Riding vigorously along the line as he positioned his regiments, Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston sensed victory. It was early afternoon on April 6, 1862, and the fighting on the first day of the Battle of Shiloh was in its ninth hour. Relentless assaults since dawn by the Army of the Mississippi had met with mounting Union resistance, but a breakthrough for the Rebels seemed inevitable. “Only a few more charges and the day is ours,” Johnston shouted to his men.
The veteran commander, known for his willingness to stay near the front during combat, would not live to see the outcome of the subsequent attack, however. Struck below the right knee by a bullet, possibly a victim of friendly fire, he literally bled to death within an hour. Not only did the Confederate assault peter out about then, but the Union forces soon recovered and rallied to victory the following day.
Johnston’s death is the source of yet another of the war’s what-if speculations. Jefferson Davis considered him the Confederacy’s finest soldier, and had he survived it is quite possible the Confederates could have carried the momentum they were riding to victory on Day 1, before Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio arrived to reinforce the disordered Federals. Would a Southern triumph at Shiloh have curtailed, or even abruptly ended, the military careers of up-and-coming Union heroes Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman? We’ll never know, of course.
The Battle of Shiloh was in itself a turning point in military history. The ferocity of the combat and staggering bloodshed surpassed any previous engagement in American experience, a precursor of the horror soon to come at Antietam and Gettysburg. By nightfall on April 7, there were nearly 23,000 casualties on both sides.
Shiloh was Johnston’s bold stroke to reverse his army’s staggering fortunes in the Western theater. The losses of Forts Henry and Donelson in February and New Madrid in March meant the Rebels had to do something drastic. Following a two-day march from Corinth, Miss., they struck Grant’s unsuspecting Federals as they camped at Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River.
Johnston’s battle plan called for a surprise attack that would roll up the Federal left flank and drive it away from the river. Three corps were positioned in parallel lines, with one corps in reserve, but confusion ensued when units intermingled with other commands as they advanced. The unfamiliar topography of the battleground— an array of deep ravines carved by streams as well as farmers’ fields edged by expanses of trees—added to the breakdown of the attack formations.
Despite their faulty tactical alignment, the Southerners did achieve the initial surprise they had hoped for. Federal units, many still preparing breakfast, broke and fled before the onslaught. A few officers managed to re-form the broken regiments and brigades, and the situation stabilized for the Federals, though rampant bloodshed continued.
The battle would draw its name from the Methodist Episcopal Shiloh Church that lay in the middle of the field. Shiloh was a place of peace in the Bible, a destination for pilgrims, but demonic fury that surrounded the small log building that day. By nightfall, the church was surrounded by human and animal wreckage.
In midafternoon, Johnston rode forward as his army advanced, saying to his officers at one point, “Tonight we will water our horses in the Tennessee River.” He ordered his ranking subordinate, General P.G.T. Beauregard, to remain in the rear and to send in reinforcements and supplies as needed. As usual, Johnston stayed near the front, deploying units and doing what he could to inspire his men. The bullet holes later found in his uniform testified to his presence so close to the combat.
Early in the afternoon, Johnston moved to the army’s right flank, where he hoped to launch the final assault that would achieve victory. He didn’t realize at first that he had been shot, but minutes later he was reeling in his saddle. An aide noticed blood dripping from his boot.
Johnston was carried into a ravine. As one officer hurried to find a surgeon, others searched for the wound, which was hidden by the top of his boot. A tourniquet might well have saved his life. The general died within 30 minutes, and to conceal his identity from the troops, tearful staff officers wrapped his body in a blanket and carried it to the rear.
The battle continued for another four hours on the first day. The Confederates pressed their foes into a final defensive position, but the Federals held firm. The assault on the Union left slowed after Johnston fell with his mortal wound. The following morning, with Buell’s reinforcements on the field, General Grant undertook a counterattack that retrieved the lost ground and drove the Southerners from the battlefield.
While he mourned Johnston’s loss, Jefferson Davis also realized that a big opportunity had been lost at Shiloh. It was “the turning point of our fate” in the West, he would later say.
Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.