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Battle of Shiloh


“I saw an open field . . . so covered with dead that it would have been possible to walk across the clearing, in any direction, stepping on dead bodies, without a foot touching the ground.” Like so many other Americans, Ulysses S. Grant would never forget the Battle of Shiloh. In the words of the famous Civil War general and U.S. president, “Shiloh was the severest battle fought in the West during the war, and but few in the East equaled it for hard, determined fighting.”

Fought in southwestern Tennessee from April 6-7, 1862, Shiloh, also known as the Battle of Pittsburg Landing, stunned everyone across the North and South alike. Union Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee avoided a potential disaster at Shiloh, beating back a surprise attack launched by a Confederate force of some 40,000 men under General Albert Sidney Johnston. While neither side gained new territory, Grant considered it an unquestionable victory that had averted devastating consequences for the Union. The two-day battle resulted in more than 23,000 casualties across both sides. It was the bloodiest battle in American history up to that time. In his book Grant, author Ron Chernow writes, “Shiloh’s casualties eclipsed the total of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War combined.” Everyone struggled to comprehend the scale of carnage at Shiloh. General Grant once believed that the conflict would be settled after a titanic battle, but after witnessing the combative spirit of his opponents at Shiloh, he knew there would be more bloodbaths, in a long grinding war of attrition.

Major General Ulysses S. Grant. (Photo: Library of Congress)

In early 1862, the Union launched an amphibious campaign to push the Confederates out of middle and western Tennessee, thereby opening a path into the Southern heartland. During operations in February, General Grant scored major victories at Forts Henry and Donelson. After losing important territory in Kentucky and Tennessee, General Johnston gathered the scattered Rebel forces at Corinth in northern Mississippi. Corinth was a vital rail center that if captured, would give the Union total control of the region. Grant’s objective was to take this area of strategic importance. He moved his army of some 42,000 men, planning to rendezvous with General Don Carlos Buell’s 20,000 man strong Army of the Ohio. Johnston knew that he had to act before Grant and Buell could combine their forces. On April 3, Johnston’s troops advanced to confront the Federals, delayed by rains and muddy roads that also slowed down Buell.

General Albert Sidney Johnston. (Photo: Library of Congress)

On the morning of April 6, 1862, some 40,000 Confederate soldiers poured out of the nearby woods and struck the encamped divisions of Union troops occupying ground near Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River. Federal soldiers were not expecting battle; many were still cooking breakfast or engaged in camp duties when they were urgently called to arms. The overpowering Confederate attack drove the unprepared Union forces from their camps and threatened to overwhelm General Grant’s entire army. Grant was surprised when he heard firing upriver from his headquarters at the Cherry mansion in Savannah. He rushed to the battlefield by steamboat and upon his arrival at about 9 a.m., found his army in a desperate situation. Grant urged his commanders to hold on, hoping that reinforcements weren’t far away. Many soldiers across both sides had never experienced battle before. Now, they quickly found themselves in the most intense struggle of their lives.

Despite the strength of the Confederate attack, some Union troops made determined stands. By afternoon, the Federals had established a battle line at a sunken road, known as the “Hornet’s Nest.” The Rebels launched repeated assaults against the Hornet’s Nest, which featured some of the battle’s heaviest fighting. At about 2:15 p.m., General Johnston was struck in the leg by a bullet while leading a Confederate charge. The Rebel commander suffered a severed artery and soon died from a loss of blood. He became the highest-ranking general on either side to be killed during the war. After Johnston’s death, General Pierre G.T. Beauregard took control. The new Confederate commander halted the advance at nightfall. By the end of the first day’s fighting, Rebel troops had driven the Union back two miles. Following the fierce action, Beauregard sent a telegram to the Confederate capital in Richmond, Virginia: “After a severe battle of ten hours, thanks be to the Almighty, [we] gained a complete victory, driving the enemy from every position.” His message would prove to be premature. General Grant’s army had been bruised, but it had not been broken.

General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

That stormy night, the landscape was littered with corpses and thousands of wounded men. The injured lay writhing and moaning in drenching rain, surrounded by torn limbs and decapitated heads, carnage stemming from the brutal day of fighting. Adding to the nightmarish sights were the thunderous sounds of Union gunboats anchored in the Tennessee River, pounding Confederate positions with shells. “This night of horrors will haunt me to my grave,” swore a Confederate soldier. He certainly wasn’t alone in his feelings of terror.

General Grant’s men had been pushed to their limits on April 6. Considering the overwhelming odds that they’d been up against, Grant hailed the first day’s fighting “as one of the best resistances ever made.” Late that night, Grant’s friend and subordinate, Major General William Tecumseh Sherman came to see him. Sherman remarked, “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” Grant said “Yes,” and took a puff from his cigar, “Yes. Lick ‘em tomorrow, though.”

General William T. Sherman. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

On the morning of April 7, Grant launched a counteroffensive along the entire line. Now bolstered by reinforcements from General Buell’s Army of the Ohio, the Federals numbered some 54,000 men, outnumbering Beauregard’s army of around 30,000. After fierce back-and-forth fighting over ground that had already seen intense combat the day before, General Beauregard ordered a retreat back to Corinth at 3 p.m. Once the last of the Confederates had cleared the battlefield, Grant and his exhausted men were in no condition to pursue their opponents. Union forces were able to regain the ground that had been lost the day before, but neither side gained any new territory as a result of the Battle of Shiloh. With their attack beaten back, the Confederacy had to abandon any hopes of blocking the Union advance into northern Mississippi.

More than 111,000 men had fought at Shiloh. The battle claimed the lives of some 3,500 Americans amid a total of more than 23,000 casualties. In the aftermath of the devastating engagement, General Grant was heavily criticized as everyone tired to come to terms with the unprecedented level of carnage. Some called for Grant’s removal, but at a time when Union commanders in the East seemed hesitant to confront the enemy, President Abraham Lincoln came to his defense, declaring, “I can’t spare this man, he fights!” Lincoln made a wise decision to stand by Grant, who would continue to succeed on the battlefield and was later named general-in-chief of the Armies of the United States. While Grant would eventually help lead the Union to victory, darkness and uncertainty loomed over the nation following the Battle of Shiloh. Grant knew there would be many more deadly clashes as the war dragged on. If only everyone could have witnessed the horrors at Shiloh. General Sherman remarked that the sight of the corpse-riddled battlefield “would have cured anybody of war.”

Shiloh National Cemetery in Shiloh, Tennessee. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Sources

A History & Guide to the Monuments of Shiloh National Park by Stacy W. Reaves.

Civil War Trust: Shiloh.

Civil War Trust: The Battle of Shiloh.

Civil War Trust: Ulysses S. Grant: The Myth of 'Unconditional Surrender' Begins at Fort Donelson.

Grant by Ron Chernow.

History.com: Battle of Shiloh.

National Park Service: Lincoln, Grant, and the 1864 Election.

National Park Service: Shiloh Battlefield - Hornet's Nest.

National Park Service: The Determination of Grant at Shiloh.

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