg resembled a giant cornucopia, with its stem, north of the landing, less than a mile wide and its mouth, a few miles to the south between the Tennessee River and Owl Creek, opening nearly three miles wide. By some amazing blunder, the most inexperienced divisions—those of Sherman and Brigadier General Benjamin M. Prentiss—were placed in the outer lines at the maw of the cornucopia, close to the Rebel army at Corinth. It was later explained, quite unsatisfactorily, that the encampments were arranged by engineers with regard to sanitation, nearness of water and firewood, and similar conveniences, and without concern for their ability to defend the field—in other words, disposed the way a peacetime army might be. The various camps to the south along the cornucopia’s mouth were not even set in a continuous line but placed helter-skelter with huge, heavily forested gaps in between.
Even worse, neither Sherman nor Grant nor anyone else had made the slightest attempt to entrench or erect fortifications, which in all probability would have deterred a Confederate attack. Instead, they spent their days teaching the men drill formations in the farm fields and holding spit-and-polish dress parades. For his part, Sherman seemed to rely on his original assessment of the area on March 18, not long after his arrival, when he wrote to Grant, “Magnificent plain for camping and drilling, and a military point of great strength.”
And it might have been, if they had taken advantage of the military opportunities. Since the position was protected on both flanks by water, if either Grant or Sherman had told the engineers that the mouth of the cornucopia must be strongly fortified with embrasures, protected batteries, headlogs, abatis, with cleared fields of fire and other expedient military architecture, the encampment would have been nearly impregnable. But this was not done, and great blame attaches to Grant, and to a lesser extent Sherman; their later excuses that it was more desirable for the soldiers to train and learn to drill than it was for them to fortify seem lame and self-serving, especially in light of what happened. Sherman even went so far as to excuse himself “because [building fortifications] would have made our raw men timid,” as though fortifying would have somehow suggested that the Yankee soldiers were scared of their Rebel adversaries. Equally cavalier was the notion that the Confederate army would never come out from behind its own fortifications at Corinth. In fact, what Sherman and Grant took for a “military point of great strength,” with its flanks protected by water, was viewed by the Rebel generals as a trap for the Yankees, if they could catch them napping.
The Yankees had more than a few warnings, the first of which should have been that the Rebel army was under General Albert Sidney Johnston, whom Winfield Scott, general in chief of the Union armies, had declared to be “the finest soldier I have ever commanded.” All knowledgeable Union officers should have at least calculated that Johnston might not keep his army idling in Corinth like a bunch of cardboard dummies waiting to be attacked or besieged.
On April 4—two days before the storm—a Yankee lieutenant and half a dozen men on picket duty were captured by Rebel cavalry. When a detachment of the volunteer 5th Ohio Cavalry went out looking for them, its commander, Major Elbridge G. Ricker, rushed back to report encountering a whole Confederate line of battle, complete with artillery, just two miles from Sherman’s headquarters near the little Shiloh church that would soon lend its name to a great battle. To prove his point, Major Ricker had brought back 10 Confederate prisoners and the splendid saddle of a Rebel cavalry colonel his men had killed. Sherman was dismissive: “Oh, tut-tut. You militia officers get scared too easy.” He also chided Ricker for running the risk of drawing the army into a fight before it was ready.
That same morning, a captain and two sergeants from the 77th Ohio strolled away from their camp to visit a cotton plantation about a quarter mile to the south. As they reached a line of trees, they beheld across a field “the enemy in force, and to all appearances they were getting breakfast. We saw infantry, cavalry, and artillery very plainly.”
The captain sent one of the sergeants dashing to Sherman’s headquarters, but by this time Sherman was so annoyed that he ordered the sergeant arrested for sounding a false alarm!
Next day Colonel Jesse Appler, commanding the 53rd Ohio, sent Sherman a report of gray-clad infantry in woods to his front. Sherman in turn sent a messenger to tell Appler, in front of his men, “Take your damned regiment back to Ohio. There is no enemy nearer than Corinth!”
Major Ricker’s Rebel prisoners, who had been confined in the Shiloh church, became talkative with their guards and boasted that there was a great Confederate army poised to attack next day. When a guard asked whether there were enough “graybacks” in the woods to make “interesting hunting,” a resentful Rebel private told him, “Yes, and there’s more than you’uns have ever seen, and if you ain’t mighty careful, they’ll run you into hell or into the river before tomorrow night.”
NONE OF THESE THINGS seemed to faze Cump Sherman or Sam Grant. Sherman seemed more determined than ever to put the lie to scaredy-cats. “For weeks,” he scoffed, “old women reported that [the Rebel army] was coming, sometimes with 100,000, sometimes with 300,000.” He brushed off these worried reports by saying that at worst the Confederates were conducting a “reconnaissance in force.”
On April 5, the very eve of battle, Sherman sent a note to Grant in response to an inquiry about enemy activity in the army’s front: “I have no doubt that nothing will occur today other than some picket firing. The enemy is saucy, but…will not press our pickets far. I do not apprehend anything like an attack on our position.”
That evening, secure in his mansion downriver, Grant doubtless relied on Sherman’s appraisal when he sent a telegram to Major General Henry Wager Halleck, his superior in St. Louis: “The main force of the enemy is at Corinth and points east. I have scarcely the faintest idea of an attack (general one) being made upon us, but will be prepared should such a thing take place.” As he wrote, the advance regiments of a 40,000-man Rebel army were not a mile away from the Union encampment at Pittsburg Landing.
All that Saturday, April 5, there was a growing “uneasiness” among the officers and men in the southernmost Union camps—the men of Sherman’s and Prentiss’s divisions—for it was they who had either seen for themselves or heard animated reports and rumors that the Rebels were in great strength in the woods to their front.
That afternoon Prentiss, a dour-faced Virginia-born, Missouri-bred rope maker, failed Republican politician, Mexican War veteran, and direct Mayflower descendant with dazzling blue eyes and an Amish-style beard, held a review of his division, the 25th Missouri, during which Major James E. Powell, an experienced soldier, spotted a large body of enemy cavalry hovering on the edges of the woods, taking in the proceedings. He notified Prentiss, who decided to investigate with a reconnaissance at 4 p.m. of five companies, commanded by Colonel David Moore. This patrol marched about a mile to the southwest where, in Seay Field, they came upon several slaves who said they had seen about 200 Confederate cavalry a while earlier. By then it was nearly twilight and the men “could hear the enemy moving in every direction,” according to one of the soldiers; that was enough for Moore, and he withdrew the patrol and reported seeing no Rebels. After dark, Captain Gilbert D. Johnson, a company commander in the 12th Michigan who had been sent to reinforce the regiment’s picket lines, reported there was definitely suspicious movement in the woods to his front. He took his story to Prentiss, who, like Sherman before him, replied, in effect, that there was nothing to worry about.
NO ONE IN HIGH COMMAND, it seemed, wanted to upset the applecart and suggest that the Union encampment was in danger, but that did not satisfy Captain Johnson, who, along with the habitually suspicious Major Powell, went to see General Prentiss’s 1st Brigade commander, Colonel Everett Peabody, a 6-foot-1, 240-pound bear of a man, with a disposition to match. Peabody was a Massachusetts-born, Harvard-educated engineer who had moved to St. Joseph, Missouri, 11 years earlier and become one of the most prominent rail builders in the West. With his upbringing as a wary New Englander and an engineer’s practicality, Peabody was just skeptical enough to risk the wrath of his superiors. After hearing out Johnson and Powell, Peabody ordered them to muster five companies—some 400 men—and find out just what in hell was going on in the misty dews and damps beyond their encampment.
It was well past midnight on Sunday, April 6, when Major Powell’s patrol filed out toward the forbidding line of trees to the south. He marched them again toward Seay Field, where earlier they had encountered the slaves. Cautiously feeling their way in the darkness, with the sickle moon just a pale sliver hanging low in the western sky, they reached another clearing.
Suddenly shots rang out, then the sound of horses’ hooves: Rebel cavalry. Powell ordered the patrol to form a skirmish line and pressed forward. If he had known what he was headed for, he would have been horrified—as any sane man would—for he was marching nearly straight into the 10,000-man corps of the Rebel major general William J. Hardee, who in the Old Army had written the standard West Point textbook Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics, and was now waiting patiently for daylight to launch his attack.
Joseph Ruff was a 20-year-old German immigrant who had hired himself out to Michigan farmers for $16 a month before he joined the army and landed as a private in the 12th Michigan Volunteer Infantry. He had just been detailed as cook for the week, but when Captain Johnson rounded up men for the reconnaissance patrol Ruff decided to join up.
Now he and the others were fumbling along in the false dawn past deserted log cabins until they came to a 40-acre open spot in the timber beyond Seay Field, which turned out to be farmer Fraley’s field.
“When we halted the first streak of daylight had appeared,” Ruff remembered. “As we watched, we noticed something white moving through the brush and in another moment we spied a horseman whose movements we made out to be those of an enemy.” Then, suddenly, came “the crack of several muskets, and bullets were soon whizzing after us.”
Ruff and the others began forming in line and advancing, firing at the unseen Rebels as the sky first paled gray, then pink, and the landscape revealed “a rise of ground which seemed to be covered with thick underbrush,” from which they could see “the flashes of Rebel guns.” Several of the Michiganders were wounded, one mortally as the fire became thicker and faster. Ruff took cover, only to have “several enemy bullets driven into the tree about the line of my head. One just clipped by my right ear,” he said. Around him, men began to fall in irregular ways; some uttered peculiar noises. The world was suddenly out of kilter, as though the beauty of the bright Tennessee sunrise was merely a prelude to death, and Nature, with all her morning splendor, was mocking mankind’s folly.
Major Powell’s patrol had disturbed a picket outpost of Mississippians from Hardee’s corps, and their compatriots responded like an angry swarm of bees. As daylight finally came streaming through the woods, this savage little fight touched off what was to be thus far the bloodiest battle in American military history. It was the first great and terrible battle of the Civil War, and would long be remembered as the war’s most brutal battle in the West.
As the weight of the Confederate force began to tell, Powell sent a messenger with a note telling Colonel Peabody that they had encountered a Rebel force of 3,000 and were being driven back. Just as the New Englander was digesting this news, his division commander, General Prentiss, who had heard the shooting in the woods, rode into camp wondering what all the racket was about. When he learned that Peabody had sent out a reconnaissance, Prentiss became irate, accusing him of starting a battle without permission. Peabody retorted, “You’ll soon see that I am not mistaken.” Prentiss ordered Colonel Moore, who had led the previous day’s patrol, to take another five infantry companies out to reinforce Powell, who was clearly involved in some kind of fight. Prentiss then moved on.
It seemed to several observers on the scene that Moore and his force had barely disappeared across the field and into the woods before the racket of the skirmishing quickly “doubled in intensity.” Men listened and glanced at one other in alarm. Peabody then ordered his drummer to beat the long roll. He was taking no chances.
As the soldiers began to fall in and Peabody called for his horse, Prentiss reappeared in a cloud of dust and high dudgeon. Confronting Peabody from the height of his mount, he cried, “I will hold you personally responsible for bringing on this engagement.” No doubt Prentiss was infuriated that he would be held responsible by Grant and the others. Peabody replied with a defiant salute and an unmistakable air of disgust—“If I brought on the fight, I am to lead the van”—and without further adieu he cantered away toward the sound of the firing.
Back at Fraley Field, Major Powell’s patrol had taken a serious fright. As they stubbornly withdrew into some woods, those men who looked back were stunned to behold an entire Rebel line of battle emerge from the woods and fields—21 regiments—nearly 10,000 men, flags flying, officers on horseback, swords drawn, gun barrels glinting, sergeants shouting orders. Their breaths caught tight as they watched this Rebel line come crashing toward them. At just this juncture Colonel Moore’s relief column collided with the head of Powell’s withdrawal. Before noticing the Rebel battle line, Moore began to rebuke Powell’s men for running away. “He rated us cowards for retreating,” said Private Ruff. “We warned him not to be too bold or he would get into trouble.” Moore rejected this perfectly sound advice and pressed on—dragooning Powell’s un-wounded men to accompany him until he, too, encountered the Confederate attack in motion.
Moore quickly sized up the situation and became intent on buying time for the unsuspecting Union ranks back in the camps. After sending for reinforcements, he and the remnants of Major Powell’s command fought a tooth-and-nail delaying action that cost Moore his leg and Major Powell his life, with most of their force “nearly annihilated or put to rout,” according to Ruff. But the 25 minutes that their lopsided little battle lasted was worth a thousand times the effort in blood and tears, because Moore and Powell had bought enough time to prevent the Rebel attack from falling on Prentiss’s division completely unexpected.
OVER IN HIS OWN CAMP, Sherman heard the commotion and decided to investigate. A messenger sent by Moore had warned Sherman that Rebel units were marching toward his front. And barely an hour earlier he had discounted a similar alarm sent by the ever-anxious Colonel Appler. But all these reports now finally spurred the nervous-natured Sherman to action despite his best efforts to remain calm in the face of whatever was causing everybody else to be so jumpy.
In most of his sector it had been, thus far, a typical Sunday morning on the “plain of Pittsburg Landing,” as Sherman had dubbed it. Soldiers had finished breakfast, and were attending to routine tasks such as washing clothes or writing letters, or simply lounging around; some were playing cards or other games of chance, while still others attended services conducted by brigade chaplains on the lovely Sabbath day—cool, bright, clear, and too early in the year for bugs. The orchards were in full blossom, oaks were tasseling, dogwoods and redbuds were blooming, and an inordinate number of those on hand recorded in diaries and memoirs how many birds were singing in the trees; some singled out robins, some bluebirds or mourning doves. Others noted the disharmony of the sounds of the birds and the distant spatter of gunfire.
Shortly after 7 a.m., Sherman and his staff rode out into an open field (now known as Rhea Field, after the farmer who owned it) in front of the 53rd Ohio, Colonel Appler’s bothersome regiment. Appler himself had been fretting half the night as he listened to the sporadic firing somewhere out in the darkness. About 6 o’clock, one of Major Powell’s men came staggering wild-eyed and bloody into his camp shouting, “Get into line, the Rebels are coming!” Appler once more ordered the long roll drumbeat and sent his quartermaster to alert Sherman. As the 53rd Ohio’s bedraggled officers and men began falling into line, the quartermaster returned with a sarcastic message that he delivered to Appler confidentially: “General Sherman says you must be badly scared over there.”
There was barely time to process this deflating reply when one of two companies Appler had sent out earlier to check on the picket line returned with a report that “the Rebels out there are thicker than fleas on a dog’s back.” Appler ordered his men to form a line of battle. It was about this time that Sherman’s party appeared in farmer Rhea’s field in front of Appler’s position and the general halted to take out his spyglass and study what appeared to be a large body of enemy troops marching diagonally across the south end of the field half a mile away.
Someone in Appler’s regiment suddenly glimpsed a line of Rebel skirmishers emerge from the brush close on Sherman’s right, opposite from the direction he was looking. They halted and raised their weapons to aim. A warning was shouted, but not in time. Sherman started and threw up his hands before his face, exclaiming, “My God, we are attacked!” An instant later the flash and crash of fire from the Rebel volley killed Sherman’s orderly next to him—blew him off his horse and onto the ground, where he lay on his back spouting blood. Sherman himself was struck in the hand, apparently by buckshot, then wheeled his horse with the rest of his staff, dashing away from the field, yelling to Appler as he passed, “Hold your position, I will support you.”
BECAUSE HE HAD consistently sneered at reports of an enemy attack, Sherman was forced to eat his words. But he admitted, almost in awe: “It was a beautiful and dreadful sight…to see them approach with banners fluttering, bayonets glistening, and lines dressed on the centre.”
Having watched his own orderly shot dead before his eyes (“the fatal bullet,” he said later, “which was meant for me”), Sherman galloped back to his headquarters at the Shiloh church, sounding the alarm to nearby commanders and sending warnings to divisions encamped in the rear, a mile or so north. Sherman later said—in what must be one of the most profound understatements of the war—that as a Confederate battery began shelling his camps, “I…became satisfied for the first time that the enemy designed a determined attack on our whole camp.…Our infantry and artillery opened along the whole line and the battle became general.”
Winston Groom is the author of Forrest Gump, Vicksburg 1863, and Shrouds of Glory, among other books. This story is excerpted from his new book, Shiloh 1862, copyright © 2012 Winston Groom. Published by arrangement with the National Geographic Society.