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Battle of Shiloh: Part One - No Peace


Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard was hesitant on the evening of Saturday, April 5, 1862. Although thousands of Rebel soldiers were now preparing to unleash an onslaught against Union forces under Major General Ulysses S. Grant encamped near Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River, Beauregard worried that his side had lost the crucial element of surprise. In order to drive Grant’s troops from Tennessee before they could fortify their positions and combine forces with Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio, the Confederate attack would have to hit forcefully and unexpectedly. Every minute truly mattered for the Confederates, but time did not seem to be on their side.

The 45,000-strong Confederate Army of the Mississippi was supposed to be deployed and ready for battle on April 4, but the army’s 20-mile march from its base at Corinth, Mississippi had been a disaster. Because of heavy rains turning roads into quagmires and the general inexperience of the soldiers, the Confederates were not in position until the evening of April 5. As a result of the delay, Beauregard feared that Buell would soon be arriving to reinforce Grant. He also worried that Grant’s troops would now be “entrenched to the eyes,” especially after Rebel soldiers had been firing their guns within earshot of the enemy to see if their rain-dampened powder still worked. Beauregard, the Confederate hero who had fired the opening shots of the Civil War at Fort Sumter nearly a year earlier, now advised that the attack against the Federals at Pittsburg Landing should be called off. While Beauregard might have seemingly lost his nerve, his boss refused to back down.

As Beauregard and some of the other top Rebel leaders debated among themselves whether to retire or proceed with the attack, the commanding general of the Army of the Mississippi, Albert Sidney Johnston, made the final decision clear. “Gentlemen,” he said, “we shall attack at daylight tomorrow.” Unlike Beauregard, Johnston, the man who Confederate President Jefferson Davis considered the greatest soldier in the Southern service, did not sense that the enemy was on high alert. No matter what stood in his army’s way, he knew that his troops were ready to fight. There was no time for second guessing. As his commanders walked away, Johnston reiterated his commitment to the attack, telling one staff officer, “I would fight them if they were a million.” With an army full of men gathered from nearly every corner of the South behind him, Johnston and his soldiers would indeed go forward and fight.

Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston mounted on his horse, Fire-eater, and rallying his soldiers on April 6, 1862. Painting by Don Troiani. (Photo Credit: Scanned from Don Troiani's Civil War)

On the bright and warm morning of Sunday, April 6, 1862, Union Major General Ulysses S. Grant was just sitting down at the breakfast table of the Cherry Mansion in Savannah, Tennessee. While he waited there for Major General Don Carlos Buell, Grant’s 42,000-strong army was encamped several miles up the Tennessee River valley at Pittsburg Landing. Once Grant and Buell’s forces combined, they would have nearly 75,000 troops to march on the Rebel base at Corinth, Mississippi. In the meantime, Grant’s raw troops trained and drilled at Pittsburg Landing. Wanting his soldiers to maintain an aggressive edge, Grant had not ordered his men to entrench or form defenses. Despite signs of enemy activity to his front, Grant had written on April 5 that he held “scarcely the faintest idea of an attack (general one) being made upon us, but will be prepared should such a thing take place.” That statement was soon put to the ultimate test.

Just as Grant was about to take a sip from a cup of coffee on that beautiful Sunday morning, he stopped in his tracks as he heard the rumblings of artillery fire coming from the direction of his troops at Pittsburg Landing. “Gentlemen,” he announced to his staff, “the ball is in motion. Let’s be off.” After boarding his flagship Tigress, Grant and his staff steamed nine miles up to Pittsburg Landing. At approximately 9 a.m., they arrived on the scene. What they found was a raging battle of unprecedented savagery.

At daybreak on April 6, General Albert Sidney Johnston’s Army of the Mississippi had struck with all its might against Grant’s largely unsuspecting forces. Shouting their furious battle cry, the Rebel Yell, at the top of their lungs, thousands of Southern soldiers clad in Confederate gray or butternut brown surged out of the woods near a small Methodist chapel called Shiloh. The Rebels came on strong in three successive waves, each in a line two miles long, and struck hard as stunned Union soldiers put down their breakfasts, grabbed their muskets, and scrambled to fight. The ensuing battle would take the name Shiloh, which was an Old Testament expression meaning “place of peace,” but there was nothing peaceful about what happened here.

Sources

A General Who Will Fight: The Leadership of Ulysses S. Grant by Harry S. Laver.

American Heritage: Grant at Shiloh.

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson.

Grant by Ron Chernow.

Historynet.com: Shiloh's False Hero.

Shiloh, 1862 by Winston Groom.

The New York Times: Why the Battle of Shiloh Matters.

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