Description: The Battle of Shiloh, also known as the Battle of Pittsburg Landing, was a major battle in the American Civil War, fought April 6–7, 1862, in southwestern Tennessee.
After the loss of Forts Henry and Donelson in February, 1862, Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston withdrew his forces into west Tennessee, northern Mississippi, and Alabama to reorganize. In early March, Union Major General Henry W. Halleck, commander of the western theater, responded by ordering Major General Ulysses S. Grant to advance his Army of West Tennessee on an invasion up the Tennessee River.
Grant occupied Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, awaiting the arrival of Major General Don Carlos Buell's Army of the Ohio from Nashville. His orders from Halleck were to link up with Buell and advance south in a joint offensive to seize the Memphis & Charleston Railroad, a vital supply line between the Mississippi Valley, Memphis, and Richmond. Grant developed a reputation during the war for being more concerned with his own plans than with those of the enemy. His encampment at Pittsburg Landing displayed his most consequential lack of such concern—his army was spread out in bivouac style, many around the Shiloh Church, spending time waiting for Buell with drills, without entrenchments or other awareness of defensive measures.
Johnston named his scattered forces the Army of the Mississippi. He concentrated almost 55,000 men around Corinth, Mississippi, about 20 miles southwest of Grant's position. On April 3, Johnston departed from Corinth with about 44,000 men, hoping to surprise Grant before Buell arrived to join forces. The plan was to attack Grant's left and separate the Union army from its gunboat support (and avenue of retreat) on the Tennessee River, driving it west into the swamps of Snake and Owl Creeks, where it could be destroyed.
Johnston's attack on Grant was originally planned for April 4, but the advance was delayed 48 hours. As a result, his second in command, General P.G.T. Beauregard, feared that the element of surprise had been lost and recommended withdrawing to Corinth. But Johnston refused to consider retreat.
At 6:00 a.m. on April 6, 1862, Johnston's army was deployed for battle, straddling the Corinth Road. In fact, the army had spent the entire night bivouacking undetected in order of battle just two miles away from the Union camps. His approach and dawn assault achieved almost total strategic and tactical surprise. The Union army had virtually no patrols in place for early warning. Grant telegraphed to Halleck on the night of the 5th, "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." Unfortunately for Grant, his preparedness was greatly overstated. Major General William T. Sherman, Grant's senior commander in the encampment, refused to believe that the Confederates were anywhere nearby; he discounted any possibility of an attack from the south, expecting that Johnston would eventually attack from the direction of Purdy, Tennessee, to the west. Sherman should have known something was up. Early that morning Major General Benjamin Prentiss had sent forward part of the 25th Missouri Infantry on a reconnaissance, and they became engaged with Confederate outposts at 5:15 a.m. The spirited fight that ensued did help a little to get Union troops better positioned, but the command of the Union army was figuratively asleep that morning.
Faulty planning on Johnston's part reduced the effectiveness of the attack. There were insufficient forces on the Confederate right to roll up the Union from that direction as planned. The corps of William J. Hardee and Braxton Bragg began the assault with their divisions in one long line. As these units advanced, they became intermingled and difficult to control. Corps commanders attacked in line without reserves. Beauregard, serving in the rear as second in command, ordered the corps of Leonidas Polk and John C. Breckenridge forward on the left and right of the line, diluting their effectiveness. The attack turned into a simple, but massive, frontal assault, with insufficient mass to break through.
The assault was nevertheless ferocious, and in its face, some of the many inexperienced Union soldiers of Grant's new 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. Major General John A. McClernand's division temporarily stabilized the position. Overall, however, Johnston's forces made steady progress until noon, rolling up Union positions one by one.
General Grant himself was downriver about ten miles on a gunboat at Savannah, Tennessee, that morning. He heard the sound of artillery fire and raced to the battlefield, arriving about 8:30 a.m. He worked frantically to bring up reinforcements that were nearby: Brigadier General William Nelson's division from across the river at the Landing; Lew Wallace's division from Savannah. These reserves did not arrive hastily however, due (perhaps) to decisions Wallace made.
Wallace's group had been left as reserves at a place called Stoney Lonesome to the rear of the Union line. Almost immediately after the appearance of the Confederates, Grant sent orders for Wallace to move his unit up to support Sherman, who was being hammered. Wallace later claimed there was ambiguity to Grant's order and he took a route different from the one Grant intended. Wallace arrived at the end of his march only to find that Sherman had been forced back, and was no longer where Wallace thought he was. Moreover, the battle line had moved so far that Wallace now found himself in the rear of the advancing Southern troops.
A messenger arrived with word that Grant was wondering where Wallace was, and why he had not arrived at Pittsburg Landing, where the Union was making its stand. Wallace was confused. He felt sure he could viably launch an attack from where he was and hit the Confederates in the rear. Nevertheless, he decided to turn his troops around and march back to Stoney Lonesome. For some reason, rather than realign his troops so that the rear guard would be in the front, Wallace chose to march the troops in a circle so that the original order was maintained, only facing in the other direction. Wallace marched back to Stoney Lonesome and then to Pittsburg Landing, not arriving at Grant's position until about 7 p.m., at a time when the fighting was practically over. Grant was not pleased.
Buell's army was still too far away to affect the action that morning.
Elsewhere, starting at about 9:00 a.m., about 2,500 men of the Union division commanded by Prentiss established and held a line, nicknamed the Hornet's Nest, on a sunken road. The Confederates charged the position repeatedly, suffering appalling losses, rather than bypassing it, which have been more sensible militarily. The Union forces to the left and right of the Nest were forced back and Prentiss' position became a salient in the line. Coordination along the line was poor and units withdrew based solely on their individual commanders' decisions. Regiments became disorganized and companies disintegrated. However, it was not until the attackers assembled 62 cannons to blast the line that they were able to surround the position and the Hornet's Nest fell after holding for seven hours. A large part of Prentiss' division was captured, but their sacrifice bought time for Grant to establish a final defense line near Pittsburg Landing.
On the Union right flank, resistance was stiff and Johnston's forces bogged down in a savage fight around Shiloh Church. Throughout the day, the Confederates repeatedly assaulted the Union right, which gave ground but did not break.
The Union survivors established a solid front around Pittsburg Landing, including a ring of over 50 cannons, and repulsed the last Confederate charge as dusk ended the first day of fighting. Naval guns from the river assisted the defense. The Confederates' plan had failed; they had pushed Grant to the river, but they had not forced him west into the swamps.
In another setback, Johnston was mortally wounded at about 2:30 p.m. while personally leading attacks on the Union left. He had sent his personal surgeon away to care for troops, and in the doctor's absence, he bled to death from a leg wound that didn't seem serious at first. This was an enormous loss for the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis and many in the army considered Albert Sidney Johnston to be the most effective general they had. (This was two months before Robert E. Lee emerged as the pre-eminent Confederate general.) Beauregard assumed command.
As the exhausted Confederate soldiers bedded down in the abandoned Union camps, Sherman encountered Grant under a tree, sheltering himself from a pouring rain, smoking one of his cigars, considering his losses and planning for the next day. Sherman remarked, "Well, Grant, we've had the devil's own day, haven't we?" Grant looked up. "Yes," he replied, followed by a puff. "Yes. Lick 'em tomorrow, though."
Grant had reason to be optimistic, for Don Carlos Buell's army had arrived that night, in time to turn the tide the next day.
On April 7, 1862, the combined Union armies numbered 55,000 men. Beauregard had planned to continue the attack and drive Grant into the river, unaware that he was now outnumbered. Union forces started attacking at dawn; Grant and Buell launched their attacks separately and coordination occurred only down at the division level. Confederate lines stabilized around 9:00 a.m. By 10:00, the Union attack was occurring in concert along the entire line. The weight of the attack, which included the efforts of 25,000 fresh troops, was too much for the Confederates to withstand.
Realizing that he had lost the initiative, and that he was low on ammunition and food and with 15,000 of his men killed, wounded, or missing, Beauregard knew he could go no further. He withdrew beyond Shiloh Church, using Breckenridge as a covering force, and began marching back to Corinth. The exhausted Union soldiers did not pursue much past their original encampments. The battle was over.
On April 8, Grant sent Sherman south along the Corinth Road in pursuit of the retreating Confederates. Meeting resistance from the cavalry screen under Nathan Bedford Forrest, Sherman abandoned the pursuit.
In late April and May the Union advanced toward Corinth and captured it, while an amphibious force on the Mississippi was destroying the Confederate River Defense Fleet and capturing Memphis. From these bases Grant pushed on down the Mississippi to besiege Vicksburg. After the surrender of Vicksburg and the fall of Port Hudson in the summer of 1863, the Confederacy was cut in half.
The two-day battle of Shiloh, the costliest in U.S. history up to that time, resulted in the defeat of the Confederate army force and frustration of Johnston's plans to prevent the joining of the two Union armies in Tennessee. A total of 23,746 men were killed, wounded, captured, or missing, more than the American casualties of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War combined. The dead included the irreplaceable Albert Sidney Johnston; the highest ranking general on the Union's side killed was W.H.L. Wallace. Both sides were shocked at the carnage. Little did they know that three more years of such bloodshed remained in the war and that eight larger and bloodier battles were yet to come. Grant learned a valuable lesson on preparedness that (mostly) served him well for the rest of the war.