The Civil War: Battle of Shiloh - Overview

Introduction: Shiloh, Hebrew for Place of Peace

The Battle of Shiloh is thought to be, by many, the battle that represents the turning point of the war from something that the Union considered very temporary and small (well, small relative to what you would think a possible split of the nation would represent) obstacle in the history of a powerful and great nation. Although we are still a powerful, and I would like to believe, great nation, the Civil War represented no small obstacle in our history, but the single greatest tragedy and horror story we have ever had.

It's obvious that we lost more men in this war than we have to any other war. It's obvious because these were Americans fighting Americans, brothers fighting brothers, fathers fighting sons; this war was a total loss of Americans, not Americans and their enemies, but Americans. The Civil War was, and reflecting upon it is, a heartbreaking event. This was the costliest battle of U.S. history up to that time, more American casualties than the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War combined. Shiloh is the battle that gave our recent ancestors a glimpse of what a nightmare the Civil War was soon to become.

Back Story

Shiloh wouldn't have been nearly as bloody or costly had it not been for one huge mistake of unprepared ness that would teach General Grant a lesson he would remember through the rest of the War, and probably beyond. The Union commander of the western theater (using the less often used definition of a "large geographic area in which military operations are coordinated," as quoted from, Major General Henry W. Halleck, had ordered Grant to move his Army of West Tennessee to Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, to wait for General Don Buell's army. Buell's Army of the Ohio and Grant's army would, together, travel up the Tennessee River to seize the Memphis & Charleston Railroad now that Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston had withdrawn his troops to regroup from the loss of two Confederate forts.

While Grant awaited Buell's arrival, he spent little time setting up defensive measures in case of any attack, and, instead, had his men simply waiting in temporary encampments around Shiloh Church. On the night of April 5th, Grant telegraphed Major General Halleck with this message: "I have scarcely the faintest idea of an attack being made upon us, but will be prepared should such a thing take place," which was, if not a a lie, a drastic overstatement. While Grant waited around Shiloh, General Johnston was making plans for a surprise attack on Grant's forces, his plan being to wipe them out, by pushing them into the swamps of nearby creeks, before Buell's backing force arrived. The attack was planned for April 4th, but was delayed for two days, which made General Beauregard, General Johnston's second in command, nervous that the surprise factor had been lost, but there was no stopping Johnston now.

Day One; April 6, 1862

Johnston's Army of the Mississippi (which was really a collection of forces from Mississippi as well as surrounding states) had spent the night of April 5th secretly camped just two miles from Grant's position, and were ready to roll. They attacked at dawn and, despite Beauregard's worries, the element of surprise was in full force, as General Grant wasn't even in the area, but instead on a gunboat on the Tennessee River and was alerted to the happening by the distant sound of artillery fire. Forty-five (45) minutes before the Confederate attack, Union Major General Benjamin Prentiss, of the 25th Missouri Infantry, had sent forth a part of his forces on a reconnaissance and had encountered some of Johnston's forces already. Prentiss' incidental alert of the Union soldiers helped them gather their thoughts a little, but they were still very unprepared.

Johnston had made the mistake of insufficient forces on the Union's right side to break through, and the craziness of the situation led to a lot of confusion within the corps. Although it didn't break through the Union forces on the right, it was powerful enough to cause many inexperienced Union soldiers to flee.

General Grant finally got back from the gunboat at around 8:30 AM, and attempted to consolidate his reserve forces, but here another mistake was made. He gave "ambiguous" orders to General Lee Wallace (later known for writing the novel Ben-Hur, known best for the 1959 film starring Charleston Heston of the same name that was an adaptation of the novel), who arrived, somehow, behind the Confederate forces instead of in Pittsburg Landing. Confused as to what he should do, as he knew he could launch a great attack on the South from the behind, a message from Grant inquiring why he wasn't in Pittsburg Landing made up Wallace's mind for him. He lead his forces to Pittsburg Landing, but arrived around 7:00 PM, when the fighting was almost over, and, obviously, Grant was not very happy with Wallace.

Around 9:00 AM Prentiss, who you will remember isn't even a part of the group that was meeting to seize the railroad, established a line on a sunken road, nicknamed the "Hornet's Nest." Although the communication in the Hornet's Nest was non-existent, the line still held off a lot of the Confederate's for several hours, breaking when the Confederate's assembled 62 cannons to blast the line. Many of Prentiss' force were captured, but their bravery and sacrifice gave Grant enough time to set up a final line of defense.

Meanwhile, over at the Confederate's weaker assault on the Union's right, near Shiloh Church, the Confederate forces were still not breaking through, despite the violent, vicious fight they were putting up.

At 2:30 PM a stray bullet caught General Johnston behind his right knee. As he didn't think of the wound as serious at first, he allowed his personal surgeon to continue to care for wounded Union1 prisoners. The bullet had, in fact, hit an artery, the popliteal artery, and he was quickly losing blood. When some of his soldiers, who he was personally directing and rallying on the front lines, noticed he was very pale and almost falling off of his horse they asked him if he was injured and he replied, "Yes, and I fear seriously." He was carried to a small ravine, where he died quickly. This left only his second in command, General Beauregard, in charge against the greatest Union general.

Dusk marked the end of the first day of battle, with naval guns blasting away in support of the Union. The day was a failure for the Confederate mission, as they had pushed Grant to the river, and not to the creek, but the Confederate forces were more in the lead than the Union forces. A downpour of rain gave an even gloomier, eerie feeling to a horrific day, where, sheltered from the rain under a tree, Grant, rightfully optimistic, said, "[...] Lick 'em tomorrow, though," in response to General Sherman's question of, "[...] [W]e've had the devil's own day, haven't we?" Buell's forces arrived that night, to change the number of Union forces to around 55,000 men altogether, without General Beauregard's knowledge.

Day Two; April 7, 1862

Union forces attacked Beauregard's forces at dawn. Buell and Grant attacked separately. Confederate lines were stable by 9:00 AM, but by 10:00 AM the Union was attacking the full Confederate line in full force in a powerful display. Despite putting up a fantastic last stand, General Beauregard knew he was far too outnumbered and low on supplies to successfully continue the fight. He successfully retreated and the Union followed barely past their original position.

My Notes:

1This makes you really like the guy. He died helping what he saw as fellow human beings, fellow Americans, despite them being enemies. He could have easily not have loaned out the services of his personal surgeon, but he thought they needed it.