Shiloh April 6–7, 1862 Was A Perfect Storm Of Missed Communications.

by Daniel Russ on November 6, 2012

Pierre T G Beauregard


General Pierre T G Beauregard

Shiloh. It shares the same etymology as the Hebrew word “Shalom”. Shiloh was a small Methodist Church near the battlefield that gave its name as the moniker for the first real battle of the American Civil War after Manassas. It means “Place of Peace” Elsie Duncan Hurt’s slave nurse returned home one day mentioning the “strange steamboats on the river and Yankees camped in the hills.”


To Pierre T. Beauregard, this was a chance to attack immediately.  He knew Grant was waiting for another Union Army Corps to join up led by General Buell. Beauregard could have waited as well for a 14,000 man string force under Van Dorn. Albert Sydney Johnston certainly wanted to wait for them. Instead Beauregard persuaded him to go on the attack.


The order given to attack was not clear. Some units formed up and waited for other Confederate regiments to join in formation, others attacked, and before long unit cohesion disintegrated. The units under Beauregard were green their lines were hopelessly discombobulated. Units were lost, walking in the wrong direction, and they fired on each other. Nearby Confederate forces also were lost and out of order. Commanders sat and waited for clear written directions before moving forward. For General Polk, it was an extreme embarrassment, and a lucky turn of events for Grant and Sherman who had no idea that a force slightly larger than theirs was lurching in their general direction.


General Leonidas Polk

General Leonidas Polk

The Union forces as well were mostly newly recruited and hardly trained. Many had just received their rifles days before. So rather than have the men pitch a camp, they were drilled in close order combat. It was thought that they needed gun training more than they needed tents established as an encampment.  That said, a flash rain and thundershowers mired the field of battle in mud. It was as hard on the infantry as it was on the horse drawn artillery. The attack itself was aborted and put off until August 6th.


August 6th. Much of the Battle of Shiloh was a result of lack of intelligence. Grant did not know the Confederates were forming up for an attack. Pierre T. Beauregard could not deliver to his field commanders in time and when the attack ensued, there was a lull of almost an hour costing the Confederates the advantage of surprise. In fact, Grant was standing when a Confederate cannon decapitated an officer standing just a few feet away from him. Sherman was shot in the hand when he yelled “We are attacked,” and rode off to form up the troops.


In the meantime, the Union soldiers were cooking, eating, smoking, other wise enjoying a halcyon day of bird song, sunshine and breeze. Orchids and Dogwoods were in full bloom, pine cones and layers of pine needles covered the forest floor like a blanket. 


The infantry attack sent forth by Johnston was a messy affair over uneven ground, some of it a mix of hard ground, copses and swamp. The number of Confederates committed to the battle seemed to out number the Union forces on the field, but conditions on the ground obviated the advantage. Johnston’s forces were forcing the Union line back into the snake-infested swamps of the Owl River. Grant wasn’t there when the attack began. Indeed, he had a long ferry ride because when the attack came it was reported that Grant was dallying in a mansion away from the field. By dallying, we mean…we was inflagrante delicto.


The green Union troopers were now fighting from a swamp. Gun powder charges had to be kept dry and we know that the disease carrying insects were a bigger threat than southern musket fire   Infection and malaria were probably the biggest killers in the Civil War. But at Shiloh, the air was filled with flying whistling lead, lead that cut the verdant sky lines down to toothpicks. Just when it seemed like the day was over, Buell showed up and pinned Lee’s forces between two Union lines.


Meanwhile Johnston fell out of his saddle at his corps headquarters, as he had unknowingly bled to death from a musket wound to his leg. Beauregard took command and began an attempt to stabilize his lines.  That’s when Buell showed up. It was a thunderclap of surprise. Beautregard didn’t know until the tide had turned in favor of the Union forces. Later on the 7th, overwhelmed, Beauregard ordered a retreat to Corinth, Mississippi.


During the two days of Shiloh 24,000 men either died, or were wounded. Both sides suffered, but for the Confederates it was the loss of a Mississippi control point. For the Union it was proof that this would be a longer and bloodier battle than they expected. For Grant, he had to fight charges that he was dallying in a woman’s house when he was caught unawares. Accused of inebriation, always the default accusation for Grant, his days of drunken stupor had imprecated him forever.



Sources: Smith, Timothy B. The Untold Story of Shiloh: The Battle and the Battlefield. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2006; Wikipedia




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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Louis September 21, 2017 at 6:35 am

As Buell was approaching from the other side of the river, I don’t think he pinned Beauregard between two forces.
And you fail to mention the Lexington, who’s supportive fire from the river, on a Confederate attack, apparantly prevented a rout by those Union forces under attack.

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