Heavy storms raged through the night of April 6 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 Federal Army of the Tennessee, slept under a tree after his headquarters had been commandeered by surgeons hurriedly 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 precautions to guard against a possible Federal counterattack.
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 Brigadier 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, the new and improved Federal line consisted of three of Buell’s divisions under Brigadier Generals William “Bull” Nelson, Alexander McD. McCook, and Thomas L. Crittenden. Most of these men were exhausted from forced marching through the cold rain overnight, but they were freshly organized, new to the fight, and confident that they were there to save Grant’s battered army.
To the right of Buell’s men were three of Grant’s battered divisions under Brigadier Generals Stephen A. Hurlbut, John A. McClernand, and William T. Sherman. Holding the right flank was the division of Brigadier General Lew Wallace, which had taken a wrong road and missed the previous day’s fight. Grant’s other two divisions had been put out of action on the 6th, with Brigadier General W.H.L. Wallace wounded somewhere on the field and Brigadier General Benjamin Prentiss now a prisoner. All told, the number of Federal effectives was about 57,000.
Grant and Buell both belonged to the military department commanded by Major General Henry W. Halleck. Halleck had instructed the men to act in concert, with Buell operating independently “unless the enemy should attack” Grant. While the Confederates did attack Grant on the 6th, they had not yet done so on the 7th, and since the relationship between the two generals was icy already, Grant issued no orders to Buell’s men and it was agreed that Buell would cooperate in a joint attack. It would be launched at dawn.
Grant rode out to meet with Lew Wallace prior to the general assault. Grant asked Wallace if his men were ready, and when Wallace said yes, Grant led him to a clearing, pointed to where Confederates were supposedly stationed, and told him to put his division in motion. Wallace later noted that if Grant “had studied to be undramatic, he could not have succeeded better.” As Wallace’s Federals got moving on the right, Nelson’s division started advancing on the left. Orders were simple: “find the enemy and whip him.”
Beauregard could muster no more than 20,000 Confederate effectives on the morning of the 7th. The Federals first came upon Major General John C. Breckinridge’s unsuspecting corps around 7:30 a.m., and the Confederates were soon confronted by a mile-long enemy line coming their way. The Confederates tried to hold their ground at first but then they began to slowly give way. Like the previous day, “the two armies as a general thing degenerated into mere fighting swarms” according to Wallace, with the men following just one general rule: “watch the flag and stay with it.”
Despite the lack of coordination in the assaults, the Federals gradually retook much of the ground they had lost on the 6th. Troops passed men who had been killed or wounded the previous day, 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.”
Beauregard later reported, “On his right and center the enemy was repulsed in every effort he made with his heavy columns in that quarter of the field. On the left, our line was weakest, and here the enemy drove on line after line of fresh troops with unremitting fury.”
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.
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 Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston had been killed, but lacking the stamina or numbers to sustain their advantage, they eventually 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?” Beauregard replied, “I intend to withdraw in a few moments.”
That afternoon, Beauregard ordered a general withdrawal back to his army’s original base at Corinth, Mississippi, about 22 miles away. Breckinridge’s Confederates served as the rear guard while the rest of the army fell back around 2:30 p.m. According to Beauregard’s report:
“The lines of troops established to cover this movement had been disposed on a favorable ridge–commanding the ground of Shiloh Church, from this position our artillery played upon the woods beyond, but upon no visible enemy, and without a reply. Soon satisfied that no serious pursuit was, or would be attempted, this last line was withdrawn, and never did troops leave a battlefield in better order.”
By 4 p.m., the Federals had regained all the ground they lost the day before. Grant wanted to pursue and destroy the Confederate army, but his men were in no condition to do so. Buell’s men might have been fresh enough to pursue, but Grant would not order Buell to put them in motion. Instead, Grant merely suggested that if Buell thought that he could make a march he should do so. Buell did not.
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 Brigadier 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. Considering the general lack of combat experience among most of those engaged, the fact that this was such a ferocious fight made it one of the most remarkable battles of the war. A Federal soldier later asserted that the most any veteran could say of a battle was, “I was worse scared than I was at Shiloh.”
Though he denied it the rest of his life, Grant had been taken by surprise on the first day, and this almost resulted 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 poised to invade the Deep South, the Confederates would never have such a good opportunity to regain Nashville or western Tennessee again.
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