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Battle of Shiloh: Part Two - A True Soldier's Fight


The fight between the armies of Ulysses S. Grant and Albert Sidney Johnston reached a level of bloody intensity that the United States had never seen before, pitting “Southern dash against Northern pluck and endurance,” as Grant wrote in his Personal Memoirs. It was the first major large-scale battle of the Civil War, and when it ended, it became the deadliest fight in American history up to that point. For most men on both sides, the colossal clash on April 6, 1862 was their very first time under fire. Some of those soldiers simply could not handle the horrors that confronted them. It is estimated that as many as 10,000 of Grant’s troops fled the fighting and hid under the bluffs by the Tennessee River. Similarly, for the Confederates, thousands of Rebel soldiers ran in terror from the carnage at the front. The great Shiloh historian Winston Groom even records that a number of Confederate regiments “were banished to the rear for timidity in battle.” While some men on both sides fled, a good many more stood and fought the most desperate battle of their lives.

Fighting across thick forests cut up with ridges, deep ravines, and miry swamps, the soldiers in both armies navigated brutal terrain as they slugged it out. In the tangled landscape where control of large bodies of troops was difficult, combat often boiled down to hundreds of individual fights between pockets of soldiers. As the late Civil War historian Bruce Catton put it, “This was not one battle but a vast number of intense and bewildering small battles, each one overlapping with its neighbors and yet strangely isolated. . . .” Shiloh was a true soldier's fight.

By the time General Grant had reached the field at 9 a.m., the battlefront stretched six miles between the Tennessee River on the Union left and Owl Creek on the Federal right. His army was thrown into a desperate fight for its very existence, but many on the field that day remarked how Grant remained a tower of strength for his men and never panicked. Catton described the Union commander’s greatest contribution as “the encouragement he gave to badly beaten troops, simply by his presence and his obstinate refusal to act as if things were going badly.” Grant rode all over the battlefield, meeting with each of his hard-pressed division commanders. In the event that the mighty Rebel onslaught could not be stopped, he formed a last stand line along the high ground above Pittsburg Landing. This final line of resistance would indeed be needed for the Union during the uneasy final hours of April 6.

Union Major General Ulysses S. Grant. (Photo Credit: National Park Service/Library of Congress)

Every able man in blue was needed that day. Even Federals like sixteen-year-old John Cockerill, musician fourth class, found himself in the action. To prevent the Rebels from capturing the vital steamboat landing and driving the entire Union army into the Tennessee River, miraculous efforts were made by soldiers like Colonel David Stuart and the roughly 600 soldiers of the 55th Illinois and the 54th Ohio under his command. Without any artillery support, Stuart and his men held the army’s critical left flank against two Confederate brigades of 3,600 men until they were forced to retreat late in the day. Similar to Stuart’s men, many more of Grant’s soldiers made stand after determined stand, but the relentless waves of Rebel troops drove them back time after time. While the Confederates eventually managed to push back the Union right and left two miles from their starting point, General Albert Sidney Johnston’s troops had to move mountains to make headway against the Federal center.

After his division was hit hard in the opening stages of the battle, Union Brigadier General Benjamin M. Prentiss managed to rally what remained of his command and posted them along a country farm lane that ran through a dense forest in the Union center. Union soldiers called this area the Sunken Road and Grant ordered Prentiss to “maintain that position at all hazards.” Together, the forces of Prentiss and elements of Union Brigadier Generals W.H.L. Wallace and Stephen A. Hurlbut’s divisions did everything in their power to follow Grant’s order to the utmost. Bullets flew so ferociously between both sides in this area that Rebel troops called it the Hornet’s Nest.

Over the course of the day, Confederate commanders launched a dozen separate assaults against the Hornet’s Nest. Unable to carry the position by direct attack, Confederate General Daniel Ruggles massed 62 cannons together and directed what Shiloh historian Winston Groom describes as “the most spectacular concentration of artillery yet seen on the American continent.” After blasting away at this hard knot of resistance and surrounding it with infantry, the Rebels finally overcame the Hornet’s Nest. While some Federals managed to escape before the position was overtaken, others were not so lucky. W.H.L. Wallace was mortally wounded while attempting to pull back with his troops to Pittsburg Landing and Benjamin Prentiss was forced to surrender with roughly 2,200 soldiers at around 5:30 p.m.

The Hornet's Nest by Dale Gallon. (Photo Credit: Dale Gallon)

Although the Confederates ultimately overcame the Hornet’s Nest, the six-hour stand made by Union forces in this part of the field bought invaluable time for the remainder of the Federal army to rally and reposition along Grant’s last stand line. The fight for the Hornet’s Nest also costed the Army of the Mississippi a great deal of manpower, including the loss of its most indispensable soldier.

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.

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

Shiloh, 1862 by Winston Groom.

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

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