Two of the greatest Confederate generals in early 1862, Albert Sidney Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard, rendezvoused in Corinth, Mississippi with a combined 42,000 men.[i] The city not only could serve as an origin point of a campaign into nearby Tennessee; it also was the meeting point for the Confederacy’s “main north-south and east-west railroads.”[ii] Given Corinth’s importance, Henry Halleck ordered Ulysses S. Grant to march his men to Pittsburg Landing, wait for his fellow general Don Carlos Buell to arrive with his army, and then move on Corinth as a combined force numbering approximately 75,000.[iii]
Beauregard, aware that the Union men were gathering, sought to attack on April 4, 1862 with his four corps.[iv] Although he had reason to be optimistic that he could assault Grant’s men by surprise, he also knew that many of his troops and staff officers had scarcely made a march of this duration and length and that an even lesser portion had combat experience.[v] The weather further complicated the march: with rain showers falling, supply wagons and artillery became more burdensome, and a two-day delay was inevitable for the Confederate attack.[vi] Alongside the roads the Confederates traveled were “discarded equipment, overcoats and playing cards, bowie knives and Bibles.”[vii]
Grant had set up headquarters approximately nine miles downriver of Pittsburg Landing, and Buell with a fraction of his divisions joined Grant at headquarters.[viii] They, along with recently returned division commander William Tecumseh Sherman, saw Johnston and Beauregard’s forces as so weak that “Corinth will fall much more easily than Donelson did when we do move. All accounts agree in saying that the great mass of the rank and file are heartily tired.”[ix] When a Union man reported hearing noise to the south indicating a potential buildup of Confederates, Sherman responded, “I do not apprehend anything like an attack on our position,” and later said, “Beauregard is not such a fool as to leave his base of operations and attack us in ours.”[x] On the Confederate side, much to the consternation of Beauregard, as the soldiers marched they grew concerned about the dampness of the gunpowder and tested that dampness by firing rounds within earshot of Union camps.[xi] Then, with the rain showers having given way to sunshine, the men “began to tune up their rebel yells and practice marksmanship on birds and rabbits.”[xii] As the evening of April 5 became night and the Union men prepared to sleep, many could have been justified in feeling that an attack was imminent.
The following morning, as the Union men took their breakfast of sweet coffee and white bread, any hope of a serene spring day was extinguished as thousands of Confederate men dashed out of the woods near Shiloh church and into the Union camps.[xiii] For the next twelve hours, the roar of musketry filled the air, as lines of men in blue and gray tried to break through each other. Sherman had the unenviable task of managing his raw recruits, made even more difficult by taking two shots during the battle–neither of which particularly seemed to bother him–as well as having three horses shot from beneath him throughout the day.[xiv] On both sides, many of the greenest soldiers could not tolerate the shock of “seeing the elephant” and fled to the rear.[xv] Grant, arriving at the battlefield a couple hours after the fight began, anticipated the re being stragglers and formed a line at the rear for stragglers and artillery to gather should the rebels have achieved a breakthrough of Union lines.[xvi] The Confederate advance slowed as the day progressed for hundreds if not thousands of Confederate men, when coming upon the Union camps, could not resist gorging on their opponents’ breakfasts.[xvii]
During a Confederate charge through a blooming peach orchard led by Johnston, a minié ball fired into Johnston’s leg and pierced his femoral artery, causing severe bleeding.[xviii] When Governor Isham Harris of Tennessee saw him visibly shaken while still in the saddle, he asked whether the general was hurt, and Johnston responded: “Yes, and I fear seriously.”[xix] A group of men, none of which were capable of applying a tourniquet and halting the bleeding, brought Johnston to a ravine and laid him under a tree.[xx] Out of sight from his troops, Johnston succumbed to his wound and died.[xxi]
Throughout the day, Grant had to maintain a defensive posture as he was waiting for General Lew Wallace’s division, which had gotten lost en route to the battlefield, as well as the bulk of Buell’s men; the sum of both groups being 25,000 fresh soldiers.[xxii] When Grant made his way by horseback to the Union line, one Illinois private noted that “Grant rode through the storm [of Confederate fire] with perfect indifference, seemingly paying no more attention to the missiles than if they had been paper wads.”[xxiii] Despite the fact that Beauregard and Johnston had surprised Grant, the Union general was not going to remain defensive. At the end of the day and after the fighting had stopped, when one of Grant’s officers advised retreating before the Confederates renewed the attack in the morning, Grant replied, “Retreat? No. I propose to attack at daylight and whip them.”[xxiv]
It was true that after the day of fighting the Confederates had pushed the Union men north and forced them to take a defensive position. Beauregard saw the next day as an opportunity push further still and increase the magnitude of the victory. With dusk came thunderstorms, and amidst the rain, lightning, and thunder was a steady barrage of Union gunboat shells into Confederate camps.[xxv] The fighting on the first day left 2,000 dead, scattered on the battlefield, and 10,000 wounded.[xxvi] One Union officer wrote that his men “were as weary in the morning as they had been the evening before.”[xxvii]
Daybreak brought a new sight to the battle: a concentrated Union attack on Confederate lines. While the rain had stopped, soldiers on both sides were subjected to renewing the fight but this time in an even more ghastly environment, as recorded by one Union soldier:
“Many had died there, and others were in the last agonies as we passed. Their groans and cries were heart-rending. . . . The gory corpses lying all about us, in every imaginable attitude, and slain by an inconceivable variety of wounds, were shocking to behold.”[xxviii]
Nonetheless, with the benefit of fresh reinforcements and the hope for redemption in light of the previous day’s reverses, the Union men brought wave after wave of attack on Confederate lines. By the midafternoon of April 7, the Union men pushed the Confederates back to their original position, achieving a full reversal of Confederate gains and deflating Beauregard and his officers’ hopes for a total victory.[xxix] When Beauregard’s chief of staff commended the Confederate effort but suggested a retreat so as to preserve their chance to fight another day, Beauregard agreed and ordered a retreat.[xxx] Just as the Confederates ceded the battlefield, Union surgeons and medics stormed the field to answer the cries of “mangled soldiers from both armies.”[xxxi]
Sherman and his men pursued the retreating Confederates and made it four miles toward Corinth before Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and his cavalry emerged.[xxxii] When Forrest saw the Union men, he screamed, “Charge!” and plowed into the Union crowd; however, his cohorts did not possess the same level of courage and stayed back.[xxxiii] The Union men called out to knock Forrest off his horse and kill him, but Forrest had already planned his escape: he grabbed one of the soldiers and pulled him onto Forrest’s horse, using him as a shield as his horse galloped away.[xxxiv] Then, once Forrest had cleared the range that a Union gun could reach, he threw the soldier onto the ground and rode off over the ridge and out of danger.[xxxv]
With a total of approximately 20,000 Confederate and Union men killed or wounded in the battle, those who witnessed the carnage and its aftermath were left traumatized.[xxxvi] Sherman, far from a sensitive man, wrote of the scene containing “piles of dead soldiers’ mangled bodies . . . without heads and legs. . . . The scenes on this field would have cured anybody of war.”[xxxvii] Rather than serve as a crest in the numbers killed or wounded in battle, the Battle of Shiloh was foreshadowing the brand of warfare that many began to see as necessary for victory. On the Confederate side, what was initially greeted as a victory was replaced with characterizing the battle as a valiant but costly effort for Confederate President Jefferson Davis later wrote of Johnston’s death: “When he fell, I realized that our strongest pillar had been broken.”[xxxviii]
[i] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 406.
[vi] Id. at 407.
[vii] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. I, 327.
[viii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 407.
[ix] Id. at 407-08 quoting Grant to Halleck, March 21, 1862, War of the Rebellion . . . Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Ser. I, Vol. 10, pt. 2, 55.
[x] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 408 quoting War of the Rebellion . . . Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Ser. I, Vol. 10, pt. 2, 94.
[xi] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. I, 328.
[xiii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 408.
[xiv] Id. at 409; see also Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. I, 336-37.
[xv] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 409.
[xvii] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. I, 337.
[xviii] Id. at 339.
[xx] Id. at 339-40.
[xxi] Id. at 340.
[xxii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 410.
[xxiii] Henry Steele Commager, The Blue and the Gray, Vol. I, 363.
[xxiv] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 410 quoting Bruce Catton, Grant Moves South (Boston, 1960), 241.
[xxv] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 412.
[xxvii] Id. quoting James Lee McDonough, Shiloh–In Hell before Night (Knoxville, 1977), 188.
[xxviii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 412-13 quoting James Lee McDonough, Shiloh–In Hell before Night (Knoxville, 1977), 204.
[xxix] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 413.
[xxxi] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. I, 349.
[xxxii] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 413.
[xxxiii] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. I, 349.
[xxxiv] Id. at 350.
[xxxv] See id.
[xxxvi] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 413.
[xxxvii] Id. quoting James Lee McDonough, Shiloh–In Hell before Night (Knoxville, 1977), 222-23.
[xxxviii] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. I, 351.