The Battle of Shiloh
UNITED STATES ARMY SPACE AND MISSILE DEFENSE COMMAND
6-7 April 1862
The “Hornets’ Nest” at Shiloh
Shiloh was the severest battle fought in the West during the war, and but few in the East equaled it for hard, determined fighting. 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.
-General Ulysses S. Grant
On paper, Shiloh was a draw: actually, it was one of the decisive battles of the war. It was a battle the Confederacy simply had to win. For it had been a blow struck to restore a disastrously lost balance, a desperate attempt to reestablish the Confederate frontier in the Kentucky-Ohio Valley. It had failed, and the fact that it had come close to being a dazzling victory did not offset the failure.
The horrible sights that I have witnessed on this field I can never describe. No blaze of glory, that flashes around the magnificent triumphs of war, can ever atone for the unwritten and unutterable horrors of the scene.
-Union General James A. Garfield
The South never smiled again after Shiloh.
-Writer George Washington Cable
Hardin County, Tennessee
Shiloh means “Place of Peace” in Hebrew
Federal Penetration up the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers in 1862
Union: Major General Ulysses S. Grant and Major General Don Carlos Buell
Confederate: General Albert Sidney Johnston and General P.G.T. Beauregard
Union: Army of the Tennessee and Army of the Ohio, 65,085
Confederate: Army of the Mississippi, 44,968
Total: 23, 746
After the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson in the winter of 1862, General Albert Sidney Johnston, commander of the Confederate forces in the West, retreated southward, abandoning Kentucky and most of Tennessee. He selected Corinth, Mississippi, as the staging area for a bold strike against Major General Ulysses S. Grant, hoping to destroy his Army of the Tennessee, before it could be reinforced by the Army of the Ohio, commanded by Major General Don Carlos Buell.
Hoping to capitalize on the Confederate withdrawal, Major General Henry W. Halleck, commander of Union forces in the area, decided to mount an offensive against Johnston at Corinth. He directed Grant to concentrate his troops along the Tennessee River, and wait for reinforcements from Buell. Grant made his base at Shiloh, or Pittsburg Landing, a position in enemy territory with its back to the river. Grant neglected, however, to fortify the encampment. Instead, he spent much of his time drilling his men, many of whom were untested in battle.
Johnston originally intended to attack Grant on April 4, but muddy terrain, green troops, and poor coordination slowed the Confederate advance and postponed the assault for two days. The delay would prove costly. On the morning of April 6, thousands of screaming Confederates poured out of the woods near Shiloh and routed many of the slumbering northern troops. Many dispirited soldiers broke for the rear and fled to the banks of the Tennessee, refusing to fight. Severely battered and facing disaster, other Federal troops rallied and began making fierce, determined stands. By the afternoon, they had established a formidable battle line at a sunken road, named the “Hornets Nest” by Confederates because of the stinging hail of bullets and shell they faced. Repeated frontal assaults failed to take the stronghold. Finally, a massive artillery barrage and flanking attacks turned the tide and the rebels overwhelmed the northerners, capturing, wounding, or killing most of the stalwart defenders.
Earlier in the battle, General Johnston had received a mortal wound while directing a frontline charge against the “Hornets Nest,” and his successor, General P.G.T. Beauregard, suffering from a chronic respiratory illness, took charge. The Confederate assault grew increasingly disorganized and soon faltered. General Grant and his beleaguered Union troops managed to set up another defensive line near Pittsburg Landing, bristling with an array of 53 cannon and bolstered by the fortuitous influx of General Buell’s soldiers. Fighting raged until after dark, but the Federals held.
By the morning of April 7, the reinforced Union army greatly outnumbered the Confederates. Grant went on the offensive and drove the Confederates back, gaining lost ground. Beauregard, ignorant of Buell’s arrival, launched a counterattack, which failed to break the surging enemy advance. Realizing the battle was lost as his exhausted soldiers gave way and casualties mounted, the Confederate commander retired from the field and retreated to Corinth.
Shiloh was the largest battle yet fought on the North American continent. It was also the bloodiest to date. The Federals suffered 13,000 casualties. The Confederates lost 11,000. Grant, briefly stripped of command and criticized by many for being surprised at Shiloh, now earned the loyalty of President Abraham Lincoln, who declared: "I can't spare this man; he fights." Indeed, Shiloh proved to be a critical victory for Union forces, which drove on through the Southern heartland, seizing control of the railway system at Corinth and capturing Memphis. The tenacious Grant besieged and occupied Vicksburg in the summer of 1863, splitting the Confederacy in half and ensuring its eventual demise.
Yankees and Rebels Clash at the Battle of Shiloh
The Generals and Their Intent
The Federal Strategy
General Grant’s Army of the Tennessee was camped near Pittsburgh Landing (Shiloh) on the banks of the Tennessee awaiting the arrival of General Buell’s Army of the Ohio. Grant believed the western Confederate armies were nearly beaten and demoralized. After joining with Buell, he planned to strike south and capture the critical railroad junction at Corinth, Mississippi, about twenty-two miles away. Focused on attacking the rebels, Grant chose not to erect any fortifications at Shiloh.
When I reassumed command on the 17th of March I found the army divided, about half being on the east bank of the Tennessee at Savannah, while one division was at Crump's landing on the west bank about four miles higher up, and the remainder at Pittsburg landing, five miles above Crump's. The enemy was in force at Corinth, the junction of the two most important railroads in the Mississippi valley—one connecting Memphis and the Mississippi River with the East, and the other leading south to all the cotton states. Still another railroad connects Corinth with Jackson, in west Tennessee. If we obtained possession of Corinth the enemy would have no railroad for the transportation of armies or supplies until that running east from Vicksburg was reached. It was the great strategic position at the West between the Tennessee and the Mississippi rivers and between Nashville and Vicksburg.
When all reinforcements should have arrived I expected to take the initiative by marching on Corinth, and had no expectation of needing fortifications though this subject was taken into consideration. [Col. J. B.] McPherson, my only military engineer, was directed to lay out a line to intrench. He did so, but reported that it would have to be made in rear of the line of encampment as it then ran. The new line, while it would be nearer the river, was yet too far away from the Tennessee, or even from the creeks, to be easily supplied with water, and in case of attack these creeks would be in the hands of the enemy. The fact is, I regarded the campaign we were engaged in as an offensive one and had no idea that the enemy would leave strong intrenchments to take the initiative when he knew he would be attacked where he was if he remained. This view, however, did not prevent every precaution being taken and every effort made to keep advised of all movements of the enemy.
-Major General Ulysses S. Grant
-Commanding, Army of the Tennessee
I always acted on the supposition that we were an invading army; that our purpose was to move forward in force, make a lodgment on the Memphis & Charleston road, and thus repeat the grand tactics of Fort Donelson, by separating the rebels in the interior from those at Memphis and on the Mississippi River. We did not fortify our camps against an attack, because we had no orders to do so, and because such a course would have made our raw men timid. The position was naturally strong, with Snake Creek on our right, a deep, bold stream, with a confluent (Owl Creek) to our right front; and Lick Creek, with a similar confluent, on our left, thus narrowing the space over which we could be attacked to about a mile and a half or two miles.
-Brigadier General William T. Sherman
-Commanding, Fifth Division
-Army of the Tennessee
Map of the Shiloh Battlefield