As April began, the Confederate Army of Mississippi, now 44,000 strong, was stationed around Corinth in northern Mississippi. This army was poised to advance into southwestern Tennessee and confront Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s 37,000-man Federal Army of the Tennessee positioned around Pittsburg Landing and Savannah on the Tennessee River, some 25 miles away.
On the night of April 2, the Confederate high command at Corinth learned that Major General Don Carlos Buell’s 36,000-man Federal Army of the Ohio had crossed the Duck River and was rapidly marching to join forces with Grant’s army. Once Buell arrived, the Confederate numerical advantage would be lost. In addition, General P.G.T. Beauregard, the Confederate second in command, received word that one of Grant’s divisions might be heading west to threaten Memphis. This could weaken Grant’s army before Buell got there. At 10 p.m., Beauregard forwarded the message to the army commander, General Albert Sidney Johnston, with a note written on the bottom: “Now is the moment to advance, and strike the enemy at Pittsburg Landing.”
Johnston discussed his options with his chief of staff, Major General Braxton Bragg. Johnston argued that the men were not ready to fight, and Major General Earl Van Dorn’s Army of the West had not yet arrived from Arkansas to reinforce them. Bragg countered that their best chance for victory was to attack Grant before Buell arrived. Johnston finally agreed.
Orders were issued to the corps commanders (Major Generals Bragg, Leonidas Polk, William Hardee, and John C. Breckinridge) to mobilize their men at dawn. They would “hold their commands in hand, ready to advance upon the enemy in the morning by 6 a.m. with three days’ cooked rations in haversacks, 100 rounds of ammunition for small arms, and 200 rounds for field-pieces.”
A meeting between Johnston, Beauregard, and the corps commanders took place around 10 a.m. on the 3rd to discuss the plan. The troops would march about 14 miles on different roads and converge eight miles from Pittsburg Landing, putting them within striking distance of Grant’s army by the 4th. Johnston then wrote to his old friend, President Jefferson Davis, “General Buell in motion, 30,000 strong, rapidly from Columbia by Clifton to Savannah… Confederate forces 40,000; ordered forward to offer battle near Pittsburg… Beauregard second in command, Polk the left, Bragg the center, Hardee the right wing, Breckinridge the reserve.”
However, confusion quickly spread throughout the Confederate army. Johnston’s marching plan called for Hardee’s corps to lead the advance, but Hardee refused to move without written orders, which finally came that afternoon. Beauregard blamed Polk for the delay because his men blocked Hardee’s advance, but Polk blamed Hardee for failing to move first as ordered. The streets of Corinth soon became jammed with troops and traffic, causing hours of delays.
When the Confederates finally started to advance, they were slowed by pouring rains and heavily wooded terrain. A lack of discipline also pervaded the army, with many troops test-firing their rifles to see if they would work in the rain. Commanders feared that the noise had alerted the Federals of their approach. The advance was suspended until dawn the next day.
Meanwhile, Grant wrote his wife from his Savannah headquarters, predicting that he would soon fight the “greatest battle of the war… However, I do not feel that there is the slightest doubt about the result and therefore individually feel as unconcerned about it as if nothing more than a review was to take place.”
Some skirmishing occurred on the extreme southwestern corner of Grant’s line at Shiloh Church, but the Federals generally remained unconcerned. Brigadier General William T. Sherman, commanding the Federal division around Shiloh, wrote, “Beauregard will not attack. I know him and his habit of mind well. He will never leave his own base of supplies to attack the Union army at its base.”
Grant sent a dispatch to the “Officer in Command of the Advance of Buell’s Army,” Brigadier General William “Bull” Nelson: “There is no need of haste, come on by easy marches.” Nelson had hurried his advance ever since crossing the Duck River and was now within two days of reaching Savannah.
The Confederate advance resumed on the 4th, as did the mass confusion. Bragg learned that the road his men were supposed to take was impassable, so he arranged to follow Hardee’s lead corps. However, Polk’s men somehow got between Hardee and Bragg, causing more delays. Some units went the wrong way completely. Continued heavy rain made it extremely difficult to move artillery and supply wagons along the muddy roads.
Hardee’s corps finally reached the Mickey’s Crossroads, the initial destination for the first day’s march, late on the second day. The troops were hungry and had little shelter in the cold rain. Johnston issued a proclamation for each regimental commander to read to his men:
“Soldiers of the Army of the Mississippi: I have put you in motion to offer battle to the invaders of your country. With the resolution and disciplined valor becoming men fighting, as you are, for all worth living or dying for, you can but march to a decisive victory over the agrarian mercenaries sent to subjugate and despoil you of your liberties, property, and honor. Remember the precious stake involved; remember the dependence of your mothers, your wives, your sisters, and your children on the result; remember the fair, broad, abounding land, the happy homes and the ties that would be desolated by your defeat. The eyes and hopes of eight millions of people rest upon you. You are expected to show yourselves worthy of your race and lineage; worthy of the women of the South, whose noble devotion in this war has never been exceeded in any time. With such incentives to brave deeds, and with the trust that God is with us, your generals will lead you confidently to the combat, assured of success.”
Meanwhile, Beauregard developed a plan of attack based on Napoleon’s plan at Waterloo. It consisted of two corps attacking in successive waves, with the third and the reserve supporting the first two. This differed from the plan that Johnston had sent to Davis the previous day, which seemed to indicate that Johnston wanted to line the corps abreast. Beauregard’s plan was much too complex for such inexperienced soldiers to execute.
Elsewhere, Confederate pickets captured several Federal scouts beyond Shiloh Church. Sherman sent a rescue party, which saw Hardee’s advance elements and fled back to their lines. The Federals warned that the Confederates were approaching in force, but Sherman disregarded them. Grant cautioned Sherman to stay vigilant, but regarding a possible Confederate attack, Grant “looked for nothing of the kind.”
More delays hampered the Confederate advance on Saturday the 5th, with Bragg unable to find one of his divisions and refusing to march without it. Johnston rode up to investigate and, losing patience, yelled, “This is perfectly puerile! This is not war!” Riding to the rear, Johnston found the division blocked by Polk’s men. The way was cleared for the division to rejoin Bragg’s corps, but by then it was near sundown. The attack would have to be postponed another day.
That night, Beauregard called a meeting of the Confederate high command. With elements of the army within two miles of the Federal camps, Beauregard worried that the Federals knew of their advance. The men had marched for three days and encountered many Federal scouts and pickets, and “Now they will be entrenched to the eyes!” Beauregard pleaded with Johnston to call off the attack.
Beauregard’s request shocked Johnston, who argued that if the Federals knew they were coming, they would have attacked first. When one of the commanders said that the men lacked food, Johnston replied that they could eat the Federals’ food when they captured their camps tomorrow.
The corps commanders supported Johnston, who ended the meeting by announcing, “Gentlemen, we shall attack at daylight tomorrow.” Beauregard warned that Buell might have already begun reinforcing Grant, but Johnston said (noting that the Federal army was wedged between two creeks), “I would fight them if they were a million. They can present no greater front between those two creeks than we can, and the more men they crowd in there, the worse we can make it for them.”
Nelson’s Federals began arriving at Savannah around noon on the 5th to reinforce Grant. When Nelson asked if he could send his men up the Tennessee to Pittsburg Landing, Grant said, “Not immediately. You will encamp for the present at Savannah.” Nelson’s men were positioned on the east bank of the Tennessee River, ready to be ferried to Pittsburg Landing if needed.
Grant told Nelson that he did not anticipate an attack. Major General C.F. Smith, one of Grant’s most trusted subordinates, added, “They’re all back at Corinth, and, when our transportation arrives, we have got to go there and draw them out, as you would draw a badger out of a hole.” Grant also received a message from Buell stating that he would like to meet with Grant at Savannah the next day. However, the message was dated April 4, meaning that Buell was already in town. Unaware that Buell was ready to meet with him, Grant retired that night without doing so.
Near Shiloh Church, Sherman remained ignorant of the Confederate approach. When he received word that Confederate infantry were nearby, Sherman said, “I have got positive orders to do nothing that will have a tendency to bring on a general engagement until Buell arrives.” When the panicked colonel of the 24th Ohio told Sherman that the enemy was approaching in force, Sherman personally reconnoitered and responded, “Take your damned regiment back to Ohio. Beauregard is not such a fool as to leave his base of operations and attack us in ours. There is no enemy nearer than Corinth.”
Sherman reported to Grant, “The enemy has cavalry in our front and I think there are two regiments of infantry and one battery of artillery about two miles out. The enemy is saucy but got the worst of it yesterday and will not press our pickets far. I do not apprehend anything like an attack on our position.” Despite the increased skirmishing, Grant returned to his Savannah headquarters and reported to his superior, Major General Henry W. Halleck, “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 then predicted that “there will be no fight at Pittsburg Landing; we will have to go to Corinth.”
On the night of the 5th, the Confederate line was so close to the Federals that Beauregard sent orders to silence a band only to learn that the band belonged to the enemy. As Johnston was busy arranging his Confederates in line of battle, he told an aide, “I have ordered a battle for daylight tomorrow, and I intend to hammer ‘em. I think we will hammer them beyond doubt.” A message arrived from President Davis: “I hope you will be able to close with the enemy before his two columns unite. I anticipate a victory.”
- Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. New York: Vintage Books, 1987.
- Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years. New York: Doubleday, 1967.
- Catton, Bruce, Grant Moves South. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, Inc., 1960.
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Terrible Swift Sword: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 2. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1963.
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes. Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
- Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 (original 1885, republication of 1952 edition).
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- McFeely, William S., Grant. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1981.
- McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press (Kindle Edition), 1988.
- Nevin, David, The Road to Shiloh: Early Battles in the West. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.
- Rhodes, James Ford, History of the Civil War, 1861-1865. New York: The MacMillan Company (Kindle Edition, Reservoir House, 2016), 1917.
- Wert, Jeffry D. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- Woodworth, Steven E., Nothing but Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, 2005.