Shiloh 150 years later

Yesterday, April 6, and today mark the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh in southwestern Tennessee. This battle is significant in several ways, some which are explored in a New York Times article published yesterday. One of my buddies and fellow reenactor attended one of the 150th events last weekend and there is a buzz about them on one of the major reenacting forums. However, this battle is still one that is popular for people to read about and study, though not to the level of Gettysburg, but one of the most studied in the Western Theater.

The battle that began near Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River, near a small church called Shiloh, which meant place of peace, came to symbolize the carnage that characterized the Civil War. The Union forces were pushing down the Tennessee River towards the rail junction of Corinth, Mississippi. Having achieved two important victories in February against Forts Henry and Donelson, the Union was beginning to take the war to the South, under the leadership of Ulysses S. Grant. It was part of the larger strategy to gain control of the major inland waterways to cut the Confederacy in two. Confederate forces were hopeful of thwarting the Union strategy by delivering a major blow in the West, which reflected the state of the war in the East that was going in the South’s favor.

On April 6, General Ulysses S. Grant had established his camp on the bank of the Tennessee River, at Pittsburg Landing, the night before and was not prepared for General Albert Sydney Johnston’s Confederate army, which was encamped nearby. The Confederates launched a surprise attack on the Union camp that morning, which sought to drive the Union away and back up the river. Though initially caught off guard, Union troops rallied and fought a bitter fight against the Confederates along a line extending from the river for over a mile to Owl Creek. Part of the Union line engaged in heavy fighting, which became known as the Hornet’s Nest, where Union forces held firm. Fighting raged all along the line, with hundreds falling, including General Johnston, who was wounded in the back of the knee and bled to death. Johnston was the highest ranking officer killed on either side during the war.

After the first hard day of battle, a storm raged, with lightning flashing, showing hogs among the dead. Wounded soldiers came to a small pond to drink and bathe their wounds, dying the water pink, earning the small body the name “Bloody Pond”. William Tecumseh Sherman approached Grant under a tree, sheltering during the storm after the first day, and said, “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” Grant replied, “Yes, lick ‘em tomorrow, though.”

The second day, April 7 brought bad luck for the Confederates. The Union army was reinforced by General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio, which arrived the previous night. Further, the Confederates were disorganized by the loss of Johnston, which placed P.G.T. Beauregard in command, who did not realize he was outnumbered. In addition, Confederate command was rife with problems revolving around personality conflicts and subordinates not following Beauregard well. Facing a Union counterattack, Confederates were forced back from their gains the previous day and withdrew from the field, eventually back to Corinth.

The battle was the bloodiest in American history up to that time, and some claimed more casualties were suffered than all American wars combined to that time. Union casualties were 13,047 (1,754 killed, 8,408 wounded, and 2,885 missing), while Confederate losses were 10,699 (1,728 killed, 8,012 wounded, and 959 missing or captured). In addition to Johnston, Union general W.H.L. Wallace was also killed. Though initially vilified for his handling of the battle and the cost, Grant’s career was cemented by this victory. Though rumors circulated that he was drunk and calls for his job were made, Lincoln retained him, saying “I can’t spare this man; he fights.” Sherman also emerged a hero, and was a trusted subordinate and friend of Grant. This battle is quite important for the course of the war in the West and there are several great books on it, including:

Grimsley, Mark, and Steven E. Woodworth. Shiloh: A Battlefield Guide. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.

Sword, Wiley. Shiloh: Bloody April. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992.

Woodworth, Steven E., Ed. The Shiloh Campaign. Carbondale, IL:  Southern Illinois University Press, 2009.