Interesting Topics: The Battle of Shiloh

I just had to write this paper for my Civil War History class, and I’m pretty proud of it. The paper is long but not huge, so there’s more that can be said, but I think I got the main points, and even with some extra details thrown in.

The battle was extremely interesting. I hope you enjoy the read and learn something.

UPDATE: A on the paper, disappointing 73 on the exam, 88 in the class. I’ll take it.

The Battle of Shiloh

           On the night of April 6, 1862, General Grant stood underneath a large tree in order to provide himself with a little shelter from the pouring rain. Smoking a cigar, he was left to contemplate the battle that had gone on earlier in the day. His army was in a desperate position, having been pushed back by the Confederates several miles until they were finally forced to take up position behind Shiloh Church and in front of the Tennessee River, their only option remaining to wait for reinforcements. The cries of the wounded and dying echoed through the night air, still audible even above the pounding rain; by the battle’s end there would be more casualties than the entirety of the American Revolution.

            It was in this position that General Sherman found General Grant. According to legend, Sherman looked at Grant and said, “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” Grant looked up at Sherman, seemingly contemplating the statement as he took a long puff on his cigar. Finally he responded with the immortal line: “Yes; Yes. Lick em’ tomorrow though.”[1]

            This was Grant’s attitude at the end of day one of the battle of Shiloh, the bloodiest battle in American history up to that point. All told, by the end of the two day battle there were over 20,000 casualties, with over 3,000 men dead, 12,000 Union Casualties and 10,000 Confederate casualties.[2] Despite the carnage, however, the battle was an important one, with repercussions that had a huge effect on the rest of the war.

            The stage for the battle had begun to be set several months before. On February 16, 1862, Grant, at the time a Brigadier General, captured Fort Donelson, an important fort containing over 15,000 Confederate men as well as many Confederate munitions.[3] The battle was important primarily because of the loss of Confederate men and gaining of arms, all of which might have been of use later during the Battle of Shiloh, but also because the Union now had control of the Cumberland River, cutting off an important Confederate supply line. As a result of the major success achieved in the battle Grant was promoted from Brigadier General to Major General, second in command only to General Halleck.  According to Grant’s later account of the battle Shiloh, after the capture of Donelson he “…believed much more could be accomplished without further sacrifice of life. Clarksville, a town between Donelson and Nashville, in the State of Tennessee, and on the east bank of the Cumberland, was garrisoned by the enemy. Nashville was also garrisoned, and was probably the best provisioned depot at the time in the Confederacy. Albert Sidney Johnston occupied Bowling Green, Kentucky, with a large force. I believed, and my information justified the belief, that these places would fall into our hands without a battle, if threatened promptly…it was my duty to communicate to [General Halleck] all I proposed to do, and to get his approval, if possible. I did so communicate, and receiving no reply, acted upon my own judgment.”

            Grant claimed that the “results proved [his] information correct, and sustained [his] judgment.”[4] He was therefore surprised when General Halleck sent him a letter berating him for not following orders and simply staying put and strengthening his position. He pushed Grant into virtual exile for a week on board a steamer, and only when this was over was he ordered to resume command (it is theorized that an inquiry from President Lincoln is what prompted Halleck to give command back to Grant). These events occurred roughly from the 4th to the 10th of March, and after they occurred Grant moved five divisions down to Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, with a sixth nearby. His goal was to stay in such a position that he could meet up with Buell so that both armies, then led by Halleck, could go down and seize the Memphis and Charleston Railroad.

            Confederate General Johnston, meanwhile, had his own problems to contend with. After the disastrous defeat at Fort Donelson he was forced to withdraw into Western Tennessee to reorganize. If the South lost the western theater it would close up their most direct route up into the North and it would give the North access to several important rivers as well as the Memphis and Charleston Railroad. Essentially, losing the West would all but lose the war, even if the implications weren’t immediately clear, and Johnston knew this. Johnston settled in Corinth, Mississippi to try and reorganize his troops, about twenty miles South from Grant’s position at Pittsburg Landing.[5] He asked for, and got, several thousand new men meant not only to replace those lost in the Fort Donelson debacle but also to create an even larger army, the newly formed Army of the Mississippi that would later become the Army of Tennessee. His plan was to stay in position near Grant and attack if he thought he would be successful. As it turned out, he had a golden opportunity.

            Grant had set up his base at Pittsburg Landing (with his troops gathered around Shiloh Church, the battle’s namesake). Grant’s army was utterly unprepared for an attack. He had his troops camped out haphazardly in bivouacs around the campsite, and he had hardly any advance scouts standing watch. The weather on April fifth, the eve of the attack, was sunny and warm; so sunny, in fact, that Grant’s soldiers decided to use it as an excuse to rest and relax. Grant was not happy; he called it “…the most complete picture of laziness I ever saw.”[6] He got the soldiers up and drilling in an attempt to improve discipline. This took priority over fortifications, which proved to be a mistake.

            General William T. Sherman was Grant’s second in command at Shiloh, and would end up being Grant’s most reliable General throughout the war. It was Sherman who was in charge of preparing Pittsburg Landing for a sneak attack, and remarkably he barely considered it a possibility. He went so far as to tell an Ohio Colonel who tried to warn him, “Take your damned regiment back to Ohio. There is no enemy nearer than Corinth.”[7] His denial was actually quite remarkable. He didn’t even send a lot of advance scouts, and as a result of this the Confederate army was able to camp out a mere three miles away from Pittsburg Landing.

            The North did catch one lucky break. The night of April 5, directly before the battle, an intense rainstorm hit the area. This made the rivers swell and the ground muddy, making it more difficult for the Confederate army to advance upon the Union position. By the time morning hit, the weather was perfectly clear and sunny-but by that point the damage had been done.

            The Union’s only warning of the coming battle was a small skirmish that had broken out just outside of Pittsburg Landing between the Prentiss’s First Brigade (of the Northern Army), commanded at the time by Colonel Everett Peabody, and the 25th Missouri Infantry. This was enough to prevent the Union from being taken completely by surprise – in other words, contrary to the popular legend, Grant’s army was NOT awoken from its sleep by the advancing rebels, and they were able to put up some semblance of a defense.

            “Some semblance” normally doesn’t win battles though, and this case was no exception as the Union forces were driven back by a ferocious Confederate attack-although not one without its faults. Johnston and General P.G.T. Beauregard, his second in command, had no unified battle plan, and it showed. Johnston’s attack plan was thus: “Polk the left, Bragg the center, Hardee the right, Breckinridge in reserve.”[8] His goal was to cut off the Union’s route to the Tennessee River, which worked as both a supply line and retreat avenue.

            What confused things is when he ordered Beauregard to stay in the rear and direct the battle as he deemed necessary – and naturally he saw things differently than Johnston did. Beauregard’s idea was simple brute force; he just wanted to send out three large waves of Confederate attacks. Unlike Johnston he actually wanted the Union to be driven back to the river, believing that it would work basically as a dead end. The conflicting visions of the Generals naturally led to a very disorganized attack, with the corps of Generals Hardee and Bragg intermingling mid-battle, diluting their effectiveness as they bunched up in one place and attacked with no real plan. Beauregard also ordered the corps of Generals Polk and Breckinridge up to the front line of the assault, which had the result of making the attack basically one stretched line running straight forward instead of a coordinated series of waves or sections.

            On the Union side, the element of surprise and ferocious fighting was still enough to drive the army backwards. Grant had a badly hurt ankle caused by having a horse fall on top of it (luckily into mud, so it wasn’t completely flattened), and despite the battle starting at roughly 5:15 he wasn’t able to arrive until 9:00. It was Sherman who took the lead in the battle, making up for his negligence in alerting the army by going to the front lines and inspiring his soldiers, encouraging them to hold their lines for as long as possible despite heavy losses. Sherman put himself in grave danger while doing this, suffering two minor wounds and losing three horses. His division bore the brunt of the fighting, and while it was eventually driven back it inflicted heavy casualties upon the Confederates.[9]

            Still, despite the vicious fighting and Confederate fumbles Beauregard at least got what he wanted: by the end of the day on April 5 the Union was backed up against the Tennessee River. It is now that the legendary “Hornet’s Nest” really gains prominence. The “Hornet’s Nest”, made up of troops from Prentiss’s and W.H.L. Wallace’s divisions, was actually active as early as 9:00 AM onward. The Nest got its name from the vicious fighting and incredible resilience of the troops that made it up. These troops occupied a field on what is now called the “Sunken Road”, despite the fact that it isn’t actually sunken. As history has always shown even a small group of men holding a narrow position can hold out for an exceptionally long time (Thermopylae from the second Persian War being the prime example). Amazingly, the troops lasted all the way until between 5 and 6 PM, and withstood anywhere between 8 to 14 Confederate attacks before being surrounded by artillery and forced to surrender.[10] The sacrifice of the troops in the Hornet’s Nest bought Grant much needed time to organize his forces while waiting for reinforcements.

            The Northern army looked to be in dire position, having their backs driven against the wall (e.g. the Tennessee River) in a dominating performance by the Confederates. Clara Solomon, a Southern woman who kept a diary during the war, quoted an unnamed Southern newspaper saying on the morning of April 6, “The day is ours. We have achieved a glorious victory. Our loss is supposed to be 1500killed, enemy’s 3 times that number…”[11]

But looks can be deceiving; during the battle the South suffered a major blow when General Johnston was killed, having been shot in the leg and dying of blood loss, leading to the much more cautious General Beauregard taking command. He made the extremely controversial decision to call for a halt in the Confederate attack at 6 PM; in modern times this decision has been looked at more sympathetically, but at the time it was considered an obviously disastrous order by outside observers. As private soldier Samuel Watkins of the Tennessee First Infantry Regiment wrote:

“What! Halt after today’s victory? Sidney Johnson killed, General Gladden killed, and a host of generals and other brave men killed, and the whole Yankee army in full retreat. These four letters, h-a-l-t, O, how harsh they did break upon our ears. The victory was complete, but the word “halt” turned victory into defeat. “[12]

This reaction by Watkins ended up being very indicative of the Southern reaction as a whole. Whether his decision to rest and save his men was correct or not, from what we know of his battle style it is probable that Johnston would have continued the attack; the outcome of the battle may have been quite different with Johnston as Commander.

At any rate, Beauregard’s decision gave Grant’s army time to rest and recuperate as they waited for much-needed reinforcements from General Buell. Grant himself claimed that, with the late arrival of General Wallace’s division from the battle, the North would have won the next day even without Buell’s intervention; he writes, “So confident was I before firing had ceased on the 6th that the next day would bring victory to our arms if we could only take the initiative, that I visited each division commander in person before any reinforcements had reached the field…Victory was assured when Wallace arrived with his division of five thousand effective veterans, even if there had been no other support.”[13] However, there’s no denying that Buell’s addition of 15,000 men from General Buell’s army made a significant difference the next day of the battle.

April 7, 1862, the second day of the battle of Shiloh, can only be described as a rout by the Union Army, who made good on Grant’s claim that he’d “lick em’ tomorrow”. The Union Army now numbered 45,000 men to the Confederate Army’s 28,000 men, a huge numerical difference that was simply impossible for the South to overcome. Still, the fighting remained fierce, with the Confederates making a brave attempt to stave off defeat as long as possible as the Union army pushed them relentlessly backwards. Sherman described the fighting at Hamburg-Purdy Road as some of the most vicious he had ever seen. To his credit Beauregard even managed to organize his forces enough to launch a brave counterattack down by the Shiloh Church area, refusing to admit defeat without a fight. Ultimately, however, the attack was repelled by Colonel James C. Veatch’s brigade.[14]

Badly outnumbered now and on the defensive, Beauregard was finally forced to admit retreat, and at 5:00 ordered a retreat behind the Shiloh Church. The Union chose not to follow. The battle was over.

The Battle of Shiloh had huge implications for the rest of the war. First and foremost the Confederates had been utterly defeated in the Western theater and were never able to make any serious attempts at progress there again. Ultimately the loss of the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, Cumberland River, and easy route to the North made it virtually impossible for the South to win the war. Also significant were the effects on leadership; for the South, General Johnston was gone, having been replaced by second-in-command Beauregard. Interestingly, this may have actually indirectly helped the South as it paved the way for the eventual leadership of the brilliant General Lee.

As for the North, the battle was a hallmark of Grant’s career, the largest and most important battle he had won to date. Despite this, he was vilified by the press for his lack of preparedness (something that was at least as much Sherman’s fault as his, at any rate). Nevertheless, the battle caused President Lincoln to look upon him favorably. He was impressed that despite being outnumbered and outmatched on the first day Grant had not panicked when the odds were against him and kept a cool enough head to know that by holding out he could still expect to gain a victory. Lincoln defended Grant with the now famous quote, “I can’t spare this man; he fights.”[15] Evidently, Halleck disagreed with Lincoln; he demoted Grant to the powerless position of second-in-command. Grant would not have a major role in the war again until much later, when he would take down Vicksburg and ultimately become the overall Commander of Union forces.

The battle of Shiloh still stands as one of the most brutal battles in American history; it is one of the “great battles” of the Civil War, known for its staggering loss of men, along with such battles as Gettysburg and Antietam. The battle ultimately paved the way towards Union victory, though not immediately. At the time it sidelined the Union’s best General, Grant, for a long period of time while opening up the door for the Confederacy’s best General, Lee. It would be many years and many thousands upon thousands more lives lost before the terrible war would finally be over once and for all.

[1] Sword, Wiley. Shiloh: Bloody April. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992), 369-82

[2] Cunningham, O. Edward. Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862. Edited by Gary Joiner and Timothy Smith. (New York: Savas Beatie, 2007), 422-24

[3] Cunningham, Shiloh And, 72-74

[4] Ulysses S. Grant, The Battle of Shiloh (1885), excerpted, from The Century Magazine, Vol. XXIX, (accessed 1 May 2013), para. 2-3

[5] Eicher, David J. The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), p. 222

[6] Grant, Battle of Shiloh, para. 9

[7] Sword, Shiloh, p. 127

[8] Cunningham, Shiloh And, p. 140

[9] McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States). (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 409

[10] Eicher, The Longest, p. 227

[11] Clara Solomon, The Diary of Clara Solomon (1862), excerpted, (accessed May 1, 2013), para. 10

[12] Samuel Watkins, Company Aytch: A Sideshow of the Big Show (1862), excerpted, (accessed May 1, 2013), para. 12-14

[13] Grant, Battle of Shiloh, Para. 22

[14] Daniel, Larry J. Shiloh: The Battle That Changed the Civil War. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), p. 275-283

[15] Cunningham, Shiloh And, p. 382-83


Cunningham, O. Edward, Gary D. Joiner, and Timothy B. Smith. Shiloh and the western campaign of 1862. New York: Savas Beatie, 2007.

Daniel, Larry J.. Shiloh: the battle that changed the Civil War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Eicher, David J.. The longest night: a military history of the Civil War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

Grant, Ulysses. “The Battle of Shiloh.” Century Magazine. (accessed May 1, 2013).

McPherson, James M.. Battle cry of freedom: the Civil War era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Solomon, Clara. “The Diary of Clara Solomon.” Research Online. (accessed May 1, 2013).

Sword, Wiley. Shiloh: bloody April. New York: Morrow, 1974.

Watkins, Samuel. “Company Aytch: A Sideshow of the Big Show .” Research Online.         (accessed May 1, 2013).

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1 Response to Interesting Topics: The Battle of Shiloh

  1. Gerald says:

    Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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