In April 1862, at a remote and heavily wooded sight known to locals as Pittsburgh Landing, three inexperienced armies collided in what was the bloodiest battle ever fought on the North American continent up to that time. More than 23,000 casualties occurred in two days of brutal, chaotic fighting.
When it was over the Southern Confederacy had permanently lost most of the rich agricultural regions of western and central Tennessee as well as sealed the fate of the upper Mississippi River. The momentum of earlier Union victories at Forts Henry and Donelson reached fruition. In less than 12 weeks, the North pierced the Southern heartland, capturing the key economic center of Nashville and dictating the eventual fall of Memphis.
The bloodbath that occurred between Pittsburgh Landing and Shiloh Church represented the preeminent effort by the Confederacy to destroy a Union army deep in Southern territory. The defeat of Southern forces under Albert Sydney Johnston came at a terrible cost which had a profound impact on the participants in the struggle and upon the nation at large.
Yet, for all this, there is no battle of the American Civil War more underrated and understudied than Shiloh. Only a handful of major works have been devoted to it. The battle fails to occupy the hearts and minds of the war's enthusiasts as a complete event unto itself like Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, or Chickamauga. Few mention it except in passing reference to one of it's participants. Ulysses S. Grant, commander at Shiloh of the Army of the Tennessee, summed it up best when he stated that the battle was "more persistently misunderstood, than any other engagement between National and Confederate troops during the entire rebellion."(Grant's Memoirs, p.247)
With the Confederate abandonment of Nashville in February 1862, Union forces had achieved their first major geographic objective in the long road toward Southern subjugation. In a brilliant operation of abruptness and daring, Grant shattered Rebel defenses in a combined land-naval campaign that lasted little more than a week against Forts Henry and Donelson, capturing over 14,000 Confederate soldiers. As a consequence, the Cumberland River was opened, thus enabling Federal gunboats to navigate all the way round to Nashville, effectively rendering that prize industrial city untenable.
Prior to Grant's maneuvers, Confederate General Johnston commanded a vast region known in Richmond as Military Department One. His authority extended well into southern Kentucky, from Columbus through Bowling Green to the Cumberland Gap. This advanced position gave the audacious illusion of great strength. But Johnston had less than 50,000 men at his disposal with which to cover this vast front. The ratio of force to space was completely inadequate for the task assigned him. Furthermore, his troops were untrained and poorly equipped. In many instances his subordinate leaders were mediocre.
Johnston was opposed by a much larger Union force under a variety of commanders. These soldiers, while just as inexperienced as their Southern counterparts, were much better equipped and more competently led under the likes of Grant, William T. Sherman, George H. Thomas, and others. The Northern forces also enjoyed a technological advantage in their capability to commit an emerging river gunboat fleet in support of operations.
Grant's success along the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers brought him national acclaim in the North. Meanwhile, Johnston reeled southward and called for a major strategic concentration of troops. The logical place for such a gathering in the face of Grant's advance down the Tennessee River was Corinth, a railroad junction just south of the Mississippi-Tennessee border. Here, Johnston could protect the important Memphis & Charleston Railroad, the direct route from the Mississippi River to the eastern part of the Confederacy.
In a matter of weeks, Braxton Bragg from the Mobile-Pensacola area and Leonidas Polk from the western Kentucky-Memphis area reinforced Johnston with about 18,000 troops. In Arkansas, Earl Van Dorn was ordered to Johnston's assistance with forces reorganizing from a recent defeat at Pea Ridge. In addition, General P.G.T. Beauregard, the hero of Fort Sumter and First Manassas, was sent to assist Johnston in the planning of the anticipated Southern counterstroke.
Meanwhile, Grant wasted little time in asserting his advantage of momentum. He sent Sherman, his favored subordinate, down the Tennessee in March to find a suitable spot for the next landing of Union forces. His intention was to continue using the proven effectiveness of the Union river fleet to exploit the southern defensive weaknesses along navigable waterways deep within the South.
Sherman journeyed as far as Alabama along the Tennessee River. An attempt to cut the Memphis-Charleston Railroad with transported cavalry was abandoned and he returned downstream. Ultimately, he chose Pittsburgh Landing as the best spot from which Grant could launch the next phase of his offensive into the Southern heartland.
Grant sent the Army of the Tennessee via the river to reinforce Sherman's advanced force. These divisions encamped over a wide area from the Landing to Shiloh Church, about three miles inland. Grant split his time between visits to the field around Shiloh and Savannah, Tennessee, the largest settlement along the river immediately north of Pittsburgh Landing.
At this time, Northern General Carlos Buell was leading the Army of the Ohio south from Nashville. The intention was to rendezvous with Grant at the Landing and march the combined armies against the gathering Rebel forces at Corinth. By mid-March, Buell was 85 miles from the Landing.
For his part, Grant felt the Southerners were digging in at Corinth. His easy victories along the lower Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers led him to the conclusion that the rebellion was without solid foundation or backbone. The last thing he expected was an attack. Because of this attitude and due to a general lack of engineering expertise in his army, no Northern troops at Shiloh entrenched. They simply maintained the style of camplife that was common at this stage of the war. There were inspections and drills accompanied by an occasional reconnaissance.
In the meantime, the South organized at Corinth one of the largest military forces ever assembled west of the Appalachians. While Johnston maneuvered his corps-sized Army of Central Kentucky (soon to be renamed the Army of the Mississippi) toward the vital rail junction, Beauregard handled matters of coordination between the converging forces of Johnston, Polk and Bragg. By the time the concentration was complete, Beauregard had established a precedent of managing strategic and administrative tasks. This afforded Johnston the dubious luxury of being able to devote his full attention to the divisions under his immediate care instead of focusing on his department as a whole.
By April 2, Johnston had marshaled sufficient force to begin his advance upon the Northern position. Though Van Dorn failed to arrive from across the Mississippi, the Confederates still fielded over 44,000 men. Virtually all of them were untested and few had ever fired a gun in organized combat. Against them, the unsuspecting Grant had about 48,000. But, the Yankees were badly scattered on the field and more than 9,000 of them were located several miles downriver at Crump's Landing, protecting the river transports and most of the army's supplies.
The roads from Corinth to Shiloh were poor and few. The land was mostly covered in heavy woods, frequently cut by ravines and filled with swamps. The march, though covering less than 20 miles, took three days to complete. Heavy rains on April 4, didn't help matters. The combination of unfamiliar terrain and a makeshift army on the move without ever drilling or planning together contributed to a sputtering start to the grand Southern offensive.
The Army of the Mississippi consisted of four corps. There were three numbered corps, each under the leadership of the general who had brought them to Corinth. Polk took charge of men originally under him at Columbus, Kentucky and along the Mississippi River. Bragg commanded units from the Confederate gulf. William J. Hardee remained the head of the corps that used to be the Army of Central Kentucky. A reserve corps of three brigades was led by John C. Breckinridge, former vice-president of the formerly United States. There were a number of independent cavalry regiments accompanying the army to Shiloh.
The Army of the Tennessee had no corps. It was still modeled on the military standards at the time of First Manassas. The army was formed into six divisions of relatively equal size, each with its own cavalry regiment and artillery batteries attached. Five of the divisions were encamped around Shiloh. Lew Wallace commanded another division and supporting troops at Crump's Landing, four miles upstream from Pittsburgh Landing.
Johnston informed President Jefferson Davis on April 3 that each of his corps would be assigned an area of the battlefield in which to operate, aligned in a side by side manner. Johnston made it clear to his subordinates that he intended to execute a turning movement with his army. The purpose was to get around the Union left and drive toward the Landing thereby forcing Grant to retreat away from the river, toward Owl Creek which flowed just north of Shiloh Church.
The Confederates planned to be in position for attack on April 4. But delays due to the nature of the terrain, inexperienced troops, mediocre command coordination and rainy weather meant that the attack was impossible before April 6. By this time, a rift developed between Beauregard and Johnston over the future of the offensive. The former recommended calling the whole thing off, believing that the critical element of surprise was lost by now due to the bumbling nature of the advance.
Johnston disagreed. He reasoned that the fate of the western Confederacy depended upon a quick, decisive victory. Grant's army had to be destroyed before Buell could join him. Johnston thought the Yankees were unprepared and outnumbered. This was his chance to redeem all that had been lost since the fall of Fort Henry a few weeks before. The attack was a very personal affair for Johnston. To him, Beauregard's caution was simply out of step with the demands of the moment.
While Johnston's final decision to attack reveals much about his character as a commander, it does not fully expose the situation his army found itself in as it surged into Grant's force. The alignment for battle was not of his making but, rather, that of Beauregard's. For reasons that are still unexplained, Beauregard issued orders (apparently under Johnston's approval) to line the corps in four rows, one behind the other. More than anything else, this ambiguous shift in operational structure precipitated a debate over the possibilities for Southern victory at Shiloh.
On April 5, General William "Bull" Nelson, the advanced division of Buell's Army of the Ohio, arrived in Savannah. In all, Buell would bring over 17,000 troops to the battlefield. Grant sent Nelson down the east side of the Tennessee to be ferried across at Pittsburgh Landing. The march would take Nelson until late on April 6 to complete. His men would not be a factor on the battle's first day.
The land around Shiloh Church was typical of the geography between the Landing and Corinth. Dense woods were cut by ravines near the river. A dozen or so fields of various sizes were scattered throughout the forests. There were more trails than roads by which to march. All this made it difficult to maintain a solid linear formation while advancing. Communication between divisions was an equally daunting task.
Upon this difficult terrain advanced some 44,000 troops that had never seen combat before. They were led by men who had never attempted to manage a force of this magnitude, guided by an operational alignment that emphasized weight of numbers over maneuverability.
Johnston planned to be at the front, leading the brigades of his army personally. Beauregard was left to direct reinforcements and supplies from the rear. The command/control arrangement was "loose" to say the least. In the confusing fighting that followed, Confederate divisional commanders were directed by only two factors: a standing order by Beauregard to always march to the sound of the heaviest fighting, and Johnston's personal ability to direct specific portions of the battlefield at specific times.
Though encamped, the Union army was in the process of sending out an early morning reconnaissance when, at last, the Southern force began its assault. A regiment of Brigadier-General Benjamin M. Prentiss' Sixth division was moving through two of the open fields in the forest with instructions to see what was beyond the Union picket line. Just west of Prentiss, campfires were being lit for morning coffee in the Fifth division, under Sherman's command. There, too, a regiment was out with the pickets, feeling for the enemy.
Understanding Shiloh Continued
Copyright © W. Keith Beason, 1999
Version 2.0 is forthcoming with photos, original maps, complete endnotes, and updated information based upon new research. Stay tuned.
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