TIME MACHINE: Battle of Shiloh


This month marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh. It was fought between April 6-7, 1862; around Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee. It was one of the first major battles in the Western Theater of the U.S. Civil War. 

In southwestern Tennessee, the Union Army under Major-General Ulysses S. Grant had found his command camped at Pittsburg Landing, on the west bank of the Tennessee River. Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston wanted to launch surprise attack on Grant‘s forces and destroy it. Johnston’s second-in-command, Pierre G. T. Beauregardadvised against such an attack, fearing that the sounds of Confederate soldiers marching and test-firing their rifles after two days of rain had cost them the element of surprise. Johnston refused to accept Beauregard’s advice and told him that he would “attack them if they were a million”. Despite General Beauregard’s well-founded concern, the Union forces did not hear the sounds of the marching army in its approach and remained blissfully unaware of the enemy camped three miles away.

In the early morning of April 6, 1862; Johnston’s Confederate forces launched a surprise attack on Grant’s forces at Pittsburg Landing. The Confederates achieved considerable success on the first day, due to the Union Army’s state of unpreparedness for an attack. The assault was very fierce and some of the numerous inexperienced Union soldiers of Grant’s army fled for safety to the Tennessee River. Others fought well but were forced to withdraw under strong pressure and attempted to form new defensive lines. Many regiments disintegrated. The companies and sections that remained on the field attached themselves to other commands.  General William T. Sherman, who had been so negligent in preparation for the battle, became an important rallying figure for Union troops. He appeared everywhere along his lines, inspiring his raw recruits to resist the initial assaults, despite staggering losses on both side. His division bore the brunt of the initial attack, and despite heavy fire on their position and their right flank crumbling, they fought on stubbornly. The Union troops slowly lost ground and fell back to a position behind Shiloh Church.

Although the Confederates seemed to be emerging as victors of the battle, a minor mishap and Grant’s stubborn refusal to crumble under in defeat, led to an eventual victory for the Union. Around 2:30 p.m., General Johnston was leading a charge against a Union camp near a peach orchard, when he took a bullet behind his right knee. Johnston did not believe the wound was serious at the time and instead, sent his personal physician to tend some captured wounded Union soldiers. Although he did not feel anything, the bullet (possibly fired by friendly fire) had in fact clipped a part of his popliteal artery. Within minutes, his boot filled up with blood and Johnston’s staff saw that he was on the verge of fainting. It did not take long before he finally died and command of the Confederate forces fell upon General Beauregard.

General Grant was about ten miles down river at Savannah, Tennessee, that morning. On April 4, he had been injured when his horse fell and pinned him underneath. He was convalescing and unable to move without crutches. Grant heard the sound of artillery fire and raced to the battlefield by boat, arriving about 8:30 a.m. He worked frantically to bring up reinforcements that seemed near enough to arrive swiftly, which included Lew Wallace‘s division from Crump’s Landing. However, he would wait almost all day before the reinforcements arrived. Wallace’s slow movement to the battlefield became particularly controversial. Several factors saved the Union forces on April 6. One, their forces under General Benjamin Prentiss managed to hold back a Confederate frontal assault for seven hours at a place called the Hornet’s Nest. Two, Grant kept his cool and did not cave in to the possibility that his army might be destroyed. But more importantly Beauregard failed to take advantage of the Union’s exposed flanks as they pulled back toward Pittsburg Landing, and continued focusing his troops at the Hornet’s Nest.

Worse luck for the Confederate Army appeared at Pittsburg Landing on the evening of April 6. Reinforcements underGeneral Don Carlos Buell arrived. Beauregard had been forewarned at the possibility of Buell’s arrival, but he decided to accept the report that the Union commander was on his way to Decatur, Alabama. By the morning of April 7, Beauregard had no idea that his forces were outnumbered by both Grant and Buell’s forces. As he prepared to finish Grant by the banks of the Tennessee River, Beauregard and his men found themselves surprised by a strong counterattack by the Union Army.

Beauregard launched a series of counterattacks from the Shiloh Church area by the early afternoon, hoping to ensure control of the Corinth Road. Although the Union Army’s right was temporarily driven back by these assaults, Union troops seized the road junction of the Hamburg-Purdy and East Corinth Roads, driving the Confederates into Prentiss’s old camps. Beauregard’s final counterattack was flanked and repulsed when Grant moved Colonel James C. Veatch’s brigade forward. Realizing that he had lost the initiative and that he was low on ammunition and food and with over 10,000 of his men no longer in action, Beauregard knew he he was in serious trouble. He withdrew the Confederate forces in an orderly fashion back to Corinth, Mississippi. The exhausted Union soldiers did not pursue much past the original Sherman and Prentiss encampments.

By the late afternoon of April 7, the battle had ended. Long afterwards, Grant and Buell quarreled over Grant’s decision not to mount an immediate pursuit with another hour of daylight remaining. Grant cited the exhaustion of his troops, although the Confederates were certainly just as exhausted. Part of Grant’s reluctance to act could have been the unusual command relationship he had with Buell. Although Grant was the senior officer and technically was in command of the overall Union forces in that part of the Western theater, Buell made it quite clear throughout the two days that he had been acting independently.

Newspapers vilified Grant for allowing his army to be caught offguard on the morning of April 6. Journalists began spreading the false rumor that he had been drunk during the battle. Many credited Buell for taking command of the Union forces on April 7. Sherman was hailed as a hero. Grant’s career suffered a temporary setback when head of all Union forces in the Western theater, General Henry W. Halleck combined and reorganized his armies and demoted Grant to the powerless position of second-in-command. Halleck remained in charge, until he was promoted as general-in-chief of all Union forces and called back to Washington D.C. Beauregard was relieved of command of the Confederates’ Army of Mississippi around late May/early June 1862. Braxton Bragg assumed his old position.

For more details on the Battle of Shiloh, I recommend the following books:

*“Shiloh 1862: The Death of Innocence” by James Arnold

*“Shiloh, 1862” by Winston Groom

*“Shiloh: The Battle That Changed the Civil War” by Larry J. Daniel