This April 6-7 marks the 150th anniversary of one of the bloodiest and most important battles of the U.S. Civil War — the Battle of Shiloh.
After several defeats in the eastern theater in 1861, the Union cause began to look up by early 1862. McClellan's Army of the Potomac, which had been routed during the First Battle of Mananas in Virginia, now was a first-class fighting instrument. Admiral Farragut had driven his force up the Mississippi and taken the Confederate port of New Orleans.
In the West, Union forces had taken Forts Henry and Donelson, opening up the rivers of the Confederacy to Union gunboats and troop transports.
Because of setbacks in Tennessee, Confederate leaders called for the sacking of Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston (who just a few years earlier had led a federal army into the Salt Lake Valley during the Utah War). The loss of virtually all of Tennessee to the Yankees understandably frightened the Confederates, and they looked for a scapegoat.
Hoping to capitalize on Union successes in Tennessee, Gen. Henry W. Halleck ordered two of his subordinates, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Gen. Don Carlos Buell, to take Corinth in northern Mississippi, which served as a major rail junction for the Confederacy.
Waiting to be joined by Buell's force, Grant set up camp at Pittsburgh Landing in southern Tennessee, just abreast of the Tennessee River close to a Methodist meetinghouse named Shiloh Church. Grant then made a costly mistake that almost led to a serious Union defeat.
“For once again he focused his mind so intently on plans for attacking the rebels that he could spare no thoughts for what the rebels might be planning to do to him,” wrote historian James McPherson in his book, “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era.” “Regiments laid out their camps with no idea of forming a defensive line.”
This unwillingness to prepare for a defensive battle led to near disaster. Johnston, wishing to smash Grant's force before Buell's reinforcements arrived, attacked early in the morning of April 6, taking the Yankees by surprise.
Grant later wrote of the savage Confederate advance in his memoirs: “The Confederate assaults were made with such a disregard of losses on their own side that our line of tents soon fell into their hands. ... When the firing ceased at night the National (Union) line was all of a mile in rear of the position it had occupied in the morning.” In the words of the general's biographer, Jean Edward Smith, “Grant was caught napping.”
It was nearly a rout as Union troops fell back toward Pittsburgh Landing, and many believed it to be a complete Confederate victory. Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard sent a telegram to Richmond that night: “After a severe battle of ten hours, thanks to the Almighty, (we) gained a complete victory, driving the enemy from every position.” The next day's action was expected to be little more than clearing up the remnants of the Union army.
The day had seen a significant loss for the Confederacy, however. Flushed with the prospect of victory, Johnston had ridden to the forward position of his troops and had been struck in the thigh. The bullet had punctured Johnston's femoral artery, and he bled to death in the saddle. Johnston was the highest-ranking general on either side of the Civil War to be killed in battle.
That evening, as the fighting began to lull, Grant's 15,000 battered troopers were reinforced by Buell's fresh force of around 25,000 — this against a Confederate force of now roughly 25,000. When some of his subordinates advised falling back, Grant said decisively, “Retreat? No. I propose to attack at daylight and whip them.”
Grant attacked in earnest the next morning, April 7, pushing the Confederates back in heavy, brutal fighting and snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
The battle was not without its costs, of course. Grant nearly lost his command, given his poor showing on April 6. When General Halleck urged Abraham Lincoln to sack Grant, the president responded with, “I can't spare this man; he fights.”
More importantly, however, was the human cost. In many ways, Shiloh proved to be a psychological turning point in the Civil War given the huge loss of life involved.
McPherson writes: “Coming at the end of a year of war, Shiloh was the first battle on a scale that became commonplace during the next three years. The 20,000 killed and wounded at Shiloh (about equally distributed between the two sides) were nearly double the 12,000 battle casualties at Mananas, Wilson's Creek, Fort Donelson and Pea Ridge combined.”
It is indeed ironic that in Hebrew the word “Shiloh” means “Place of Peace.”
With such death the inevitable by-product of an increasingly modern, industrial war, any hope that the conflict would end quickly was quashed. It is a tribute to the Union troops in that war that they continued to be willing to give what Lincoln would call “the last full measure of devotion” in the cause of liberty.
Unfortunately, those who fought for the misguided ideas of secession and slavery were equally committed.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org