In southwestern Tennessee, the Confederate Army of Mississippi was finally poised to make its long-awaited attack on Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s 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.
The Confederates were exhausted and hungry after several days of marching in the cold, rain, and mud. But their commander, General Albert Sidney Johnston, was confident of victory. He 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.
Some of Johnston’s subordinates, including Beauregard, worried that the element of surprise was lost and urged Johnston to withdraw. But then gunfire could be heard in the distance, and Johnston said, “The battle has opened, gentlemen; it is too late to change our dispositions.” His 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. Federal Brigadier General William T. Sherman, commanding the Fifth Division 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 Third Corps made up the first attack wave. The unprepared Federals either hurriedly tried to put 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 to rally 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.
General Grant was at his Savannah headquarters nine miles downriver (i.e., north) from Pittsburg Landing. He had waited for Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio to join forces 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 an aide reported hearing artillery fire from Pittsburg, Grant quickly directed Nelson to load his men on transports to join the fight.
Grant wrote Buell, “The appearance of fresh troops in the field now would have a powerful effect, both by inspiring our men and disheartening the enemy. If you will get upon the field, leaving all your baggage on the east bank of the river, it will be more to our advantage and possibly save the day to us. The rebel forces are estimated at over 100,000 men.”
Grant rushed to Crump’s Landing, midway between Savannah and Pittsburg, where his Third Division 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 fled the field and were now gathering under the bluffs along the riverbank.
The scene in the Federal rear was chaos. It appeared that the entire Army of the Tennessee had disintegrated. Buell steamed to the landing and met with Grant to assess the situation. Buell asked, “What preparations have you made for retreating?” Grant replied, “I have not yet despaired of whipping them, General.” Despite the looks of things at the landing, Grant was fully confident that he could turn the tide of the battle once the divisions of Nelson and Lew Wallace came up to join the fight.
But at this time, Federal prospects were very bleak. The Confederates swept through the abandoned Federal camps, stopping long enough to loot tents and knapsacks, and discarding 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 in all directions all over the field.
Johnston, who was at the front about to lead Confederates in an assault on 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.” This seemed to indicate that Johnston had 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 pushed the Federals back 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 watering hole 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 under 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 to the left of the “Hornet’s Nest.” When Confederates from Major General John C. Breckinridge’s Reserve 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 advanced.
Johnston personally led several charges that helped drive the Federals out of the orchard. Around 2:30 p.m., he rode back from his latest charge and suddenly reeled in the saddle. Aides helped him to the ground but could not find the source of his injury. A bullet had nicked an artery in the back of Johnston’s leg, filling his boot with blood. The commander bled to death when he could have been saved by a tourniquet. Johnston became the highest-ranking officer in either army to be killed in combat in the war. His aides tried to hide his death to keep from demoralizing the troops.
Beauregard assumed command, but he was still headquartered at Shiloh Church, now too far from the main action to accurately gauge the situation. He turned his full attention to the Hornet’s Nest, where the Federals had already withstood no less than 11 Confederate charges. Beauregard directed Brigadier General Daniel Ruggles to train his guns on the position. Ruggles ultimately brought up 62 cannon and opened fire.
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 the time he needed to form a strong, compact defensive perimeter around the landing.
Many Confederates considered the battle won after capturing the Hornet’s Nest and stopped fighting. But the commanders knew better, and they directed the troops to renew their advance in the hopes of destroying Grant’s army before Buell’s men could arrive. But after days of hard marching and a full 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. The new Federal line was anchored by Dill Branch on the left and Tilghman Branch on the right. Heavy siege guns were posted on either side of the Corinth Road in the center. The gunboats U.S.S. Lexington and Tyler also lent support by lobbing shells over the bluffs from the river.
Bragg prepared his Confederates for a final assault, which involved scaling down a high bluff, marching through a ravine, and then climbing the bank on the other side while under fire from the newly strengthened Federal line. Some Confederates managed to nearly reach the line, a remarkable feat considering the exhaustion and lack of experience. But in the end, they could not break the enemy line. Beauregard finally ordered a suspension of hostilities until morning.
Beauregard notified President Jefferson Davis, “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. The Confederates had also taken about 3,000 prisoners and 30 battle flags, along with countless amounts of Federal supplies. Beauregard did not expect Buell to reinforce Grant because he had received an erroneous report that Buell’s army had turned away from Pittsburg and was headed for northern Alabama instead. Although Beauregard later asserted that the message had no influence on his strategy, he went to bed that night apparently unconcerned that Buell might be on his way. Beauregard slept in Sherman’s bed that night, confident that a renewed attack in the morning would finish Grant off.
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 did their best to try to sleep under the continuous pounding of thunder and cannon fire. The Federals kept up a sporadic fire through the night to keep the exhausted Confederates awake. Wounded soldiers lay where they fell, as neither side had yet developed a system for tending to the dead or wounded. Hogs could be seen feasting on corpses.
The artillery bombardment from the Federal gunboats played a key role in demoralizing the Confederates that night. 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.”
The Confederate attack on April 6 came as a complete surprise to the Federal high command. Federal scouts and pickets had issued repeated warnings that something may be coming, but to no avail. Commanders had not directed their men to build defenses in case of such attack, but at this stage of the war, such preventive measures were not yet being consistently employed. One Federal commander asserted that “an officer would have been laughed out of camp had he proposed to build works for the defense of our army at that time.”
Some Federal officers urged Grant to retreat after his army had taken such a horrible pounding from the Confederates. Grant said, “Retreat? No. I propose to attack at daylight and whip them… They can’t force our lines around these batteries to-night, it is too late. Delay counts everything with us. Tomorrow we shall attack them with fresh troops and drive them, of course.”
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.”
- Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years. New York: Doubleday, 1967.
- Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War. New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960.
- 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.
- Cochran, Michael T. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- Crocker III, H. W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008.
- 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).
- Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide. James M. McPherson, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990.
- Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), Civil War A to Z. New York: Ballantine Books, 2002.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- 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.
- McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865. Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press (Kindle Edition), 2012.
- 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.
- Stanchak, John E. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- Sword, Wiley (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.
- 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.