Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?
–William T. Sherman
The Confederate defeat at Forts Henry and Donelson made Albert Sidney Johnston the center of a firestorm of criticism as Southerners despondently weighed the strategic consequences of their loss. The Federals were in control on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers and more than 12,000 Confederates were their prisoners of war. Nashville itself, capital of Tennessee, was now indefensible and would have to be evacuated. Threatened from the west by John Pope’s Army of the Mississippi, Columbus, Kentucky, the “Gibraltar of the West,” likewise had to be abandoned, allowing Pope to move downriver to operate against the next important Rebel position on the Mississippi, Island Number Ten. The first week of March brought Southerners more bitter news. A small Confederate army under Earl Van Dorn with a design to march on St. Louis struck a Federal force under Samuel R. Curtis along the Arkansas-Missouri border. In a pitched battle south of Pea Ridge, Van Dorn was driven from the field and his army scattered. In just a month the Confederacy had been defeated all along its western line–its right at Mill Springs, its center at Henry and Donelson, and now its left at Pea Ridge. The Northern press began writing confidently that the end of the rebellion was at hand. Even unbending Jefferson Davis (who would be still writing proclamations about ultimate victory after his capital had fallen) had to admit that “the tide is for the moment against us.”
Albert Sidney Johnston, though defeated in the field and vilified in the press, had not lost confidence in his cause or in himself; that was one crucial point in his favor. A second was the fact that the Richmond government, seeing the gravity of the situation, acted vigorously to reinforce him. By the first part of April Johnston had gathered more than 40,000 men in and around Corinth, Mississippi. Of course, it was also true that his army was indifferently armed and equipped and almost absolutely raw, both officers and men. The next big fight would be the first for eight out of ten of Johnston’s soldiers–as well as the last for many. Still, if Johnston could strike Grant– now moving slowly up the Tennessee–before Buell joined him, he could fight on roughly equal terms. A third point in Johnston’s favor was, ironically, one consequence of the conquest of Henry and Donelson. Although Henry Halleck had done little in the campaign except sit in his St. Louis office and rub his elbows (an odd nervous tick), the victories (and his own politicking) had given him top command in the West. Old Brains was nothing if not cautious, and Buell was no driver. Johnston believed that he could bring Grant to battle before Buell arrived.
By the first week of April Grant was in camp at Pittsburg Landing on the west bank of the Tennessee just a brisk march from the Mississippi border. He had spent most of the previous month drilling his troops, waiting for Buell’s Army of the Ohio (making its laborious way down from Nashville), and planning a drive into Mississippi. That plan says much about Grant’s genius as a field commander: his first instinct was always to focus on what he was going to do to the enemy, never on what the enemy might do to him. It was a combative instinct that would make him supremely successful, but in April of 1862, with his back against the bluffs of the Tennessee River, it would leave him supremely vulnerable. Five of Grant’s divisions were camped on a broad, high plateau just west of the landing between two creeks, Snake Creek to the north and Lick Creek a couple of miles to the south. A sixth was just north of Snake Creek protecting Crump’s Landing downriver. Although Grant was well aware that Johnston was posted in force in Corinth just twenty-odd miles away, he gave little thought to defense. First, he supposed that Johnston, already beaten in spirit and leading a demoralized army, would never attack. To Halleck he had wired that he had “scarcely the faintest idea of an attack . . . being made upon us.” To his staff, he said frankly that he expected Corinth to fall more easily than Donelson. One of his brigadiers, Charles F. Smith, went so far as to say that he “wanted nothing better than to have the Rebels come out and attack us. We can whip them to hell.” Second, thinking offensively, Grant wanted his army to think offensively too. To entrench on a defensive line, Grant believed, would thwart the aggressive spirit of his army. It was a motion seconded by General Smith: “if we begin to spade [the men] will think we fear the enemy.” In the end Grant’s divisions lay in their camps with only casual patrols and a loose line of pickets to discover what might be just west of a little log meetinghouse called Shiloh Church.
While Grant was making up his mind that Johnston was already whipped, Johnston was taking a page from Grant’s book: that is, thinking hard about what he would do to Grant and not what Grant, soon to be reinforced, might then do to him. Although his army was but half-trained and almost thoroughly untried, he intended to march it northeast to Pittsburg Landing, pitch into the Yankees camped there, and drive them into the river. If he succeeded, the Confederacy would regain Tennessee and Kentucky. In a month he might be operating on the Ohio River. Near midnight on April 2, 1862, Beauregard, Johnston’s second-in-command, received a wire from Bethel twenty miles to the north. It reported elements of Lew Wallace’s division operating in that area. Believing this activity to mean the beginning of a Federal drive on Memphis, Beauregard sent the wire on to Johnston with this notation: “Now is the moment to advance, and strike the enemy at Pittsburg Landing.” Although Johnston would have liked to wait for Van Dorn’s 10,000 reinforcements on their way from Arkansas, each day’s delay meant that Buell’s 25,000 were a day’s march nearer to Grant. In the early hours of April 3, Johnston ordered his four corps commanders to be “ready to advance upon the enemy in the morning by 6 a.m. with three days’ cooked rations in haversacks, 100 rounds of ammunition for small arms, and 200 rounds for field pieces.”
To Beauregard fell the responsibility for drafting the army’s marching orders. On the map his plan was complicated but sound enough. Two roads led northeast out of Corinth. Two corps–William Hardee’s in the lead and Bishop Polk’s behind–would take the upper road. The other two corps–Braxton Bragg’s in the lead and John C. Breckinridge’s behind–would take the lower. When they reached striking distance, they would converge and form for battle along the entire Federal front, Hardee in the first line, Bragg 500 yards to his rear, and Polk and Breckinridge in reserve. Attacking to the northeast, they would fall heaviest on the Federal left, pry the Yankees loose from the landing, then drive them into the swampy ground around Owl Creek to the north, where they would be overwhelmed. But when the army finally got on the road on April 3–already four hours late–Johnston began to discover that Bragg had not been far wrong when he complained this command was not an army at all but “this mob we have.” In fact, the march to Pittsburg Landing became a spectacle of confusion reminiscent of the “armed mob” that luckless McDowell had led down to Manassas. Gaps in the line of march opened, and then units had to double-quick to close them up. No sooner was a gap closed when the whole column would come to a dead halt while an exasperating jam ahead was cleared. Units took wrong turns and were lost. A torrential rain turned the roads into a miserable gumbo. Johnston’s army–which had been organized into corps only a week before–was unraveling on the road. In the end the army that was supposed to have made its assault at dawn of April 4 was not in position opposite Pittsburg Landing until nearly dusk on April 5.
In council of war late that afternoon Johnston met with Beauregard and his corps commanders. Urging Johnston to cancel the attack, Beauregard argued three points chiefly: one, that their two-day delay must mean that Buell had reached Grant; two, that success depended on surprise, and all chance of surprise had been lost on the muddy roads from Corinth; and three, if and when they finally struck, they would find the enemy “intrenched to the eyes” and immovable. His points were perfectly reasonable, but, as it turned out, wrong. And ultimately all were beside the point because Albert Sidney Johnston had already made up his mind to fight at Pittsburg Landing. Perhaps he was thinking of his tarnished reputation; perhaps he was thinking of the effusive address that had lately been read to his troops in which he vowed that “your generals will lead you confidently to the combat.” Buell or no Buell, Johnston insisted, “I would fight them if they were a million. . . . Gentlemen, we shall attack at daylight tomorrow.”
One thing is clear: there is no reason that the Yankees should not have been prepared and “intrenched to the eyes.” The Rebels as they approached the field observed no particular silence or secrecy. When a popular officer rode by, they lifted a cheer for him. Many green troopers, wondering if their cartridges would fire after the soaking rain, put them to the test by firing odd shots–all of this within earshot of the Yankee pickets. Sherman’s division, westernmost from the landing, lost a picket detail to Confederate cavalry, and a company sent forward to press them was driven in–palpable evidence of Confederate presence. Sherman even had perfectly sound intelligence that he might have considered prudently. On April 5, an Ohio colonel reported Rebels active and in strength just west of his regiment. In fact, he made the same report rather nervously several times that day. Sherman, who had himself taken a leave of absence from the war for a case of nerves, concluded that this was a case of the colonel who cried wolf. “Take your damned regiment back to Ohio,” he spat: “There is no enemy nearer than Corinth.” Sherman mistrusted his subordinate, who turned out to be right, while Grant trusted his, who turned out to be wrong. To Grant, Sherman sent a dispatch that reported some “saucy” fighting along the picket lines, but concluded: “I do not apprehend anything like an attack on our position.” Sherman’s dispatch went out by courier at about the same time that General Johnston had made up his mind to attack at dawn.
The following dawn, April 6, was a tranquil Southern Sabbath, clear and mild, peach trees in bloom. It was shortly to become “the devil’s own day.” The Confederates had slept on their arms the night before, according to Beauregard’s battle plan. At first light, Hardee’s corps moved out, and soon after the entire Rebel army was in motion toward the Federal camps to make good Johnston’s resolve: “Tonight we will water our horses in the Tennessee River.” Hardee’s first blows fell on the divisions of Sherman and Benjamin M. Prentiss, a Mexican War veteran, roughly in line in front of Shiloh Church and facing southwest. The Federals were not entrenched as Beauregard had predicted, but neither were they entirely unprepared (despite what Northern papers would later write about sleeping Yankees routed from their dog tents). Well before dawn Prentiss, anxious about the activity in his area, had sent out a patrol that collided with the Confederate advance. The skirmishing had given Prentiss time to get his brigades out of camp and into line with Sherman forming on his right. As it happened, the first fierce Rebel blows would fall on Grant’s greenest divisions. Civil War soldiers described their first experience of combat as “seeing the elephant.” Many–in both blue and grey–decided quickly that their first look was more than enough and broke wildly to the rear. No one knows how many thousands of Yankees spent the day cowering under the bluffs of the river, nor how many Rebels spent it looting the camps or hiding in the woods. When Hardee’s first battle line struck, many Yankees did break, but with Prentiss and Sherman coolly riding their lines, those who remained poured a deadly fire into the Rebel lines and beat back four assaults. A fifth finally drove them back to take up a second position in their rear, leaving before them, as one soldier remembered, “a pavement of dead men.” Sherman, who had taken two slight wounds himself, sent to Grant for reinforcements, reporting that “We are holding them pretty well just now . . . but it’s hot as hell.”
It was in truth hot as hell, and it was only going to get hotter. Both Johnston and Grant were busy getting fresh troops into the fight. On the Confederate side, the second line–Bragg’s–had come up and moved through Hardee’s. Although the new corps added weight to the Rebel assault, at the same time it sowed confusion as elements of both commands were mixed. The arrival of Polk and Breckinridge of course did nothing to resolve the confusion at the front. By mid-morning, however, some order was restored: Bragg on the right, Polk in the center, and Hardee on the left in a loose line of battle stretching six miles from the river on their right to Owl Creek on their left. In the rear, Breckinridge was prepared to exploit any success. But Grant, too, was getting his divisions forward. First, John McClernand’s division came up to plug a gap between Sherman’s left and Prentiss’ right. Then, forming in their rear, came the divisions of W. H. L. Wallace (commanding in the place of C. F. Smith, now out of the battle with an infected leg) and Stephen Hurlbut. Grant sent also for his sixth division under Lew Wallace, five miles away north of Snake Creek. Wallace would later win fame as a novelist but never as a field commander. The future author of Ben Hur took a wrong road, got lost, and never reached the field until the first day’s fighting was over. Finally, Grant sent a dispatch to Savannah, just nine miles downriver. The lead elements of Buell’s army were there and they were wanted urgently on the field.
Whether Grant could hold his line–and the landing–until Buell arrived, however, was very much in doubt, and if he could not, he had a first-rate disaster on his hands. On his right the battle was devouring Sherman and McClernand’s divisions greedily, bending the Union lines slowly but steadily back toward the landing. W. H. L. Wallace and Hurlbut had committed both their divisions in support of McClernand and Prentiss, but these too were being driven in the fiercest fighting the war had yet seen. And, for both sides, it was about to get fiercer. Prentiss, in falling back, found a likely place to reform: an old wagon road, slightly sunken. Grant came up and ordered Prentiss “to maintain that position at all hazards.” Yankees who survived the fight would remember it as the Sunken Road; Rebels as the Hornets’ Nest. From noon until near sundown the Confederates made a dozen assaults on the position, front and flanks, pressing 18,000 men against 4,500 Yankees. If Johnston forced this point to buckle, he had every chance to water his horses in the Tennessee River very soon.
Seeing his advance stalled in front of the Sunken Road, Johnston rode forward to press it once more. Just to the left of the road was a peach orchard now held by elements of Hurlbut’s division supported by artillery. (Survivors remembered the dead of both sides showered gently with peach blossoms. Nearby was a little pond where the wounded crawled to drink. It would be remembered as Bloody Pond.) “Men!” Johnston shouted, “they are stubborn. We must use the bayonet.” He led them forward into the musketry, and Hurlbut’s men after a stubborn fight finally broke and ran. Minie balls had torn Johnston’s coat and one had nearly ripped a bootsole off. It seemed a good joke: “They didn’t trip me up that time,” he laughed and shook the flapping sole. Moments later he slumped in the saddle. He had been shot in the back of the thigh, just above the knee, and was bleeding to death. His surgeon, who might have saved his life with a simple tourniquet, was at the moment attending, at Johnston’s direction, Federal wounded.
With Johnston dead, command passed to Beauregard, who understood as clearly as Johnston had the urgent need to pry the Yankees loose from the Sunken Road. If they couldn’t be driven out, they might be blasted out, he reasoned. About 3:30 he brought 62 guns forward and at point-blank range pounded the position with grapeshot and canister. For the Yankees, it was hell in a small space. Eventually, Hurlbut’s survivors on the left and W. H. L. Wallace’s on the right broke to the rear. Completely surrounded now, Prentiss stood, believing that “at all hazards” meant what it said. Two hours of pounding later, even Prentiss was willing to submit to the inevitable and surrendered his command–just 2,200 of the 4,500 who had gone into the fight that morning. In his rear, however, Grant had had time enough to shore up a line on a ridge in front of the landing and support it heavily with artillery. Still, Beauregard believed that one more hard blow would crack it. He ordered one more assault all along the line, and his exhausted army went sluggishly forward, ran into murderous musketry and cannon fire, and fell back. The sun was sinking in the sky, and the slaughter was done for this day.
As darkness drew on and rain began to fall, it was time to take a reckoning. If the Federals had not been pushed into the river, they had been driven two full miles and now stood with their backs to the landing itself. An entire division had been mauled and then compelled to surrender, and Yankee losses all along the line were staggering. On the Confederate side, the commanding general was dead and his army was utterly fought-out, bled white by its dead and wounded, astonishingly disorganized by the extent of its own advance, and diminished by straggling. There was no reckoning how many hungry, curious, or cowardly Rebels were wandering the Federal camps, feasting on Yankee coffee, sugar, hardtack, and bacon, or worse yet, celebrating the day with captured whiskey. Nor was there then, as now, any wise measure of the magnitude of human suffering on that field. All that may be said with certainty is that two thousand of both sides who saw the tranquil Sabbath dawn now lay dead and silent in the rain. Ten thousand, in blue and in grey, lay maimed. But these were not silent. In the dark downpour, they called out to comrades, to distant mothers, to the God of Battles.
Despite the heavy cost of the day’s fighting, neither side had any thought of yielding the field. Beauregard believed he had Grant just where he wanted him and would finish him in the morning. He wired Richmond: “After a severe battle of ten hours, thanks be to the Almighty, [we] gained a complete victory, driving the enemy from every position.” It would be an interesting study to number all the inconclusive combats that generals advertised as complete victories. For there was one crucial position that the enemy had not been driven from, and that was Pittsburg Landing, where even now Buell’s lead division was arriving. For Grant, there seems to have been no thought of anything except counterattack. When a staff officer suggested withdrawal, Grant countered, “Retreat? No, I propose to attack at daylight and whip them.” He had good reasons for confidence. For one, twenty thousand of Buell’s men would be ashore by dawn; for another, Lew Wallace’s division–veterans of Donelson–had at dusk finally got across Snake Creek bridge and fallen in on the Union right. Despite his losses, Grant could send 40,000 troops–more than half of them fresh–against Beauregard’s 25,000. These had fought all day long and were now trying to sleep on the muddy field amid the thunder of the heavens and the gunboats on the river.
But Beauregard, who had urged Johnston not to attack in the first place, now was determined to press the attack in the morning. He might have thought otherwise if he knew what Bedford Forrest knew: that Buell’s army was not in northern Alabama as a recent report had said, but was getting off transports at Pittsburg Landing. Forrest was quite sure what that meant: “If the enemy comes on us in the morning, we’ll be whipped like Hell.” At dawn on April 7, Beauregard’s plans were a moot point. From Sherman’s own tent where he had spent the night, Beauregard could hear the first shots of the artillery barrage that preceded the Federal assault all along the line. Rebels who had delivered a surprise attack yesterday received one today. In their weary and disorganized condition, they were at first driven easily, but by mid-morning Beauregard had restored order. With Hardee on the right, Breckinridge in the center, and Bragg on the left (Polk had mistakenly taken his corps to the rear in the night), the Confederates were making a stiff fight on the very ground they had fought over so fiercely the day before–the little ridge in front of Sherman’s camp. Sherman himself called it “the severest musketry [he] ever heard.” But by two o’clock or so it was becoming clear to the Confederate command that their exhausted troops were nearing the point of collapse, threatening not just defeat but total disaster. Not only were they physically used-up, but psychologically worn-out, seeing fresh Yankees snatching away the victory that yesterday had seemed theirs for the taking. Tennessee Governor Isham Harris, serving as an aide to Beauregard that day, asked: “General, do you not think our troops are very much in the condition of a lump of sugar thoroughly soaked in water–preserving its original shape, though ready to dissolve?” The general indeed thought so and began sending orders for a withdrawal. About four o’clock, with Breckinridge in line south of Shiloh Church and supported by artillery to cover the retreat, Hardee, Polk, and Bragg fell back. The green troops who had come up from Corinth in such confusion retreated in good order. The Federals reoccupied their camps around the log church known as Shiloh, “Place of Peace.”
Beauregard’s rear-guard had little to guard against, for there was no pursuit. The Yankees too were bloodied and bone-weary, and more rain and lots of traffic had taken the bottoms out of the roads again. That night sleet and hail added to everyone’s misery. The next morning the Rebels were back on the road to Corinth. Sherman took a brigade down the Corinth Road, not so much pursuing as shooing the Rebels along. Four miles out, at a place called Fallen Timbers, the Yankees ran into cavalry led by a man who didn’t care to be shooed, “that devil Forrest.” When Sherman shook out a line of skirmishers and sent them forward, Forrest led a charge into their midst. By the time he reached their line, however, he was alone, and, whirling his horse, he tried to slash his way out with his saber. In the melee he caught a musket ball in the back, but, keeping his seat, he snatched up a Yankee, threw him across his horse’s backside as a shield, and galloped off to safety. Only then did he fling the hapless Yankee aside. The Battle of Shiloh was over.
There was grim work left to be done on the field, though, as the wounded were gathered up and the dead buried in shallow graves. And there was some grim accounting to be done by Americans, North and South. Union losses were reported as 1,754 dead, 8,408 wounded, and 2,885 captured or missing. Confederate losses were 1,723 dead, 8,012 wounded, 959 captured or missing. Of the nearly 100,000 men who struggled there, more than 23,000 were casualties. Shiloh had been the bloodiest battle ever fought on the continent. The casualties of two days’ fighting exceeded those of the Revolution, 1812, and Mexico combined. A full year of war had not brought either cause the swift, decisive victory it imagined in the days after Sumter. This battle had, however, led U. S. Grant to a hard conclusion. Though he had gone into the battle believing the Rebels demoralized and ready to quit, after Shiloh he was convinced that the only way to save the Union was by “complete conquest.”
In fact, Grant had done his cause signal service at Shiloh. Although surprised and in a desperate predicament, he had acted cooly and capably. As a result, he had delivered a crippling blow to the main Confederate army in the West. The Federal grip there was firmer than ever, and the initiative was entirely in their hands. In Northern newspapers, however, Grant, so lately lionized as the hero of Henry and Donelson, was now cast as an incompetent. Old charges of drunkenness were renewed. But if Grant had at the moment few friends in the papers, he had one in the White House. When a Pennsylvania politician came to Lincoln to demand Grant’s removal, Lincoln turned him away curtly: “I can’t spare this man,” he said; “he fights.”