On the morning of April 8, the Battle of Shiloh had ended in southwestern Tennessee, and the Confederate Army of Mississippi was withdrawing back toward its original base at Corinth, Mississippi. The combined Federal Armies of the Tennessee and the Ohio could have destroyed the Confederates had they pursued and given one more battle, but the destruction that had taken place and the exhaustion that followed prevented this from happening. But Major General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the Army of the Tennessee, still wanted to see if such an action was possible.
Grant directed Brigadier General William T. Sherman to lead two brigades forward to probe the Confederate positions. The Federals advanced until they came across about 350 Confederate cavalry guarding the retreating wagon train. Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest led the cavalry. Forrest ordered a charge, but the Federals held firm and drove them off. Sherman later contended that had Forrest not emptied his pistols before reaching him, “My career would have ended right there.”
During this charge, Forrest was shot in the side and nearly killed. But he still had the presence of mind to drag a nearby Federal soldier up onto his saddle to use him as a shield as he rode off. This was the last skirmish in the Battle of Shiloh, and Forrest became one of the last casualties.
Grant reported that Shiloh was “another great battle fought between two great armies, one contending for the maintenance of the best government ever devised, the other for its destruction. It is pleasant to record the success of the army contending for the former principle.” But he lamented that the nation “will have to mourn the loss of many brave men.”
It took several days for Federal officers to reassemble and reorganize their commands. During that time, the troops tended to the incomprehensible number of dead and wounded strewn for miles. A soldier on burial detail recalled, “When the grave was ready we placed the bodies therein, two deep. All the monument reared to those brave men was a board upon which I cut with my pocket knife the words ‘125 rebels.’ We buried our Union boys in a separate trench and on another board cut ’35 Union.’” An Iowa soldier estimated that as many as 700 Confederates were buried in a mass grave.
Continuous rain made the work of collecting the wounded and burying the dead even more miserable. Thousands of dead horses littered the field, and damaged and destroyed camps were everywhere. When the rain stopped and the weather warmed, the air filled with the stench of rotting flesh. Members of the U.S. Sanitary Commission came to help bury the dead and ship the wounded northward down the Tennessee River to Federal hospitals. The commission ultimately distributed clothing and bedding to thousands of soldiers, as well as foodstuffs needed not only to feed the men but to make brandy and whiskey for medicinal purposes.
General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederate army, seemed in no hurry to return to Corinth. He stayed near the Federal camps, just out of striking range, as if he was hoping to find an opening to start another fight. He wrote to Grant on the 8th asking for a truce so that his men could tend to their dead and wounded. Grant said that would not be necessary, as the Federals were already taking care of men on both sides. Beauregard led his army back to Corinth soon thereafter.
Beauregard claimed victory at Shiloh, even though he did not accomplish his mission of destroying Grant’s army before the Army of the Ohio arrived. Moreover, the Confederates had been forced to return to their original base at Corinth while Grant remained where he had been before the battle. While Beauregard remained optimistic, southerners were horrified by the losses, especially that of the revered Albert Sidney Johnston. Confederate soldier and novelist George Washington Cable wrote, “The South never smiled again after Shiloh.”
Major General Braxton Bragg, Confederate chief of staff, submitted a gloomy report to Beauregard:
“Our condition is horrible. Troops utterly disorganized and demoralized. Road almost impassable. No provisions and no forage; consequently everything is feeble… Our artillery is being left all along the road by its officers; indeed, I find but few officers with their men… The enemy up to daylight, had not pursued… if we are pursued by a vigorous force we will lose all in our rear. The whole road presents the scene of a rout, and no mortal power could restrain it.”
Grant wrote his wife Julia, declaring victory in the “terrible battle” that “has no equal on this continent.” He wrote, “The best troops of the rebels were engaged to the number of 162 regiments as stated by a deserter from their camp, and their ablest generals… I got through all safe having but one shot which struck my sword but did not touch me. I am detaining a steamer to carry this and must cut short. Give my love to all at home. Kiss the children for me. The same for yourself.”
News of the battle first reached the North on the 10th, after W.C. Carroll had hurried from the field to submit his story via the Fort Henry telegraph line to the New York Herald. The article over-glorified the Federal efforts and called the action a tremendous victory in “one of the greatest and bloodiest battles of modern times.” Carroll omitted any notion that the Federal high command had been surprised by the Confederate attack, and he greatly overestimated Confederate casualties. Since no other accounts of the battle were available yet, Carroll’s article was taken as the complete truth, and Grant was hailed as a national hero.
This changed when a second article was published, this one by Whitelaw Reid in the Cincinnati Gazette. Reid’s story was almost completely opposite of Carroll’s, as it described the total surprise among the Federal commanders when the Confederates attacked. Reid asserted that Federal leadership had been incompetent, the army had been nearly destroyed, and only the bravery of the rank and file salvaged a narrow victory. This article, along with reports of the shocking number of casualties, combined to turn the public against Grant.
The Federal high command had undoubtedly been surprised by the Confederate attack on April 6, and had Grant decided to retreat rather than stay and fight on the 7th, his career would have probably been ruined. But President Abraham Lincoln, desperate for aggressive commanders, supported him. When urged to remove Grant from command, Lincoln said, “I can’t spare this man; he fights.”
As for the next move, Grant reported to his superior, Major General Henry W. Halleck, “There is but little doubt but that the enemy intend concentrating upon the railroad at or near Corinth all the force possible leaving many points heretofore guarded entirely without troops. I learn this through Southern papers and from a spy who was in Corinth after the rebel Army left.” Grant believed the Federals should pursue the weakened Confederate army and try to finish it off. Halleck had other ideas.
Halleck had been mistrustful of Grant ever since placing him in command, and he was one of the harshest critics of Grant’s generalship. Halleck wrote, “Avoid another battle, if you can, till all arrive. We then shall be able to beat them without fail.” He also told Grant that he was leaving his headquarters at St. Louis to take command of the Armies of the Tennessee and the Ohio himself. This would greatly diminish Grant’s authority in the upcoming campaign against Corinth.
- Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. New York: Vintage Books, 1987.
- Catton, Bruce, Grant Moves South. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, Inc., 1960.
- Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 (original 1885, republication of 1952 edition).
- 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.
- Rhodes, James Ford, History of the Civil War, 1861-1865. New York: The MacMillan Company (Kindle Edition, Reservoir House, 2016), 1917.