The Battle of Shiloh

(April 6-7, 1862)


"Shattered Peace"

            In the spring of 1862, during a time when great armies waged even greater battles throughout the South, one of the largest and bloodiest battles in American history was fought at a quiet and uneventful “place of peace” on the Tennessee River.  Before those two fateful days in April, the small log Shiloh Methodist Church and its surroundings were little known to the nation, and largely forgotten by the rest of the state of Tennessee.  But the battle of Shiloh, fought on April 6-7, 1862, was the bloodiest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere at the time and would forever change the history of this nation.     

              During the winter of 1861-1862, Union offenses into western Tennessee , Kentucky, and Arkansas managed to take back much of the Mississippi River Valley.  In February of 1862, US General Ulysses S. Grant, in command of the Army of West Tennessee, captured the crucial Confederate forts Henry and Donelson.  This was one of the first major Union victories in the war, and forced CS General Albert Sidney Johnston, the commander of the Confederate forces in the west, to abandon much of southern Kentucky and western and central Tennessee.    

              In March, while General Grant and his 40,000 strong army floated down the Tennessee River and landed at Pittsburgh Landing, General Johnston began concentrating his 44,000 strong army in the Confederate stronghold of Corinth, Mississippi, 22 miles from Pittsburgh Landing, preparing a surprise attack on the Union position.  Under orders not to attack the Confederates until US General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio arrived at Pittsburgh Landing, General Grant set up his headquarters in the town of Savannah, and ordered his men to set up camp in and around Shiloh Church. 

Confederates attack the Union positions at Shiloh in this water-painting.  

 

            On April 3rd, General Johnston and his Army of the Mississippi began the march from Corinth to Pittsburgh Landing.  Although slowed by rain and bad roads, Johnston arrived within a few miles of Pittsburgh Landing on April 6th.  In the early hours of that morning, while most of the Union soldiers were asleep in their tents, the main Confederate force attacked the Union line.  Completely surprised, most of the terrified soldiers quickly retreated towards Pittsburgh Landing.  The few Union soldiers who stood their ground were quickly overwhelmed by the Confederate onslaught.  Although the first Confederate wave of attack was extremely successful, Union General William Sherman savagely repulsed an attack at Shiloh Church, but was later forced to retreat with the other Union divisions. 

            Early in the afternoon, the Federals finally established a strong line at the Sunken Road which stopped the Southern advance.  For four hours, Confederate divisions attacked the position- named the “Hornet’s Nest” by the Southerners- but the Union soldiers refused to budge.  Around 4 PM, Confederate General Daniel Ruggles brought 62 cannon up against the Hornet’s Nest (the largest artillery concentration seen up to that time in North America) and hammered the Nest into submission.  While small pockets of Union and Federal troops fought for the western portion of the battlefield, General Grant managed to form one last line of defense, less than a mile from Pittsburg Landing.  But at the end of the day’s fighting, tragedy befell the Confederate army.  While attempting to lead his men towards Grant’s Last Line, General Johnston was mortally wounded by a stray bullet.  After his death, General P.G.T. Beauregard took command of the Confederate forces, but the attacks soon came to an end, with the weary Southerners retreating back to their camps. 

            During the night, while the Confederates rested, Union gunboats battered their positions and US General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio arrived from across the Tennessee River to re-enforce the Union lines.  By dawn of April 7th, it was Grant who was organizing a counter-attack against the Confederates.  Although General Beauregard marched north to again engage the Northerners, he soon encountered a much greater Union army on the move.  Realizing he couldn’t win this battle, Beauregard rightly decided to preserve as much of his army as possible and ordered a full retreat.  As the weary and disheartened Southerners began the long march home, the equally exhausted Union forces decided not to pursue.  The first truly great battle of the Civil War was over, and had cost the Confederates over 10,000 men, and the Federals at least 13,000.  More men died in this one battle than in all the previous wars the United States had fought in.  A sickened nation would soon come to the realization that this war would not end any time soon, and hundreds of thousands of lives would be lost before the conflict would come to an end exactly three years and a day after this “place of peace” was forever stained with the blood of some of the greatest heroes in American history.


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