Battle of Shiloh: Union Army Caught Napping
The Confederacy was growing desperate in the spring of 1862. While it was holding its own in Virginia, the Western Theater had become a string of disasters. A young, relatively unknown Union general named Ulysses S. Grant won the first two major Federal victories of the war when he seized Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River in February 1862. At the vital railroad junction of Corinth, Mississippi, Confederate Generals P.G.T. Beauregard and Albert Sidney Johnston hastily pulled together all the Southern troops in the area, forming the Army of the Mississippi to stop the advancing Union juggernaut.
They assembled a force of 55,000 troops, about 6,000 more men than the army they knew Grant had moved up the Tennessee River to a place called Pittsburg Landing, 22 miles northeast of Corinth. There Grant was waiting for the arrival of another 35,000 men from General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio, who were marching the 122 miles from Nashville to Grant’s position. Once combined, the huge Union army planned to smash the Confederates at Corinth and take control of the Memphis & Charleston Railroad, the backbone of the Confederacy’s ability to move men and supplies throughout the South.
On April 2 the Confederates learned that Buell was coming to reinforce Grant, and realized they had only one chance to survive: rush to Pittsburg Landing and wipe out Grant with a surprise attack before Buell reached him. They marched about 45,000 men and launched a savage surprise attack at dawn on April 6, 1862, the beginning of a two-day bloodbath: the Battle of Shiloh.
The Union army under Grant’s command was caught napping. He was so certain he had the enemy demoralized that he never dreamed they would go on the offensive. He prepared no trenches or earthworks to defend his position, and picket lines were poorly established and maintained. Before retiring the night of April 5 Grant confidently telegraphed his commander Major General Henry Halleck “I have scarcely the faintest idea of an attack being made upon us.” How wrong he was!
Much of the battle’s frenzied fighting occurred near a small, one-room Methodist church named “Shiloh” that gave the battle its name—ironically, the Hebrew word for “place of peace.” The Union troops, completely caught off-guard, at first retreated before rallying to mount a defense, although thousands of them panicked and fled all the way back to the Tennessee River a few miles away. Eventually most of the troops withdrew to Pittsburg Landing and frantically tried to establish a defensive line.
As the sun was setting the exhausted, starving Confederate soldiers stopped fighting to roam the captured Northern camps seeking rest and food. They had won the day; their only sorrow was the loss of General Johnston, killed while leading a charge in a peach orchard around 2:30 in the afternoon. Overall, they were jubilant, convinced they had won a great victory and only needed to mop up the shattered remnants of Grant’s whipped army in the morning, well ahead of the arrival of Buell’s army. That night a confident General Beauregard telegraphed his superiors that he had won “a complete victory.”
That complete victory was not to be, for during the night Buell’s army arrived, and the next morning the strengthened Union army launched a surprise attack of their own, driving the Confederates from the field and all the way back to Corinth. The bloody Battle of Shiloh was over, after a staggering total of nearly 20,000 dead and wounded men.
Because Grant drove the Confederates from the field, the Northern newspapers initially announced a Union victory. Almost immediately, however, questions were raised. Why was Grant’s army so woefully unprepared the morning of April 6? General Halleck was so upset that he arrived on the scene and removed Grant from field command.
The questioning of Grant’s leadership can be seen in this article, published by the Daily Commercial Register (Sandusky, Ohio) on April 15, 1862:
Gen. Grant—Suspension of Judgment
Quite a number of papers are spreading very wonderfully praise of Gen. Grant and the gallantry and bravery he is reported to have displayed. It strikes us that facts are needed to make up a proper and complete judgment in this case. That Gen. Grant is a brave man and a dashing officer, we are ready to believe and credit without hesitation. That he would not shun danger in the field and that, in an emergency, he might head a charge, even while acting as Commander in Chief of an army, we can readily credit, and that in battle he has proved a host.
But there is one thing about the recent bloody battle at Pittsburg Landing, which needs explanation before Gen. Grant’s honors can be safely assigned to him. Why were our forces surprised Sunday morning? Why were they not properly protected from such a contingency? How came it that the whole rebel force was upon our advance divisions, Prentiss and Sherman’s, almost without warning? Does the responsibility for neglect in regard to the proper precautions to guard against surprise, rest upon Gen. Grant?
The reports thus far received go to show that Gens. Prentiss and Sherman were ordered not to advance bodies of men for fear of precipitating an engagement. Were these Gen. Grant’s orders? At all events there seems to be enough about this late and bloody battle, to throw doubt upon the Generalship of Gen. Grant and to demand a withholding of the popular verdict until those doubts are cleared up. Some portion of the terrible slaughter at the commencement of the battle, is unquestionably due to some military blunder, and until that is settled the proper award cannot be made. Gallantry on the battlefield, bravery and heroism in the deadly conflict, are one thing, while Generalship is quite another thing. The latter can scarcely exist without the former, but the former may exist without the latter. The popular judgment ought very clearly to be suspended until all the matters which are yet in doubt are cleared up.
The same tone can be seen in this comment, published by the Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) on April 17, 1862:
…the battle of Pittsburg Landing, although a Union victory and a Rebel defeat, was still not without numerous blunders and errors on our part which teach some solemn and warning lessons. There was bad generalship, bad soldiership and imminent danger of defeat—compensated, indeed, by heroism and devotion, and the smile of God upon our arms.
An even sharper tone can be seen in this article, published by the Boston Daily Advertiser (Boston, Massachusetts) on April 18, 1862:
The Battle of Pittsburg
General Grant’s report on the battle at Pittsburg Landing clears up very few of the doubtful points respecting the enemy’s surprise of our troops. This might be accounted for in part by the report which is given by several authorities, that General Grant himself did not appear on the field until about noon on Sunday. This circumstance reminds one strongly of a similar absence on his part reported at Fort Donelson.
The truth is that there was somewhere a shameful disregard of all ordinary rules of prudence or of military art; and while we do not charge this upon General Grant, it nevertheless must subject him to the gravest suspicions, that he should give no hint in his report of any shortcoming on the part of anyone, where negligence and inefficiency are so clearly apparent.
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