Battle Of Shiloh, April 6th – 7th, 1862

by Daniel Russ on July 6, 2010

Battle of Shiloh, Painted By Thure Thulstrup

Shiloh was fought for stakes that were nothing less than control of the upper Mississippi Valley. Robert E. Lee was looking for a surprise attack on Union troops that were on a rare roll of minor victories against the Army of Northern Virginia. At Shiloh, he looked a bit like Napoleon Bonaparte; the Grand Armee was so big and so powerful, the Europeans had to form a coalition of forces to fight them. While the various armies were in the process of joining up, Napoleon would attack them piecemeal, on the way to the battlefield. Lee was looking for the same advantage here. He knew that a 48,000 man Union force was headed into Western Tennessee and 18,000 Union reinforcements were on their way a day behind them. He decided that it would be better to launch a surprise attack on the 48,000 man Union force than wait until it became a 66,000 man force. Ulysses Grant was in command of the Army of the Potomac, encamped at Pittsburg Landing along the Tennessee River. Lee intended the surprise attack to cross through the woods to force the Union Army into Owl Creek swamp.

Blooded, competent commanders faced each other. Under Lee, General Pierre T. Beauregard had just had throat surgery and was too weak to lead, even though he showed up. Albert Sydney Johnson, his second in command took the lead. Fighting for the Union, Ulysses S. Grant was short, unkempt and not a particularly gregarious person. Someone described him as “Silent in several languages.” These characters were in rare from in that no one was quite prepared for the surprises to come during the day.  The soldiers under the Union  force had seen success months earlier and were confident. This particular group of Confederates were green. During the 22 mile march into the battle zone these green Confederates gave themselves away. On April 5th, 1862, the march began and it rained heavily as the Confederates walked through dirt roads. Many were worried that their cartridges were soaked and wouldn’t fire, so the young Confederates fired off a few rounds here and there to see the results. Grant had few pickets out since he was in between a wild river and deep pines thickets. “I have scarcely the faintest idea of an attack (general one) being made upon us, but will be prepared should such a thing take place,” Grant asserted. William Tecumseh Sherman also collected reports of sporadic musket fire and simply ignored them. Colonel Everett Peabody sent out a portion of the 25th Missouri infantry to reconnoiter the western edge of the camp, and soon came upon Confederates whereupon a skirmish began.

Neither side was ready when the battle began. Like Gettysburg the next year, Shiloh started accidentally, and began a moving front. Confederate General Albert Sydney Johnston told his men early that morning “Tonight was are going to drive the Yankess into the Tennessee River.” However, the element of surprise was lost and Beauregard wanted to abort the attack. Lee insisted that it go on, and communication lines were so tenuous that neither of them knew the battle had in fact already begun. The fact is, the element of surprise was still there as the infantry attack to the east caught Sherman off guard who was surprised to see Rebel soldiers less than a mile away and head his way.

Musket Cartridge. User Bit Off The Tied End, Poured The Charge Into The Barrel And Tamped It Down. Then The Lead Ball Rounds, Then Tamped Them Down. These Had To Be Kept Dry.

The first attack was an attempt to force Union lines against Snake Creek, and it was a major frontal assault on Grant’s lines. Most of it focused on an area of clear dry ground in the middle of the line called The Hornet’s Nest. Facing the Confederates was Union artillery and in the first moments Confederates made their assault, Union artillery found its targets and the Rebels fell in large number. Union lines held well, but the hooping and hollering Confederates under Beauregard and Johnston succeeded in moving Grant’s forces back.

The Confederates sounded a retreat and regrouped for another major assault. They made a mistake on the next attack, the Confederates attacked through a heavily wooded area, so thick were the pines that accordingly many units got lost, or accidentally fired upon their own. Union soldiers were using repeating rifles and were about to inflict heavy casualties on the massive Southern assault. Beauregard tried to cut off Grant’s right flank to cut his supply lines. Wikipedia describes the middle of the day during the second Southern charge: “The assault, despite some shortcomings, was ferocious, and some of the numerous inexperienced Union soldiers of Grant’s new army fled for safety to the Tennessee River. Others fought well but were forced to withdraw under strong pressure and attempted to form new defensive lines. Many regiments fragmented entirely; the companies and sections that remained on the field attached themselves to other commands. During this period, Sherman, who had been so negligent in preparation for the battle, became one of its most important elements. He appeared everywhere along his lines, inspiring his raw recruits to resist the initial assaults despite staggering losses on both sides. He received two minor wounds and had three horses shot out from under him.”

General Albert Sydney Johnson was rallying his own troops and took a round in the leg. After a while he slumped into his saddle and had to be pulled off of his horse. He had bled to death into his own boot and didn’t know it. It was a huge blow to Lee. Lee responded during the afternoon with a 53 gun artillery barrage into the Grant’s lines at the Hornet’s Nest to good effect. By the end of the first day, Grant had indeed been pushed back to the Snake River and many Union Units either ran for the cover of the river or were taken prisoner at the Hornet’s next which the Confederates overran.

Artillery exchanges went on through out the night.

Both sides had taken big losses, confusion reigned in Confederate lines regarding exactly where the lines were. This was not an open battlefield, but dense woods amidst creeks and rivers, and most of it during a constant rain. However, Union riverboats Tyler and Lexington showed up on the Tennessee River behind the Union lines and fired large explosive canisters over the Union encampments into Lee’s lines. The riverboat guns found their marks and Confederates took considerably more casualties overnight.

The next day, 18,000 Union reinforcements under Buell showed up. By midday on the 7th of April 1862, Lee called it a day and ordered a retreat. The Union Suffered 13,000 casualties, Lee suffered almost 11,000.

Union Riverboat Lexington Showed Up And Saved The day, Or Night As It Were, At Shiloh.

Sources: Wikipedia, History Channel, Battle of Shiloh, The Battle That Decided The Civil War. Larry J. Daniel, 1998.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Anthony January 9, 2011 at 10:35 pm

Joseph Johnston was not in command and killed at Shiloh … it was Albert Sidney Johnston.

Carol Stickley February 12, 2011 at 2:20 pm

I have the same post as the above comment. Why have you not changed this mistake since the above post was made on Jan 9, 2011? Joseph Johnston was not in command and killed at Shiloh it was Albert Sidney Johnston. You have this info noted correctly at the beginning of this article but incorrectly in the 5th paragraph. Hope you will fix it soon.

Daniel Russ February 12, 2011 at 4:58 pm

OK. Fixed.

Thank you for reading my blog and correcting this.

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