Pandemonium Broken Loose: The Battle of Shiloh
A torrential downpour tried to cleanse the earth of blood and carnage on the dark, stormy night of April 6/7, 1862. Flashes of lightning intermittently broke through the curtain of darkness to reveal thousands of dead and wounded soldiers as they lay scattered across the battle-scarred landscape of tangled trees, deep ravines, and miry swamps around Pittsburgh Landing on the Tennessee River. The desperate cries of the wounded were unavoidable, as were the crashes of thunder and the shockwaves generated from the Union gunboats anchored in the river as they blasted away at Confederate positions every fifteen minutes. As the exhausted survivors of the most ferocious battle yet waged in the American Civil War desperately tried to find sleep on this unimaginable “night of horrors,” Union Major General Ulysses S. Grant steeled himself for the day ahead.
Wrapped in his blue army greatcoat, his wide brimmed hat slouched down over his face, the deep dark of night found General Grant standing under an oak tree in quiet contemplation. His army had just spent the day fighting for its life against 45,000 hard-charging rebel soldiers. The Confederate onslaught had certainly hit his troops hard, but after making stand after determined stand, his boys in blue had not broken. Now, the remnants of Grant’s army clung to its toehold along the Tennessee River’s west bank. Some of Grant’s officers thought a retreat should be made across that river, putting the natural barrier between them and the enemy before the Confederates could renew their attack. For Grant, though, there was only one course to follow, and that was to stand firm and battle back.
General Grant remained under his tree when his friend Major General William Tecumseh Sherman approached him. Although Sherman had come over to see if plans for a retreat were underway, one look at the unfazed commander holding a dimly-glowing lantern in his hand and a cigar clenched between his teeth instinctively led Sherman to change course. “Well, Grant,” said Sherman, “we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” “Yes,” replied Grant. Then he took a puff on his cigar and added, “Yes. Lick ‘em tomorrow, though.” With that mentality, General Grant would go on to lead the Union back from the brink of defeat at the bloody Battle of Shiloh.
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. Time, however, 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.
A reconstructed version of Shiloh church on the Shiloh battlefield. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The fight between the armies of Grant and 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 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 soldiers 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. Despite the chaos, 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 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 took 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.
In the mid-afternoon on April 6, General Albert Sidney Johnston personally stepped in to help rally a rebel brigade that refused to make a charge against the Hornet’s Nest. “I will lead you,” he cried to the men while mounted atop his big thoroughbred bay, Fire-Eater. Johnston’s presence had a powerful effect and the men who had previously refused to fight now advanced while shouting the Rebel Yell with all their might. As he led the troops forward against the enemy, Fire-Eater was shot several times and Johnston was clipped by bullets in three places. With the exception of a shot that ripped the sole off his boot from heel to toe, he initially thought he was unscathed. Moments later, however, everything changed as Johnston went cold in the saddle and nearly fell from his horse. “General, are you wounded?” asked an aide. “Yes,” replied Johnston, “and I fear seriously.” Those were his final words on this earth.
At around 2:30 p.m., General Johnston was dead. As Groom explains, when he had led his troops forward against the Hornet’s Nest, a bullet “clipped his right popliteal artery, which lies behind the knee,” causing Johnston to bleed to death in about 15 minutes. After his passing, command of the Army of the Mississippi fell to Johnston’s second in command, General P.G.T. Beauregard. Following the loss of the top Confederate soldier on the field, a lull descended over the battleground for perhaps an hour before the action intensified again and the combat became as hot as ever.
The death of Albert Sidney Johnston. (Photo Credit: National Park Service)
After the collapse of the Hornet’s Nest at 5:30 p.m., the rebels were on the verge of driving the Federals into the Tennessee River, which would complete their momentous victory. As the exhausted Confederates set out to make a final push toward triumph, though, Ulysses S. Grant and what remained of his embattled army steeled themselves and prepared to defend their last stand line along the high ground above Pittsburg Landing.
The danger for the Union during the closing hours of daylight on April 6 was very real, but Grant remained as composed and unflinching as ever. His last stand line got a boost as the lead elements of Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio reached him. On top of the fresh troops mobilizing to assist Grant, his position also bristled with artillery, including a battery of five 24-pounder siege guns, each weighing around 3,000 pounds or more. With all of that firepower and two nearby Union gunboats capable of lobbing eight-inch shells, the rebels might have had the Federals backed into a corner, but the men in blue were not going to go down easily.
“One more charge, my men, and we shall capture them all!” cried Confederate General Braxton Bragg. Determined to finish this fight once and for all, rebel soldiers pushed past their exhaustion and surged forward. As one Federal described the action at this stage of the battle, “In a word, it was pandemonium broken loose.”
Just as Bragg was rallying his troops for one more great effort that he believed would split Grant’s position and seal the Army of the Mississippi’s victory, he saw other Confederate units along the battlefront pulling away. As it turned out, General Beauregard had suspended the offensive. Fearing that his troops were exhausted and disorganized, he ordered the army to retire for the night. Unaware that Buell had completed his rendezvous with Grant, Beauregard was confident that with rest and reorganization, his forces could mop up what remained of the shattered Federals in the morning.
Bragg was haunted by the decision to halt the attack, fearing that the army had missed its golden opportunity to secure victory. “My God!” he cried as Rebel units pulled back. “Too late! My God! Too Late!” General Grant had a much different reaction. “Not beaten yet by a damned sight,” said the Union commander as he observed the enemy retiring from the field.
That night as a torrential downpour tried to cleanse the earth of blood and carnage, General Beauregard fired over a victory telegram to the Confederate capital of Richmond: “After a severe battle of ten hours, thanks be to the Almighty, [we] gained a complete victory, driving the enemy from every position." While Beauregard believed his army’s triumph was secure, the fiery cavalryman Nathan Bedford Forrest and his scouts saw the situation much differently as they watched boats ferry Buell’s soldiers across the river to Grant’s position all through the night. Forrest rode out in the dark rainstorm, desperate to alert Beauregard. He warned the generals he encountered along the way that unless the Confederates resumed the offensive that night, the Army of the Mississippi would be “whipped like hell before ten o’clock tomorrow.” Forrest was told that the decision to attack would have to be made by Beauregard. On that uneasy night, though, he was unable to locate the commanding general’s headquarters at Shiloh church. His premonition proved prescient. There would indeed be hell to pay in the morning.
Over on the Union side, General Grant remained just as confident as his Confederate counterpart. With his army badly bloodied and his remaining troops greatly demoralized, however, one of Grant’s subordinates asked if he should “make preparations for a retreat” that night. Grant fired right back. “Retreat? No. I propose to attack at daylight and whip them.” He spoke similarly to Major General William T. Sherman, who had been engaged in the heart of the fighting since the opening moments of action on April 6, suffering two slight wounds and having three horses shot from under him. Sherman found his boss standing by an oak tree in the pouring rain shortly after midnight. “Well Grant,” he said, “we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” “Yes,” answered a steely-eyed Grant. “Lick ‘em tomorrow though.”
We'll Whip 'em Tomorrow by Dale Gallon. (Photo Credit: Gallon.com)
On the morning of April 7, Grant had 25,000 fresh troops at his disposal. As Groom notes, that was “more men than Beauregard could muster in the entire Confederate army at that point, considering the casualties and stragglers." In addition to the arrival of Buell’s troops, part of the added manpower came from one of Grant’s own long lost divisions under Major General Lew Wallace. The Union commander had summoned Wallace to the field as the action was unfolding on April 6, but after taking the wrong road and suffering costly delays, he was unable to contribute on the first day of fighting. Now, Wallace and many others were here and ready to help the Union battle back.
Roles were reversed during the early hours of April 7 as the Confederates now found themselves taken by surprise and under heavy attack. At dawn, Union artillery had roared and Grant sent his troops forward in a counteroffensive along the entire line of battle. The casualty lists grew even larger as the day wore on with as much ferocity as ever. Both sides traded heavy back-and-forth blows over much of the same ground that so many had fought and died over the previous day. Overcoming stout Confederate resistance, Federal troops succeeded in driving the rebels back to the point of their original attack by mid-afternoon. Finally, at around 2 p.m., General Beauregard ordered a withdrawal back to Corinth, Mississippi.
Grant's troops won back the ground that had been lost to the Confederates, but they proved too exhausted to conduct a heavy pursuit of the retreating rebels. Although General Sherman did lead two brigades forward in an effort to probe the enemy on April 8, his pursuit was broken up after a short, sharp fight with Nathan Bedford Forrest and his cavalry. After that, both the blue and the gray eased back to recover from the scars of Shiloh.
As U.S. Grant reflected in his Personal 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.” For both Northerners and Southerners alike, the butcher’s bill at Shiloh was truly difficult to fathom. The fighting of April 6 and 7 had resulted in approximately 23,741 total casualties across both sides. A bloodbath on that scale was unheard of. In fact, as the late Civil War historian Shelby Foote calculated, this one battle produced more casualties than the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War combined. As General Sherman put it, “The scenes on this field would have cured anybody of war.”
By standing by his men and refusing to panic in the face of relentless pressure and repeated setbacks, Ulysses S. Grant snatched victory from the jaws of defeat at Shiloh. The brutal battle also served as a dramatic wake up call to him and many others about the true reality of what they were up against in the Civil War. Before the showdown at Shiloh, Grant had envisioned that the rebellion would be broken “if a decisive victory could be gained over any of its armies.” After witnessing the stunning tenacity of the Confederates at Shiloh, though, he “gave up all idea of saving the Union except by complete conquest.” The road ahead was going to be filled with many more bloodbaths. Grant now knew that the Civil War was going to be a fight to the finish.
A General Who Will Fight: The Leadership of Ulysses S. Grant by Harry S. Laver.
American Battlefield Trust: Battle of Shiloh.
American Heritage: Grant at Shiloh.
Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson.
Grant by Ron Chernow.
Grant Moves South by Bruce Catton.
History.net: Shiloh's False Hero.
Shiloh, 1862 by Winston Groom.
The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume One: Fort Sumter to Perryville by Shelby Foote.
The Complete Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant by Ulysses S. Grant.
The New York Times: Why the Battle of Shiloh Matters.