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A Concise Overview of the Battle of Shiloh


On the morning of Sunday, April 6, 1862, the Rebel Yell filled the air as thousands of Confederate soldiers surged out of the woods and struck Union forces encamped around Shiloh Church near Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River. Determined to inflict a crushing blow to Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee before it could combine forces with Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio, Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston and his 40,000-strong Army of the Mississippi committed everything to this attack. Whether a soldier in Grant’s army who was caught off guard by the intensity of the enemy’s all-out effort or a proud Southerner in the Army of the Mississippi who was committed to driving the invaders back from his sacred soil, before this pivotal day, most men on both sides had never experienced a battle before. Now, Union and Confederate soldiers quickly found themselves caught in the most intense struggle of their lives.

Initially waiting for General Buell at his headquarters nine miles downriver when the Confederate attack began, Grant boarded a steamboat and raced up to Pittsburg Landing after hearing the unmistakable sounds of battle. Upon his arrival, Grant was confronted with scenes of chaos and carnage. The 40,000 troops under his command were in great danger of being overwhelmed by the enemy, but Grant refused to panic, organizing a defense, rallying his men, and eagerly waiting for his chance to strike back.

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

As the Confederates steadily pushed forward, Union forces tenaciously fought to hold their ground. The intense struggle pitted “Southern dash against Northern pluck and endurance,” as Grant wrote in his Personal Memoirs. Among the thousands of dead and wounded that day was General Albert Sidney Johnston, who bled to death after a bullet struck his leg and severed an artery. Following Johnston’s death, General P.G.T. Beauregard assumed command, and after trying to maintain the momentum of the Confederate onslaught, he recognized that his troops were exhausted and disorganized, leading him to halt the Southern advance at nightfall. Beauregard sent a victory telegram to the Confederate capital in Richmond, Virginia and expected to finish off the Bluecoats in the morning, but the fight was far from over.

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

The Army of the Tennessee had been hit hard during the day of unprecedented savagery. With the army in danger of being driven into the Tennessee River, some of Grant’s subordinates thought it best to retreat before the enemy could resume the offensive in the morning, but their commander had other ideas: “Retreat? No. I propose to attack at daylight and whip them.” Sometime after midnight, General William T. Sherman, who had valiantly led his troops on April 6, suffering two slight wounds and having three horses shot from under him, found his commander standing by an oak tree in the pouring rain and remarked, “Well Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” “Yes,” answered a steely-eyed Grant. “Lick ‘em tomorrow though.”

Bolstered by the arrival of reinforcements from Buell’s Army of the Ohio, Grant took the initiative on the morning of April 7, launching a counteroffensive along the entire line of battle. After another day of savage fighting, Union forces recovered the ground that had been lost the day before and General Beauregard ordered a withdrawal back to Corinth, Mississippi. The bloody Battle of Shiloh was over.

Few would ever forget the two-day struggle that resulted in some 24,000 dead and wounded across both sides, a slaughter that was hard to fathom at the time, eclipsing the total casualties of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Mexican war combined. As Grant reflected in his memoirs, “I saw an open field, in our possession on the second day, over which the Confederates had made repeated charges the day before, 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.”

"A photograph circa 1895 of Decoration (Memorial) Day Activities at Shiloh National Cemetery," according to the National Park Service. (Photo: Shiloh National Military Park)

For Ulysses S. Grant, the Battle of Shiloh, also known as the Battle of Pittsburg Landing, was an unquestionable Union victory. He believed that if the Confederates had been successful, it would have set the “war back six months,” and also “would have caused the necessity of raising . . . a new army.” Grant, like many others, once believed that one titanic battle would settle the war, but after witnessing the intensity and fighting spirit of the enemy at Shiloh, he knew that the conflict would not be settled quickly. As many future battles would show, there was much more blood to be shed in the American Civil War.


Grant by Ron Chernow.

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