The Battle of Shiloh: The Devil's Day

When soldiers in Blue and Gray met at Shiloh on April 6 1862, the Confederacy was a year old. While each side had scored victories on the battlefield, there had been no strategic blows. But all that was about to change.

For two dreary spring days two great armies clashed at Shiloh, a small church that was nothing more than a log cabin near the bank of the Tennessee River in western Tennessee. The location, the timing, and the outcome were the results of miscalculations, miscommunications, and misunderstandings. When the battle was over the balance of power in the Western theater of the Civil War had tipped heavily toward the North.

The Union campaign that brought the armies together at Shiloh began in February along the Kentucky-Tennessee border where Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston had established a long thin line of defense. On the western end, Fort Henry and Fort Donelson guarded the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, which gave access to the Deep South. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who had not previously distinguished himself, attacked both forts with soldiers and gunboats. Fort Henry fell quickly, in no small part because the fort, built on low and swampy ground, was mostly submerged, a victim of the rising waters of the Tennessee River. Fort Donelson offered more resistance, but with indecisive generals—two abdicated their posts—it fell 10 days later with the surrender of 12,00 to 15,000 Confederate troops.

The collapse of the Confederate forts opened the rivers for a Union advance. The immediate target was Corinth, Miss., where the junction of the Mobile & Ohio Railroad and the Memphis & Charleston Railroad provided a vital logistical link for the Confederacy. Gen. Henry Halleck, commander of the western Union armies, recognized the strategic importance of Corinth when he wrote to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, "Richmond and Corinth are now the great strategic points of war and our success at these points should be insured at all hazards." The Confederate secretary of war referred to the railroad junction at Corinth as "the vertebrae of the Confederacy." With the easy capture of the forts, the Union was confident of further success. The advance to Corinth would be like running an errand, one general wrote to his wife.

With no natural defenses to fall back on and the loss of a third of his Army, Johnston withdrew his forces to Corinth to regroup and protect the town's railroad crossing. Grant, with unrestricted access to the Tennessee River, ferried five divisions to Pittsburg Landing about 22 miles north of Corinth, and one to Savannah, a few miles downstream. Grant was eager to press on, but was ordered to wait until Gen. Don Carlos Buell, who had just captured Nashville, could reinforce him.

The Union Army, meanwhile, bivouacked with no concern of attack. Grant, headquartered at Savannah, designated Gen. William T. Sherman as his field commander. Sherman paid no particular attention to the placement of his encampments. His relatively green division was in the forward center about four miles inland from the river. Brig. Gen. Benjamin Prentiss' division was to the left of Sherman; those of Brig. Gens. Stephen Hurlburt and John McClernand were behind Sherman; Brig. Gen. William H.L. Wallace was near Pittsburg Landing, while Major Gen. Lew Wallace's division was six miles away. The battle-tested soldiers were toward the rear. No one believed the Confederates would attack, although they were almost certainly aware of Confederate troops nearby. "I have scarcely the faintest idea of an attack being made upon us," Grant wrote to Halleck.

Knowing that Buell was coming, Johnston decided to attack before Union reinforcements would render the Confederates hopelessly outnumbered. His plan was to drive the Union Army into a swamp along the tributary Owl Creek and away from the river. Gen. Pierre Beauregard, second-in-command, disagreed, wanting to drive them back into the river. The two generals never reconciled their different strategies. There were logistical problems and confusion over orders that delayed the Confederate advance, costing them valuable time. A heavy rain bogged down troops and artillery.

The Confederates were organized into four corps under Gens. Leonidas Polk, Braxton Bragg, William J. Hardee, and John Breckenridge. Johnston planned to march on April 3 and attack on April 4, but confusion over orders—Hardee refused to march until he received his orders in writing—delayed the departure from Corinth. Heavy rain on April 4 slowed the advance. Then one of Bragg's divisions was "lost" and out of position, delaying the attack another day until April 6. By this time the first of Buell's soldiers had reached Savannah just to the north.

On April 5, the eve of the battle, the Confederate Army was camped two miles from the Union forces. Orders to maintain silence were ignored as soldiers fired their weapons to make sure their powder was dry, but still the Union heard nothing, and Sherman brushed off warnings. When Col. Jesse Appler of the 53rd Ohio told Sherman his men had been fired on by a "line of men in butternut clothes," Sherman's response was, "Take your damned regiment back to Ohio. There is no enemy closer than Corinth."

Union troops remained under orders to avoid contact with the Confederates until Buell's division arrived. Nevertheless, a patrol sent by Col. Everett Peabody, a brigade commander in Prentiss' division, encountered a Confederate outpost in the predawn hours of April 6. Shots were exchanged, fighting erupted, and the battle began. Prentiss chastised Peabody for provoking the conflict: "Colonel Peabody, I will hold you personally responsible for bringing on this engagement." Peabody did not survive the day.

Johnston telegraphed his formation to President Davis: "Polk on the left, Bragg the center, Hardee the right, Breckenridge in reserve." Confident of an upcoming victory, he told his staff officers, "Tonight we will water our horses in the Tennessee River."

The Confederate assault was disorganized; soldiers from different corps were mixed, artillery was misplaced, and unit movements were not well-coordinated. Yet the Union line gave way, with Sherman's inexperienced division taking the brunt of the attack. Appler panicked under the strain: "Retreat and save yourself," he ordered, even though his men were holding off an assault by the Confederates. Only the intervention of another division prevented a rout. Grant sent orders for the reserve division to advance into the fray. The orders were confused and the battlefield was changing rapidly. The division never entered into the fight, and by the end of the day returned to its encampment six miles downstream.

With Union forces falling back, a line of defense was formed by Prentiss' decimated division reinforced by men from William Wallace's division on a farm road that became known as the Sunken Road. Meanwhile, disaster struck the Confederates in a nearby peach orchard. Johnston was wounded when a minie ball ruptured an artery in his right leg. The wound could have been treated, but Johnston had dispatched his personal physician to care for wounded soldiers. The general bled to death within an hour.

The Confederate attack on the Sunken Road continued. Dense thickets hindered their attack and provided cover for Union defenders. Bragg ordered as many as 12 assaults on the Union position that became known as the Hornet's Nest. Southern casualties were high as they faced what one Louisiana soldier called "a perfect tornado of rifle fire." Confederate artillery was finally brought to fire into the Hornet's Nest. With both flanks in retreat, the Union defenders of the Hornet's Nest had no choice but to surrender.

The Union's retreat ended with the establishment of a three-mile-long front around Pittsburg Landing. The Confederates sent two brigades in a futile attempt to break the line before Beauregard called off further action, confident that the Confederates would win the field the next day. Col. Wills De Hass with the 77th Ohio later described the scene: "Gradually the firing ceased. The Sabbath closed upon a scene which had no parallel on the Western Continent. The sun went down in a red halo, as if the very heavens blushed and prepared to weep at the enormity of man's violence. Night fell upon and spread its funereal pall over a field of blood where death held unrestrained carnival!"

Battle of Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee 1862. Getty Images.

The Confederates withdrew for the night into the former camps of Sherman and Prentiss. Polk returned to the previous Confederate bivouac four miles away. Meanwhile the first of Buell's army and Wallace's division were moving to reinforce the Union position. The odds would be very different on day two.

Dawn on April 7 revealed a much strengthened Union Army. With reinforcements arriving overnight, its 45,000 troops nearly doubled the Confederates' 28,000 men. Beauregard had planned to attack, but the Union made the first move at dawn. The Confederates were caught off guard much as the Union had been the day before. It took two hours to locate Polk and several more to stabilize the Confederate line. A counterattack by Breckenridge failed to dent the Union advance; an early afternoon counterattack by Beauregard likewise failed to turn the tide. With Breckenridge's division providing cover, the out-manned Confederates left the field of battle and began a orderly retreat back to Corinth.

The carnage was greater than any battle to that date. The Union had suffered 1,754 killed, 8,408 wounded, and 2,885 missing; the Confederates had 1,728 killed, 8,012 wounded and 959 missing or captured. A small pond near the Hornet's Nest has come to symbolize the suffering on both sides. "This shallow pond attracted the weary and wounded soldiers of both armies who were engaged in heavy fighting nearby. Some crawled here for their last drink. Observers after the battle reported that the pond was littered with dead soldiers and horses. Blood had turned the water a murky red," reads the National Park Service plaque located nearby.

In a footnote to the battle, Grant sent Sherman with two brigades and two cavalry battalions on a reconnaissance mission in the path of the retreating Confederates. Six miles south of Pittsburg Landing was a Confederate field hospital protected by 300 members of Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry. While the Union forces were clearing fallen trees out of the road, the cavalry attacked, nearly capturing Sherman. In the confusion of the attack, Forrest became separated from his men and was nearly captured himself. The incident ended with Sherman returning to the Union encampment, confident the Confederates were in full retreat.

Faced with a reinforced Union Army now led by Halleck, the Confederates in Corinth took what steps they could to defend the town. Halleck started for Corinth on April 29. By May 6, he was near but his advance had slowed to a crawl, moving only a mile a day and stopping to dig entrenchments every night. Facing overwhelming odds and recognizing that the Confederates could not withstand a siege, Beauregard decided to evacuate Corinth creating what historian Shelby Foote called "the greatest hoax of the war." Men and equipment were evacuated by rail. Each returning train was greeted with cheers, convincing the Union forces that reinforcements were pouring into the town. The evacuation was completed on the night of May 29. The strategic town of Corinth with its all-important railroad junction fell to the Union the next day.

The "what ifs" and recriminations began immediately. What if the weather and logistical foul-ups had not delayed the Confederate attack? What if Johnston had not died? What if Beauregard had tested the Union line at the end of the first day? On the Union side Grant claimed victory, while Buell asserted that victory could not have happened without his division. Prentiss claimed credit for the defense at the Hornet's Nest even though it was Wallace's men who comprised most of the defenders. (Wallace had been killed, so he could not counter Prentiss.) Grant was accused of being drunk the first day of the battle. Citizens on both sides were appalled by the carnage. The battle, which Sherman described as "the devil's own day," and the subsequent capture of Corinth by the Union Army was the first strategic blow to the South's chances of winning the war.

The loss of its most respected general (Lee had not yet made his mark), the opening of the rivers to Union invasion, and the loss of the vital western railroad junction were crippling setbacks to the Confederacy. The fighting at Shiloh, the bloodiest to date, was a haunting portent of what was to follow.

Top image: Getty Images.

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