The Battle of Shiloh: Day Two

April 7, 1862 – Federal forces counterattacked, driving the Confederates back to Corinth and ending a horrific two-day struggle.

Heavy storms raged through the night following a terrible day of fighting in southwestern Tennessee. Men on both sides suffered, as one Federal officer wrote that his troops, “lying in the water and mud, were as weary in the morning as they had been the evening before.” Major General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the battered Army of the Tennessee, slept under a tree after his headquarters had been commandeered by surgeons amputating hundreds of arms and legs.

General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederate Army of Mississippi, slept in the abandoned tent of Brigadier General William T. Sherman near Shiloh Church. Beauregard planned to renew his attack on the Federal lines in the morning, unaware that men of Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Federal Army of the Ohio were reinforcing Grant’s weary men throughout the night. Beauregard took no defensive precautions in case the Federals counterattacked.

Nathan Bedford Forrest | Image Credit:
Nathan Bedford Forrest | Image Credit:

Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest, commanding the Confederate cavalry, was one of the few officers concerned about Buell reinforcing Grant. He directed his men to put on captured Federal uniforms and sneak behind the lines to observe activity at Pittsburg Landing. Sure enough, they saw thousands of fresh Federal soldiers being ferried across the Tennessee River.

Forrest reported to General James Chalmers that the Federals “are receiving reinforcements by the thousands, and if this army does not move and attack them between this and daylight, it will be whipped like hell by 10 o’clock tomorrow.” Forrest then went to Major General William J. Hardee, who told him to tell Beauregard. When Forrest could not find Beauregard, he returned to Hardee, who seemed unconcerned. Forrest was enraged.

By the morning of the 7th, three of Buell’s divisions totaling about 25,000 men had arrived at Pittsburg Landing. Since Grant and Buell were nearly equal in rank (Grant outranked Buell but Buell commanded an army department while Grant just commanded a district), they agreed to cooperate in launching a joint attack at dawn.

Brigadier General William “Bull” Nelson’s division under Buell began the advance on the Federal left, with simple orders to “find the enemy and whip him.” The Federals came upon Major General John C. Breckinridge’s unsuspecting Confederates around 7:30 a.m., who soon faced a mile-long Federal line coming their way. The remnants of Grant’s divisions advanced on the right and easily retook a mile and a half of the previous day’s lost ground.

The Battle of Shiloh: Day 2 | Image Credit:
The Battle of Shiloh: Day 2 | Image Credit:

The Federal advance was uncoordinated but steady through rain that fell all day. Troops passed dead and wounded men from the day before, noting that many Federals and Confederates had huddled together for warmth through the night. A Federal soldier later wrote:

“Many had died there, and others were in the last agonies as we passed. Their groans and cries were heart-rending… The gory corpses lying all about us, in every imaginable attitude, and slain by an inconceivable variety of wounds, were shocking to behold.”

Brigadier General W.H.L. Wallace was found lying on the field around 10 a.m. He was sent for medical care, but having been hit in the head with a shell fragment, the doctors could do little for him. His wife stayed at his side until he died on April 10, becoming the only Federal division commander to be killed in the battle.

Gen Don Carlos Buell | Image Credit:
Gen Don Carlos Buell | Image Credit:

Buell’s men regained the Hornet’s Nest around noon. The Confederates launched stubborn but piecemeal counterattacks that momentarily halted the enemy, but being exhausted and outnumbered, they could not hold the Federals off for long. The Confederates viciously attacked around the peach orchard where General Albert Sidney Johnston had been killed, but lacking the stamina or numbers to sustain their advantage, they fell back.

Beauregard held out hope that Major General Earl Van Dorn’s Army of the West would arrive from Arkansas and shift the numerical edge to the Confederates. But Beauregard received word that morning that Van Dorn was still at Memphis, too far to reach the battlefield. As Beauregard considered his options, his chief of staff asked him:

“Do you not think our troops are very much in the condition of a lump of sugar thoroughly soaked with water, but yet preserving its original shape, though ready to dissolve? Would it not be judicious to get away with what we have?”

That afternoon, Beauregard ordered a general withdrawal back to his army’s original base at Corinth, Mississippi, about 22 miles away. Breckinridge’s Confederates took positions on high ground near Shiloh Church and served as the rear guard while the rest of the army fell back around 2:30 p.m. By 4 p.m., the Federals had regained all the ground they lost the day before. Glad to see the Confederates go, they were in no condition to pursue.

This shocking two-day battle cost the Federals 13,047 men (1,754 killed, 8,408 wounded, and 2,885 missing) out of about 42,000 engaged. The Confederates lost 10,694 (1,723 killed, 8,012 wounded, and 959 missing) out of about 40,000. Of the 2,750 Confederates in General Patrick Cleburne’s brigade, just 58 survived.

The casualty totals at Shiloh exceeded the total of Bull Run, Wilson’s Creek, Fort Donelson, and Pea Ridge combined. The total casualties sustained by both sides (23,741) were more than the War for Independence (10,623), the War of 1812 (6,765), and the Mexican War (5,885) combined (23,273). The number of killed and wounded exceeded the population of most American cities at that time.

Though he denied it the rest of his life, Grant had been taken by tactical surprise on the first day, almost resulting in Federal disaster. But Johnston’s death and Beauregard’s failure to press his advantage gave Grant a chance to hold the Confederates off until Buell’s men arrived to help reverse momentum on the second day.

In the end, both Grant and Beauregard ended back where they had started, but now Grant had Buell reinforcing him, and Beauregard’s army was severely depleted. With the Federals were poised to invade the Deep South, the Confederates would never have such a good opportunity to destroy the Federals in the Western Theater again.



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