On April 5, 1862, the Army of the Tennessee, led by Major General U.S. Grant, was resting near Pittsburg Landing following victories over Forts Henry and Donaldson. Two miles away, camped around Shiloh Meeting House, was the division under Major General William T. Sherman. They were awaiting reinforcement by the Army of the Ohio, led by Major General Don Carlos Buell, which was coming from Nashville.
Confederate forces led by General Albert Sidney Johnston had gathered 22 miles south at Corinth, Mississippi. Already outnumbered and with Grant’s forces being reinforced by Buell, Johnston knew that he had to act fast, hitting Grant before those reinforcements could join the Army of the Tennessee and give Grant overwhelming numbers.
Johnston’s army attacked the unfortified Union camp about 5:00 on Sunday morning, April 6, catching the Yankees by surprise and routing them. Much of the fighting occurred around Shiloh Meeting House, a one-room, log church. But then Johnston inexplicably halted the attack and sent troops to cover a presumed threat to his right flank. The two-hour delay gave the Union forces time to regroup and fortify a line of battle. in a sunken road that would become known as the “Hornet’s Nest.” The Confederates repeatedly but in piecemeal fashion assaulted the position, pounded it with 62 artillery pieces, and eventually surrounded it. By 5:00 p.m., the Union army had nearly been defeated.
In the fighting, Johnston fell, hit in the back of his knee by a nearly spent minie ball that severed an artery. He died within about 20 minutes. Command passed to General P.G.T. Beauregard, who ordered a halt to the attack. The victory seemed to belong to the Confederacy.
Had Beauregard continued to press the attack at the point when he took command, he might have held the field, ensuring a Confederate victory. He planned to resume the attack the next morning, but by that time, Buell’s troops had arrived and, fortified and reinvigorated, the Union troops launched successive counterattacks and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
On April 8, Grant hit the retreating Southerners at Fallen Timbers. Only the determined resistance by Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest’s rear guard cavalrymen prevented Grant from gaining a total victory over the retreating Confederates. Instead, Grant decided to return to Pittsburg Landing, where he would regroup and plan for his assault on the Mississippi and, from there, the division of the heartland of the Confederacy.
Historian Wiley Sword characterized the Battle of Shiloh as “the Pearl Harbor of the Civil War.” It was only the second major battle of the war after First Manassas, and it was startlingly bloody. Waged by 65,085 Union troops and 44,968 Confederates, it resulted in 3,482 killed (1,745 Union, 1,728 Confederate), 16,420 wounded (8,408 Union, 8,012 Confederate), and 3,844 missing or captured (2,885 Union, 959 Confederate). It was an ill omen of what would follow for both sides in what promised to be a long, bloody war. It was, for the South, the beginning of the end for the Confederate armies in the West.
This bloodiest battle to that point in the war offered many lessons to be learned. Unfortunately, they escaped the notice of the generals, meaning that the lessons would have to be repeated in future engagements.
- Never let down your guard; always be prepared. The enemy is likely to attack when you least expect it.
- Press your advantage while you have it; never give the enemy a chance to regroup, reinforce, or fortify against your attack. Once he is routed, keep him on the run. Allow no respite.
- Never declare victory before you’ve won decisively. This is a way of saying, “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.” The battle is not over until the enemy says it’s over!
- Be sure that the second in command knows the details of both the battle plan and the current situation so that if he must assume command he can follow through with the leader’s successful original plans and finish the victory that has been begun and is imminent.