The first shots on a peaceful Sunday morning in April 1862 would herald the bloody fight to come—a battle that would shatter any remaining illusions of a quick and painless war.
For as long as there have been wars and armies, soldiers have grumbled over the prospect of early-morning patrols. On a quiet Sunday morning 145 years ago, the men of the 25th Missouri and the 12th Michigan were no exception. Routed from their slumber sometime after midnight on April 6, 1862, the Federal troops stumbled around gathering up their guns, cartridge belts and overcoats, and wadding up their blankets before falling into formation. Some of them must have wondered who had ordered a patrol at this hour. Surely it was some officer worried about the Rebels. As usual, it was the enlisted men who would suffer the consequences.
The worried officer was Colonel Everett Peabody of the 25th Missouri. Disturbed by events of the previous day, Peabody decided some kind of large-scale reconnaissance was an absolute necessity. Just after 12 a.m., scouts from the 25th, led by Major James Powell, located a party of Confederate troops several miles from the Union army camped at Pittsburg Landing. Returning from the scout, Major Powell reported the Confederates’ presence to Peabody, who decided to send Powell back with a large enough detachment to ascertain exactly what the Southerners were up to and how many there were.
Around 3 a.m. three companies from the 25th Missouri (B, led by Captain Joseph Schmitz; E, by Captain Simon F. Evans; and H, by Captain Hamilton Dill), plus a detachment from the 12th Michigan Infantry, pulled out of their encampments and headed out along a farm road that led into the main Corinth–Pittsburg Landing Road. The patrol was Peabody’s own responsibility, and as the men slipped away into the distance down the road, the colonel remarked to an aide that he would not live to see the result of it. He was nearly right—in less than four hours he lay on the battlefield with a bullet through his head.
The night was balmy and perfectly still. The soldiers had only the pale light of the moon and some faint stars to guide them down the well-worn wagon road. Stumbling in the wagon ruts, and occasionally sinking into the thick layers of Tennessee mud on the road’s surface, the 200 Union volunteers filed slowly in the direction of the state line, unaware of their impending rendezvous with destiny.
Progress was slow and halting, with the men frequently muttering curses after being bumped by the musket barrels of their comrades. Frequently the unlucky troopers straggled off the road into the darkness or got bogged down in the mud. Once a party of Michiganders became confused and almost shot up comrades from the 25th Missouri, mistaking them for Confederates. Thick clusters of trees along the farm road added to the murky darkness, shutting out what little light there was from the heavens above. Passing just beyond the edge of the Rhea Field, Major Powell met Captain A.W. McCormick of the 77th Ohio, who was commanding Colonel Jesse Hildebrand’s advance picket post. Telling McCormick of his orders, Powell quickly directed his men to resume their march, heading on up the road. After more than an hour of marching and cursing, the patrol had moved less than two miles.
In homes across America, in the strange semi-light that prevailed in the dawn, there occurred the first gradual stirrings of Sunday morning. Housewives were up making breakfasts of gruel or oatmeal, while teenage sons and daughters milked the cows or took care of other household chores in preparation for dressing and making the long trip to Sunday morning church services. But along the farm road that led into the main Corinth–Pittsburg Road, no one was thinking of church or singing hymns. There were no sounds of pots and pans or the gentle lowing of cattle, just the tramp, tramp, slosh, slosh of men marching.
In the misty morning light, the advance of Major Powell’s reconnaissance force suddenly stumbled upon a Confederate outpost. A shot rang out, then a second and still a third—as the men of R.H. Brewer’s Alabama cavalry suddenly realized that the Yankees were upon them. The Battle of Shiloh had begun.
Scrambling to their horses, the Alabamans quickly galloped away in the direction of Major A.B. Hardcastle’s 3rd Mississippi Battalion, then on picket duty. To the advancing Federals, the Alabamans appeared as ghostlike horsemen moving mysteriously through the trees, a poor target along a musket sight.
Quickly forming in skirmish lines, the Michiganders and Missourians began firing as they moved forward. Some of the Federals took cover behind trees, sending heavy rifle balls and slugs crashing into the underbrush after the fleeing cavalrymen. In a matter of seconds, the first action was over with no casualties, and indeed without most of the men even seeing an enemy. Moments later the Union forces were again advancing, this time straight toward the waiting Mississippians.
Now deployed lengthwise over the road and in the surrounding Fraley Field, the Federals continued their somewhat stumbling advance—cautious, apprehensive, determined not to be surprised. A sudden volley of gunfire rang out as the Yankees approached within 100 yards of Lieutenant F.W. Hammock’s seven-man outpost. The Mississippians fired only one volley before falling back on the main body of the battalion; then came a second sharp volley, as Lieutenant William M. McCulty’s men joined in the fray. The firing was not very accurate due to poor visibility and the Mississippians’ relative inexperience.
Stealthily moving forward, the cautious Yanks finally collided with the main body of the Confederate advance guard. With a tremendous roar, Major Hardcastle’s battalion unleashed a thunderous but highly inaccurate volley in the general direction of the advancing Federals.
Confederate Lieutenant Colonel J.F. Gilmer, General Albert Sidney Johnston’s chief artillery officer, and a small cavalry escort suddenly found themselves caught up in the hazy gunfight while reconnoitering ahead of the main body to locate suitable artillery positions. Private Thomas Duncan of the escort watched a young Mississippian go down with his throat ripped open by a musket ball from Major Powell’s patrol. Then a piece of wood, torn loose by a rifle slug, caught Duncan in the left eye while a bullet gouged his saber blade. Scurrying back to cover, Duncan, Gilmer and the rest of their group escaped further injury.
At 200 yards’ range, the Yankees and Rebels continued trading tremendous volleys of enthusiastic but poorly aimed gunfire as the sun slowly climbed over the horizon. For some time the soldiers fought it out, an occasional man dropping after he exposed himself to danger from behind a tree or fence post. The engagement rocked back and forth, with the Mississippians advancing a little and then falling back. After about an hour of sporadic firing, the Federals decided enough was enough and began slowly pulling back. The continuous firing of nearly 500 men had actually produced less than 30 casualties—a pittance compared with the carnage that would occur later on this grim day, but it was a start.
Johnston and his staff were just sitting down to a breakfast of cold biscuits and coffee when the sounds of the Hardcastle–Powell fracas reached their ears. “There,” said Colonel William Preston, “the first gun of the battle.” The command to advance was given, but relaying the order to the various brigades required many precious minutes. Johnston briefly chatted with the still unenthusiastic P.G.T. Beauregard, explaining to the general that he planned to accompany the forward line of advance. Johnston requested that Beauregard manage things in the rear. Mounting his horse, Fireeater, Johnston set his spurs and rode forward toward the steadily increasing sound of gunfire.
Several times Johnston paused in the saddle to give friendly admonitions to the slowly advancing Confederates. To one of his officers, an old acquaintance from the Mormon campaign back in Utah, Johnston remarked, “My son, we must this day conquer or perish.” Perhaps the general’s mind wandered for a second or two, dwelling on the beauty of the early Sunday morning, with the trees beginning to bud and the faint delicate fragrance of the peach blossoms wafting across the field.
On the left side of the Corinth–Pittsburg Road, Confederate Brig. Gen. Sterling Wood’s Third Brigade moved forward obediently to the attack order. Wood also sent Captain William Clare to tell Major Hardcastle to hold his position along the road until the brigade could move up in support. It was about 6:30 a.m. before the brigade reached the position of the first big skirmish.
The muddy and excited Mississippians were ordered back into line, and the 8th Arkansas Infantry and 9th Arkansas Infantry Battalion were ordered forward to take their place as skirmishers. His new dispositions completed, Wood again ordered his brigade to advance, as Colonel R.G. Shaver, acting commander of the First Brigade, moved up on his right.
Pickets from the 16th Wisconsin watched as Major Powell’s pre-dawn patrol passed their post. Just after dawn sounds of gunfire caused the officer of the day to direct the pickets to fall back on the reserves. Within minutes the 16th’s Company A was completely assembled and moving on the road toward the sound of firing.
At his headquarters, reports of the firing induced Brig. Gen. Benjamin M. Prentiss of the 6th Division to order his men to stand by. A little after 6 a.m. a courier reached the commander with word of Powell’s repulse. Prentiss immediately ordered Colonel Peabody to reinforce the beleaguered Powell, and soon Colonel David Moore was moving forward with five companies of the 21st Missouri. The Missourians double-quicked it up the road, their bayonets and cartridge boxes wildly rattling.
Spying the lone Wisconsin company, Moore told its members, “You can fall in on the right or on the left of my regiment.” The Badger State company’s commander, Captain Edward Saxe, pulled off his uniform coat, threw it on the ground in the mud, and then yelled, “Boys, we will fall in on the right; we will head them out.”
Near the Seay cotton field, Moore ran into Powell and the remnants of his force, including a good number of wounded, and the colonel called Powell’s men cowards for retreating. Major Powell and his soldiers attempted to warn the gallant but somewhat overly enthusiastic colonel to be cautious, but with limited effect. Ordering those of Powell’s group who were not actually carrying wounded comrades to join up with his command, Moore, with his collection of bits and pieces of regiments, soon moved forward in the direction of the advancing Confederates. He did take the precaution of sending Lieutenant Henry Menn to tell Lt. Col. Humphrey Woodyard to bring up the remaining five companies of the regiment and join him on the road.
According to Brig. Gen. Prentiss, Moore sent a courier saying that he had found Johnston’s army, indicating, “If you will send the balance of my regiment to me, by thunder, I will lick them.”
As soon as Woodyard, with Prentiss’ permission, arrived with the five additional companies, Moore again moved forward, but before he had gone even a quarter of a mile he found the advance elements of Johnston’s force.
Moving in columns of fours, Colonel Moore’s bluecoats had reached the northwest corner of the Seay Field when suddenly the Confederates poured heavy fire into them. Captain Saxe and several others were killed during the first volley. Moore’s right leg was shattered by a musket ball, and he was forced to leave the field. Woodyard assumed command and deployed his men in line of battle across the brow of a slight rise in the cotton field, facing west against the fast-shooting Southerners.
For perhaps an hour Woodyard’s men engaged in a sharp firefight. Discovering that the Confederates were trying to turn his right flank, he pulled his men back into the woods north of the cotton field. The pressure was heavy, but help from three companies of the 16th Wisconsin was on the way. Somehow Captain George H. Fox of Company B discovered the seriousness of the situation and went dashing into the camp area shouting, “Company A is fighting, and we must go and help them.” The company commanders soon reported to Woodyard, who directed them to take a new position east of the field and then gradually retired on it with the rest of his men. The new position was on a slight rise that gave the Federals a little protection from enemy gunfire. Within minutes, however, the Northerners were forced to avoid being outflanked.
In the brigade’s reserve area the remaining men of the 12th Michigan and 25th Missouri were fully equipped and drawn up in formation, ready to advance. More wounded were coming into the area as Prentiss came riding up to Peabody. Prentiss sharply reined in his horse, and with deep emotion exclaimed, “Colonel Peabody, I will hold you personally responsible for bringing on this engagement,” to which, with severe dignity and ill-concealed contempt, Peabody answered, “I am personally responsible for all my official acts.”
The brigade was immediately deployed just south of the Rhea Field. The soldiers could hear gunfire from the woods in front and soon observed blue-coated men slowly moving toward them, firing as they’re treated. It was Colonel Woodyard and his men making a fighting retreat on the brigade. Peabody and the other officers soon had the new arrivals unscrambled and arranged in a line of battle.
A little after 7:30 a.m. sharp skirmishing broke out, followed by a series of rather disorganized charges by the men of Wood’s and Shaver’s brigades. Although the firing was rapidly picking up, only Peabody’s brigade was under heavy attack thus far. Was this simply a Confederate reconnaissance in force—an attempt to feel out the strength and position of the Union army—or was it an all-out attack? At this early hour, who could say?
There is no record that Peabody’s men picked up any prisoners in these early actions, and the men’s view of the battle was simply that of the enemy in their front. It is doubtful Peabody ever realized what he had accomplished, for shortly after that he was dead on the field. But by his action in sending Major Powell’s pre-dawn patrol, and by subsequently bringing on the engagement with Brig. Gen. Thomas C. Hindman’s command, he had deprived the Confederates of complete tactical surprise and had given thousands of Union soldiers precious minutes to grab their rifles and assemble with their regiments.
Where was the Union army’s commander, the man whose job it was to evaluate the significance of Colonel Peabody’s action? Major General Ulysses S. Grant was on the way, stepping ashore at Pittsburg Landing a little after Peabody’s entire brigade was committed. His ankle was still painfully swollen after he fell from his horse on April 4, and the general probably spent a restless night upstairs in his ornate but comfortable bed at the William Cherry House in Savannah, Tenn.
A little after dawn Grant hobbled downstairs on his crutches to find that his trusted aide, Captain John A. Rawlins, had already collected and opened the day’s mail. Awakened before dawn by an orderly, Rawlins had also started closing headquarters at the house in preparation for the move to Pittsburg Landing as soon as Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell arrived. Grant took the letters that dealt with routine matters, and began browsing through them while awaiting word that breakfast was ready.
Brigadier General John Cook, just back from leave, wandered in to have breakfast and began chatting with Grant. At about 6 a.m. an orderly announced that the food was ready, and soon the dining room crackled with the sounds of hungry officers eating. Then another orderly, Private Edward N. Trembly, came in and reported that there was firing up the river. Coffee cups and forks were quickly pushed back on the table as Grant quietly spoke. “Gentlemen,” he said, “the ball is in motion. Let’s be off.”
The tardy Grant, steaming aboard Tigress toward the rapidly increasing sounds of gunfire, directed the steamer’s captain to pull in at Crump’s Landing next to the headquarters boat of Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace. The 3rd Division’s commander was on deck waiting when Tigress pulled alongside, and Grant simply leaned over the railing and shouted across. His orders were to hold the division in instant readiness to move and to send patrols out to ascertain whether Johnston was also moving on Crump’s Landing.
It was now about 8 a.m. or a little after, and the landing was still a comparatively serene spot. Some stragglers were beginning to come in with their tales of disaster, but for the most part the men standing near the landing were on guard duty or were members of regiments waiting for orders to move up. What thoughts ran through Grant’s mind this early in the morning with the situation in such a state of flux? Did he worry about how badly scattered his divisions were, and if there was still time to pull them together into some sort of stable battle line? Did he admit in his own mind that he and his entire army had been taken by surprise and were badly off-balance, and that this early morning’s work was clearly unexpected?
Grant’s ambiguous attitude on the subject of surprise was revealed in a letter he wrote that appeared in the New York Herald less than four weeks after the battle. Having criticized some of his officers for cowardice, Grant proclaimed: “As to the talk about a surprise here, nothing could be more false. If the enemy had sent word when and how they would attack we could not have been better prepared.” But later in that same letter Grant candidly announced that he “did not believe, however, that they intended to make a determined attack, but were simply making reconnaissance in force.”
Grant’s close friend, Brig. Gen. William T. Sherman—whose feelings for his superior may be best illustrated by the remark, “I stood by him when he was drunk and he stood by me when I was crazy”—was even more bitter on the question of surprise. Writing to his brother John, a U.S. senator, he claimed the charges of surprise were “all simply false.” He went on to say, “We knew the enemy was in our front, but in what form could not tell, and I was always ready for an attack.” In another letter to his brother, written two weeks later, Sherman passionately denied that his division was surprised, but he ended with, “I confess I did not think Beauregard would abandon his railroad to attack us on our base.” In a third letter to John, “Cump” explained that “we all knew the enemy was on our front, but we had to guess at his purpose.”
In his autobiography, Lew Wallace noted that the Union army was taken by surprise that day. He was not on the scene when the fighting began, although he was in a good position to find out what had transpired.
Although senior officers Grant and Sherman were naturally reluctant to admit surprise, many of the lower ranks possessed no hesitation in expressing themselves. To William H. Chamberlain of the 81st Ohio, the Union army was “entirely ignorant of the presence of an enemy” until the firing actually began.
In a letter to a friend, Private John Ruckman candidly declared: “[o]n last Sunday morning the rebels attacked us and took us on surprise and such a time I never heard of before. We were unprepared to meet them. We were not expecting them.” Lieutenant Payson Shumway recorded in his diary that the attack was not expected and that “surprise was never more complete.”
The 15th Illinois heard picket firing at dawn but ignored it and was taken by surprise, while musician John Cockerill of the 24th Ohio first realized the battle was in progress when he heard heavy artillery fire.
Peter Dobbins of the 13th Iowa discovered the battle while taking a “refreshing walk and washing off in a branch not far from the camp.” Before his ablutions were finished, Dobbins said, he “herd firing in the front but I supposed it was gards firing there guns off so I did not mind it any but in a short time I was summoned by the long roll which told very plane what was up.”
Dobbins was not the only innocent who mistook the sounds of Peabody’s guns. Many of the soldiers, hearing the noise from Peabody’s brigade, assumed it was merely a skirmish of pickets, or Federal soldiers indulging in a little target practice. Private William Harvey of the 57th Illinois aptly put it this way: “It [light skirmish fire] was not very much of a surprise.”
Surprised or not, Grant found himself with the makings of a first-class disaster on his hands. At Belmont and Fort Donelson he had fought his way out of bad situations. The next few hours would show whether he could repeat that feat on this violent Sunday morning.
Grant did indeed repeat his feat. He would emerge triumphant, if not beloved, at Shiloh, and would go on to lead the Federal armies to victory in the war. Much had changed at Shiloh, however, beginning with those first shots on that beautiful April morning. Hundreds lay dead and dying, and countless thousands who survived their wounds, as well as their doctors, would forever carry the terrible effects with them. Likewise, the military situation was altered, with the Federals firmly holding onto their foothold in the Confederate heartland. It would be only a matter of time before the South was conquered.
But the most important change occurred with the American people themselves. Earlier believing, on both sides, that this would be a short war with only one battle, Americans became convinced after Shiloh that the situation had gotten out of control. This war would not be a flash of adventure, but rather an agonizing, cruel war to the death. In that respect, America lost her innocence on that morning in Tennessee. If every Southern boy, as William Faulkner has argued, can look to the moment immediately before Pickett’s Charge as a time when the South still had a chance of victory, then all of America can similarly look to those early morning hours immediately before daylight on April 6, 1862, as a time when we were still an innocent people. At Shiloh the war turned awful, and we are still feeling the results today. Perhaps one Southern newspaper journalist spoke volumes when he remarked, “The South never smiled again after Shiloh.” The same could be said of their Northern brethren.
The following article is adapted from Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862, written by the late O. Edward Cunningham in 1966 and soon to be published for the first time by Savas Beatie LLC.
Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.