April 6, 1862 – The most terrible battle of the war to date began as the Confederate Army of Mississippi swarmed upon unsuspecting Federals in southwestern Tennessee.
The Confederates, exhausted and hungry after days of marching in cold rain and mud, were finally poised to make their long-awaited attack on the Federal Army of the Tennessee. The Federal supply base was at Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River, with the Federal camps strung out across several miles to the west between Owl and Lick creeks. The camps farthest from the landing were near a log cabin called Shiloh Church. No defensive works protected the camps.
General Albert Sidney Johnston, commanding the Confederate army, announced to his staff before dawn, “Tonight we will water our horses in the Tennessee River.” Johnston rode to the front to direct combat operations while his second in command, General P.G.T. Beauregard, stayed behind the lines to direct men and armaments as needed.
Johnston’s plan was to peel the Federal left, or east, flank away from the Tennessee River and pin the army into the cul-de-sac formed by the Owl and Lick creeks, cutting them off from their supply base and forcing them to surrender. However, like nearly everything else that occurred on April 6, this would not go according to plan.
Federal pickets encountered the advance elements of the Confederate army around 5:30 a.m. and quickly fell back to their main units. Most Federal commanders, including Brigadier General William T. Sherman at Shiloh, remained unaware that a major attack was coming. When panicked officers reported that Confederates were massing in their front, Sherman rode out to see for himself. Sherman saw nothing ahead, but then an officer yelled, “General, look to your right!” A wall of Confederates emerged from the woods and fired a deadly volley. Sherman hollered, “My God! We are attacked!”
Major General William J. Hardee’s Confederate corps made up the first attack wave. The unprepared Federals either hurried to try putting up some sort of defense or fled the field in terror. Considering that four of every five soldiers on both sides had never seen combat before, some Confederates fled as well. A soldier of the 15th Illinois Volunteer Infantry wrote:
“… The camp was alarmed Sunday morning just as the streaks of red began to tinge the eastern sky, by the rapid firing of the pickets, who soon came in with the report that the enemy was marching on us in overwhelming numbers and were even now in sight, as a shower of bullets which fell around too plainly indicated. There was no time to give orders then. It was life or death. The enemy was in camp before it had to arouse and form a line. Some were shot in their sleep, never knowing what hurt them. Terrible and complete was the surprise…”
The three westernmost Federal divisions under Sherman, John A. McClernand, and Benjamin M. Prentiss were hit first. The commanders tried rallying the men, with some running away and some throwing up makeshift defenses. As Hardee’s Confederates surged forward, they continuously penetrated the defenses and pushed the Federals northeast, or toward the Tennessee. This undermined Johnston’s plan of pushing them northwest, or away from the river.
The Federal army commander, Major General Ulysses S. Grant, was at his Savannah, Tennessee, headquarters, nine miles downriver from Pittsburg Landing. He had waited for Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio to join with his. Grant knew that one of Buell’s divisions under Brigadier General William “Bull” Nelson had already arrived at Savannah, but he did not yet know that Buell had arrived as well. When Grant heard the firing, he quickly directed Nelson to load his men on transports for Pittsburg to join the fight. He also wrote to Buell asking him to hurry the rest of his army to the front.
Grant rushed to Crump’s Landing, midway between Savannah and Pittsburg, where one of his divisions under Brigadier General Lew Wallace was stationed. Grant ordered Wallace to bring his division to the fight as well. Grant then steamed upriver to Pittsburg, where hundreds of terrified Federals had sought refuge under the bluffs along the riverbank after fleeing the field. Grant guessed by the ferocity of the Confederate attacks that they numbered at least 100,000 men.
The Confederates swept through the abandoned Federal camps, stopping to loot tents and knapsacks. They discarded thousands of dollars in “worthless” greenbacks. As Hardee’s assault began losing momentum around 8 a.m., the second Confederate wave under Major General Braxton Bragg arrived on the scene. The lack of combat experience on both sides and the dense undergrowth turned the battle into several isolated fights at various points and in all directions.
Johnston, at the front with Confederates about to assault the Federal left, sent a message to Beauregard in the rear, “We are sweeping the field, and I think we shall press them to the river.” Johnston seemingly abandoned his own plan to tear the enemy away from the river. Beauregard, apparently also disregarding Johnston’s initial plan, directed troops to go where the firing was heaviest, which was initially on the Federal right. This effectively drove the Federals toward the river, where Buell’s reinforcements would soon arrive.
Around 9 a.m., Prentiss’s Federals repelled a furious attack by 500 Confederates under Colonel John S. Marmaduke along what became known as the Sunken Road. Heavy fighting also occurred near a pond that was later called Bloody Pond. Soon after, the Federal divisions under Brigadier Generals W.H.L. Wallace (no relation to Lew Wallace) and Stephen A. Hurlbut arrived on either side of Prentiss. This helped stabilize the Federal line.
By 10:30, Prentiss, Wallace, and Hurlbut had established a strong defensive position in an area of dense brush. The Confederates rolled up the Federal right, commanded by Sherman and McClernand, but they could not penetrate this defense comprising the Federal center and left. The ferocity of combat in this sector of the battlefield prompted soldiers to call it the “Hornet’s Nest.” Grant, directing operations on horseback, recognized the importance of the Hornet’s Nest and ordered Prentiss to hold the position at all costs.
Meanwhile, Johnston directed attacks in a peach orchard in the front and left of the “Hornet’s Nest.” When Confederates from Major General John C. Breckinridge’s corps hesitated to attack, he joined with Johnston and Tennessee Governor Isham Harris to personally rally the men. The men, star-struck at seeing a former U.S. vice president, the army commander, and the state governor together, soon answered the call and charged.
Johnston personally led several charges that helped drive the Federals out of the orchard. Riding back to the main line around 2:30 p.m., Johnston reeled in the saddle and aides helped him to the ground. He had been shot, but nobody could find the wound until after he bled to death; a bullet had nicked an artery in the back of Johnston’s leg. A tourniquet could have saved him. Johnston became the highest ranking officer in either army to be killed in combat in the war. His aides tried hiding his death to avoid demoralizing the troops.
Beauregard took command from faraway Shiloh Church. He turned his attention to the Hornet’s Nest, where the Federals had withstood 11 Confederate charges. Beauregard directed Brigadier General Daniel Ruggles to train 62 cannon on the position.
By this time, the Federals to the left and right of the Hornet’s Nest had fallen back toward Pittsburg Landing, leaving the defenders isolated. W.H.L. Wallace had also been mortally wounded by a shell fragment to the head. Virtually surrounded and with no hope of reinforcement, Prentiss finally surrendered at 5:30. He had held for nearly seven hours, giving Grant precious time to form a strong, compact defensive perimeter around the landing.
Many Confederates stopped fighting after capturing Hornet’s Nest, believing the battle was won. The commanders knew better and directed them to renew their advance in the hopes of destroying Grant’s army before Buell could arrive. But after days of hard marching and a day of horrifying combat, the troops were breaking down from exhaustion.
Grant continued strengthening his defenses with the addition of Nelson’s division and many deserters who came out from under the bluffs to rejoin their comrades. Lew Wallace’s men had also finally arrived from Crump’s Landing, seven miles away. Wallace’s “lost division” had taken a wrong road and arrived too late to take part in the day’s fighting. In addition, heavy Federal siege guns were posted, and the gunboats U.S.S. Lexington and Tyler lobbed shells over the bluffs from the river.
Bragg directed a Confederate assault that was easily repulsed. Finally, Beauregard ordered a suspension of hostilities until morning. He telegraphed President Jefferson Davis that night: “After a severe battle of 10 hours, thanks be to the Almighty, (we) gained a complete victory, driving the enemy from every position.”
This was true. In addition, the Confederates had taken about 3,000 prisoners and 30 battle flags, along with many Federal encampments and supplies. Beauregard expressed confidence that a renewed attack the next morning would finish Grant off before retiring that night in Sherman’s bed.
Beauregard did not expect Buell to reinforce Grant because he had received an erroneous report from Colonel Benjamin H. Helm in northern Alabama that Buell’s army was advancing toward Helm and would not be joining with Grant at Pittsburg. Although Beauregard later asserted that Helm’s message had no influence on his strategy, he went to bed that night apparently unconcerned that Buell might be on his way.
That night, Prentiss was a guest of the Confederate high command as a prisoner of war. Prentiss acknowledged, “You have whipped our best troops today.” But when Bragg predicted that the Confederates would wrap up the victory the next day, Prentiss said, “You gentlemen have had your way today, but it will be very different tomorrow. You’ll see. Buell will effect a junction with Grant tonight and we’ll turn the tables on you in the morning.”
Heavy storms raged through the night. Troops on both sides tried sleeping through them and the sporadic cannon fire from the Federals trying to keep the exhausted Confederates awake. Neither side had developed a system for tending to the dead or wounded, so they lay in the field overnight. Hogs feasted on some of the corpses.
The Federal gunboats played a key role in demoralizing the Confederates that evening. Grant reported that “much is due to the presence of the gunboats Tyler and Lexington.” Beauregard wrote that as a result of the naval bombardment, “on the following morning the troops under my command were not in condition to cope with an equal force… (aided) by such an auxiliary as the enemy’s gunboats.”
Some Federal officers advised Grant to retreat after taking such a horrible pounding from the Confederates all day. Grant said, “Retreat? No. I propose to attack at daylight and whip them.” That night, Sherman found his friend Grant huddled under a tree in the rain and said, “Well Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” Grant said, “Yes, yes. Lick ‘em tomorrow.”
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