Since we were old enough to hold wooden guns, my brother and I have shared an interest in great battles. Pittsburgh Landing, a forgotten piece of land skirting the border of Mississippi and Tennessee, is one of those places. Driving up from Florida, we are engulfed in farm country, endless cotton fields strung between rolling green hills. Twenty-odd miles northeast of Corinth is Pittsburgh Landing, hard ground that most people just drive through without thinking twice, and why should they? It’s been over 150 years since men, a little over 110,000 of them, roamed these grounds seeking to kill each other wholesale. In the spring of 1862, the greatest battle in the Western Hemisphere was fought over these ravine-ridden uneven hallowed grounds. It was a battle of great importance, and who can divine the far-reaching results to our nation and the world had the Union army been met with defeat or the Confederates not pursued by Grant.Δ
Besides my fascination with the Civil War, my brother was getting married in January. It was our last trip together as bachelors. In a past life, we would take a trip somewhere fun, probably a party-type atmosphere, but that wasn’t in the cards this time. We’ve partied hard since we were old enough to make fake I.D.s on Microsoft paint, and those were epic times. But priorities change. Instead of going balls to the wall on the party scene, we really just needed a getaway from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. A trip to a battlefield always puts things in perspective for me. But it had been a long time since Ben and I went to a battlefield together. The last one was the beaches of Normandy in early 2000 when we lived in Europe. That was some time ago, and I worried this trip would bore him. Ben’s a photographer, musician, drone pilot, et cetera; a man of many talents – he inherited most of our family’s talent genes. In my mind, it’s a challenge to keep someone like that interested in a battle that took place so long ago.
I was in charge of planning, which meant things were bound to go wrong, as they did. I picked Ben up, transferred his gear to my truck, and we drove northwest on I-65. The seven-hour journey consisted of mindless conversation, audiobooks, and sleep. Around 1700, we pulled onto a lonely dirt track off Highway 22, heading northeast from Corinth. Our first destination was the Oakley House, an old log cabin on the southwest corner of the battlefield. It came up on our left, and we pulled into a small-sized roundabout. Off to the right was a large pasture where horses roamed the field. Dusk slowly crept in and brought darkness we’re unaccustomed to in Pensacola. It was a transition from day to night that only a location away from civilization affords. Very peaceful.
We unpacked, and I sprawled out on the front porch in a giant rocking chair. I could spend the rest of my life in that chair with a Shelby Foote book. It was a warm Tennessee evening, and Ben quickly lost his shirt. He went straight to the fence line, where a beautiful mare stood staring at us like she knew we were from Florida. Ben eased up to the fence and reached out to pet the horse. I sat rocking, watching it unfold from the corner of my eye. I wanted to relax after our seven-hour journey and concentrate on the openness and beauty of our surroundings. The one thing that could go wrong and Ben headed straight for it. I hate when he does this shit. I had a horrible feeling that the beautiful mare would take a bite out of his hand, and I’d have to take him to the hospital, which is God knows where. I contemplated how I’d explain that to Hannah, his better half.
“Dude, I think she likes me…can horses eat crackers?”
In my head, I thought, “how in the f*ck would I know?”.
“Probably not. I wouldn’t get too close, man. She may be into human flesh for all you know.” – I replied sarcastically.
“Nawww, she’s a good horse – isn’t she?” he made contact with the horse’s mane, no adverse reaction.
So far, so good. I got up to head back in. I don’t want to be a witness to what could happen. In our family, we hold true to an old saying, “Anything that can go wrong usually does.” Right before I turned the door handle, I heard the loudest snort of my life, accompanied by the sound of my brother moving swiftly. I turned just in time to see a blur of Ben sprinting a good twenty-yard dash as quick as I’ve ever seen him run.
“Shit! Did she bite you?”
I was half concerned, half overcome with laughter. It was the quickest turnaround I’ve seen in my life. Florida men at dusk, what can I say.
He murmured, “F*ck off,” as we filed into the cabin. To our 12 o’clock was the fridge, where a sign labeled with big, bold letters that I guess we missed on the first walk-through…
“DON’T FEED THE HORSES!”
“Ah, I see. And we begin.”
We woke around 0700 the following day and laid around before cooking a quick breakfast and packing. The battlefield was our first destination, but I planned for us to stay in a different location that night. It was called the Shiloh Chennault home, and from what I could tell, it was a place that saw some action during the Shiloh campaign. So off we went winding through the backroads of southwest Tennessee. One of the advantages of taking a trip with my brother is that he loves to drive, which works perfectly for me. I can kick back and navigate.
We entered Shiloh National Military Park and took the winding road through the park’s west side, leading up to a set of buildings just west of the Tennessee River. Ben parked the car in the main lot, and we kitted up for the day’s work. Directly north lay the Shiloh National Cemetery, where 3584 souls lay interred – 2359 unknowns. To our south, the battlefield spread out over heavy woods, ravines, gullies, orchards, creeks, and cleared farmland. It looked like God raked his hand through the land. The first thing that came to mind was, “this is an excellent place for camping.” That is, if you weren’t expecting an attack from a numerically superior force. And that’s exactly what the advance party of the Union army thought when they first arrived in late March of 1862. The engineers and commanders responsible for camp construction lacked experience and were more concerned with the army having easy access to water, firewood, and open fields for drilling.
To the east is Pittsburg Landing. It looks different now than it did then. In 1862, the Landing was nestled on the west bank of the river, sheltered by a hundred-foot yellow clay bluff rising from the narrow shelf of the Landing. The Landing leads to a plateau eroded by gullies and covered with second-growth timber except for scattered clearings for orchards and grain fields. Here steamboats unloaded their cargo for transport to Corinth.♠ The Union line extended from near the Landing to about three miles west, where Brig. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and the Fifth Division held the place of honor. His headquarters were billeted in an old log chapel called Shiloh, which ironically means “Place of Peace” in Hebrew.
In the spring of 1862, the Confederates were on the run. Outmaneuvered in Kentucky, and pushed southwest out of Tennessee, Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston (CSA) consolidated his spread-out forces in Corinth, MS. Corinth was essential for several reasons. In the nineteenth century, rivers and rails were the arteries that fueled the Confederate war machine. They provided quick transportation for men and supplies. Corinth hosted the crucial Mobile and Ohio railways, which straddled the only lines connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River. If this node were cut, communications west of the Mississippi would be severed. The Confederate Army of the Mississippi could yield no more ground.
Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck (USA), commander of the Union’s Department of the Mississippi, ordered Federal forces up the Tennessee River – a vital conduit into the heart of the western Confederacy. Halleck placed Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in charge of the amphibious task force. Grant coordinated with U.S. Navy flag officer Admiral Andrew H. Foote, whose riverboats would provide transportation and heavy gun support. The Federals embarked in March using 174 steamboats to ferry almost 40,000 men through the river system toward Corinth and A.S. Johnston.
Pittsburg Landing appeared to be a good defensive position. The Federals placed one division three miles upstream at Crumps Landing, while the other five divisions disembarked with Grant at Pittsburg Landing, setting up camp six miles south on the west side of the river.♠ Grant’s headquarters were housed in the Cherry Mansion in Savannah, a small hamlet two miles north of Pittsburg on the east bank. Halleck, however, was a cautious commander. He ordered Grant to hold his position at Pittsburg Landing until the 30,000 men of Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio arrived from Nashville. But Buell’s march pace was sluggish, and his arrival was estimated to be late on the 7th or 8th. Halleck warned Grant, “We must strike no blow until we are strong enough to admit no doubt of the result.” Grant sat and waited for Buell.
Initially, Sherman worried about the camp’s location. He hid his reservations as he’d just got back into the good graces of the army. In 1861, Sherman claimed the Union would need upwards of 200,000 men to defeat the Confederacy. Newspapers and higher-ups in the government labeled him a lunatic and forced him to take leave for psychological recovery. They still thought the war would be over by Christmas. Unbeknownst to them, the war would require significantly more men, approximately 2.5 million, not including naval personnel. Upon arriving at Pittsburg, Sherman stated, “We are in great danger here.” But when a news correspondent asked him why he didn’t protest, he simply said, “Oh, they’d call me crazy again.”♠
Command of the Army of the Tennessee temporarily transferred to Maj. Gen. Charles Ferguson Smith, who, on arrival to Pittsburg Landing, felt no need to entrench their position. Still raising hell at 55, his view of building defenses was straightforward, “By God, I ask nothing better than to have the rebels come and attack us! We can whip them to hell. Our men suppose we have come here to fight, and if we begin to spade, it will make them think we fear the enemy.”♠ When Grant took back control of the army, he agreed with Smith. So, the decision was made not to entrench their positions. (Note: At this point in the war, neither side was accustomed to building defensive works. With time and mass casualties, that would change.) Pittsburg Landing was supposed to act as a collection point, not the site of a great battle.
Twenty miles south in Corinth, the Confederate army prepared their green troops for combat. They drilled and organized the mass of men flooding into Corinth into four corps: 10,000 under Leonidas Polk, 16,000 under Braxton Bragg, 7,000 under William J. Hardee, and 7,000 under John C. Breckinridge. The Confederates were fighting time while keeping a wary eye on the northeast and tracking Buell’s approaching army. If Buell and Grant meet at Pittsburg Landing, their combined force can sweep south with numerically superior troops.
On April 2nd, scouts relayed to Gen. Johnston that Buell’s army was still several days from making a junction with Grant. This presented an opportunity to strike a decisive blow while the Union armies were divided. Johnston seized it. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, the hero of Sumter and Bull Run, was responsible for planning the attack. He developed a plan with a nod to Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. And in fact, the officer preparing the marching orders, Captain Palmer Metcalfe, had Napoleon’s Waterloo order at his elbow, using it as a model. The three lead corps would extend individually across the entire front, resting on the creeks on both sides of Grant. They would advance with each line supporting the one in front with the reserve corps to feed troops to points where the fighting was thickest. Johnston planned to hit hardest on the right, first along the watershed (the raised land area around Lick Creek that channels rain and snow-melts into the creek and Tennessee River) of Lick Creek, then down the west bank of the Tennessee. Grant’s army could be separated from its supply base at Pittsburg and destroyed if successful.♠
Despite warnings, Union commanders were confident that Johnston’s army would remain in Corinth. On the extreme right, Sherman was harassed with alerts from Col. Jesse Appler of the 53rd Ohio, just forward of Sherman’s main camp. Appler warned of a phantom Confederate force stalking his position from the south. He reported that his position was vulnerable to attack at any moment. The last straw came on April 5th, when Appler sent a message back to headquarters claiming that an enemy force was moving on his camp. Sherman personally rode out to Appler’s position and received his report with a scowl. He glared at Appler, jerked his reigns back toward headquarters, and quipped over his shoulder; “Take your damned regiment back to Ohio, Beauregard is not such a fool as to leave his base of operations and attack us in ours. There is no enemy nearer than Corinth.”♠ Sherman was cozy and confident in his new position.
Johnston ordered the Confederate army to march from Corinth on April 1st. But they ran into delays. Steamy April showers drenched the soldiers on and off throughout the march north, turning roads into quagmires of mud, men, heavy weapons, horses, wagons, caissons, and other equipment. Individual regiments lost their placement and got stuck behind other units as the only two roads north clogged. Along with this confusion, the soldiers worried the rain would wet the powder in their rifles. Instead of withdrawing the charge and reloading, they tested them by snapping the triggers. The result was intermittent shots ringing up and down the lines within earshot of Federal positions. Private Luther Dade, a young rifleman with the 6th Mississippi, marched north with the mass of men attempting to follow Beauregard’s marching instructions with incredible difficulty. “The march, which had seemed so easy to regulate on the flat, uncluttered table-top, turned out to be something quite different on the ground, which was neither flat nor uncluttered – nor as it turned out, dry.”♣
By the 4th, Beauregard believed the element of surprise was lost and urged Johnston to cancel the attack. Confederate leadership held a war council on the evening of the 5th. A poll taken among the generals that night was overwhelmingly in favor of an attack. Johnston declared at the end of the council, “Gentlemen, we shall attack at daylight tomorrow.”
On Sunday morning, April 6th, reveille sounded late in the Union camp. For the troops, it was a day of rest. No early formation. The men lounged about their fires. Some prepared breakfast, while others carelessly checked their weapons’ readiness. Just south of Sherman’s position on the Union right, Private Dade and the 6th Mississippi emerged from the wood line with the 23rd Tennessee on their right flank for their surprise attack run. “There was no bugle or drum or anything like that. The men on our right started moving, and we moved too, lurching forward through the underbrush and trying to keep the line straight the way we had been warned to do, but we couldn’t.”♣
Union Private Otto Flickner, a cannoneer with the 1st Minnesota Battery, stood opposite Private Dade. His crew was positioned on the southern end of Spain Field, a short distance behind the Union infantry. There was great confusion in the Union camp, but once Flickner got over the initial shock of the attack, he commenced the bloody work of an artillerist. “Captain Mulch began to sing out commands, and from then on, it was hot work, ram, and prime and touch her off, roll her back and load again. All six guns were going full time, throwing big balls of fire and smoke out over the battery front, and we were cheering while we fired.”♣ After the initial fight in Spain Field, Private Flickner and the 1st Minnesota received orders to move their four guns, two disabled in the previous run-in, to join the collapsing defense of the Sunken Road in the center with Brig. Gen. Prentiss.
At the center of the battlefield was Brig. Gen. Benjamin M. Prentiss (USA) and the Sixth Division. At 0730, forward elements of Col. Edward Peabody’s brigade, Sixth Division, were up early, on patrol, and found themselves in what they believed was another skirmish. They found a monster lurking amongst the Tennessee timber. Prentiss sent an urgent message to Col. Madison Miller to reinforce the right of his line. Miller moved into position at the south end of Spain Field, commanding the ravine to the south. He ordered the 18th Missouri, 61st Illinois, 15th Michigan, and 18th Wisconsin to extend their lines west across Bark Road. Two batteries, the 1st Minnesota Battery and the 5th Ohio Battery, took positions a short distance behind the infantry regiments. By 0800, Miller’s three thousand-man battle line was in place, ready to absorb the Confederate onslaught.
After the initial exchange of rounds, Peabody fell back north and set a new defensive line along a low ridgeline with the 25th Missouri and 12th Michigan regiments. Two Confederate brigades advanced within 125 yards of them, but the Yankee line responded with a massed volley. The green Confederate troops scattered but were reorganized by their officers, including Gen. Johnston. (Note: Both armies were green, but Grants Army of the Tennessee had seen slightly more combat in the run-up to Shiloh – Belmont, Fort Henry, and Donelson. Some of the Confederates had skirmished with the Yankees, but only a small amount had encountered “the elephant,” of which veterans spoke of.) Reformed, they advanced within 75 yards and unleashed their own volley. Both sides engaged at murderously close musket range for several minutes before the numerically superior Confederates engulfed Peabody’s flanks.♦ The battered Union line scattered shortly after Peabody was shot and killed. They dissolved into adjacent commands, primarily General Prentiss’ commanding the Union center.
The Confederates were relentless in their attacks, and it seemed like victory was a foregone conclusion by the afternoon. In the Union center, the first wave of the Confederate attack was successful until they hit the Hornet’s Nest. The left and right wing of the Union line began to peel back, exposing Prentiss’s flanks. Four Alabama regiments under Brig. Gen. Gladden advanced into the Union center. Their line was raked with accurate musket and cannon fire, with at least one gun switching to canister shot (Canister: a close-range anti-personnel round comprising 27 iron balls, each an inch in diameter). The 51-year-old Gladden made a big target on horseback riding among his infantry. While leading his men forward, he was blown off his horse by a piece of shrapnel from a Union shell. He was mortally wounded and died shortly after his arm was amputated.
The artillerymen supporting the Union center were the unsung heroes in the defense of the Hornet’s Nest. Private Flickner and the 1st Minnesota were a lifeline for Prentiss. They provided a constant barrage of hot iron into the advancing Confederate lines. He describes it best, “We were there four hours, and surely that was the hardest fighting of this or any war…They came at us in rows, flapping and everything, and we stood to our guns and cut them down. When we gave them a volley, rifles, and cannons, their line would shake and weave from end to end like a wounded snake, and they would come on, trampling the blackberry bushes until we thought this time they were coming right over us, but then they would break and fall back over their dead, and there would be a lull, but not for long, and they would come at us again…They took killing better than any natural men would ever do, and they had a way of yelling that didn’t sound even partly human.”♣
Around 0830, a Confederate brigade under Brig. Gen. Chalmers arrived on the field to add their weight to the attack. The combined forces were able to punch a hole through the 18th Wisconsin and swarm the whole line from all sides. Prentiss and Miller attempted to set up a fallback position at the north end of Spain Field but failed. By 0900, the brigade was driven back through its’ camp. But the Confederates lost momentum through looting and stragglers. The officers pleaded with their men to reform. Even Gen. Johnston confronted a lieutenant emerging from a Yankee tent with an armful of trophies. Johnston rode up to him and bellowed, “None of that, sir. We are not here for plunder!” Johnston saw this embarrassed the young officer, so he picked up a tin cup and said, “Let this be my share of the spoils today.” And from then on, he used the tin cup to direct his men.♠
The Union divisions of Brig. Gen. William Wallace, Second Division, and Brig. Gen. Stephen Hurlbut, Fourth Division, camped close to Pittsburg Landing. They were furthest away from the fighting in the morning. Grant ordered them to move their troops forward to support the hard-pressed divisions on the front. Hurlbut sent one brigade to reinforce Sherman on the right and took the remaining two to the left flank of Prentiss’s position in the Union center along the Sunken Road. This put them near Sarah Bell’s peach orchard in full April bloom.
For the next 6 hours, the Federal center wavered under repeated Confederate attacks but never broke. Frustrated by Yankee stubbornness, Gen. Braxton Bragg (CSA) ordered Brig. Gen. Gibson to assault the center of Prentiss’s line. They were met with an appalling crash of hot metal streaming from Capt. Hickenlopper’s massed cannon. Gibson’s men surged forward only to be forced back by the quick-firing guns. Gen. Johnston seeing the frontal assaults fail, ordered Gen. Breckinridge to attack Federal positions near Sarah Bell’s peach orchard, just east of the Hornets’ Nest.
Breckinridge slammed into Prentiss and Hurlbut’s line, but his brigades were beaten back by the heavy fire from the Hornet’s Nest. The combined musket and cannon fire from multiple directions turned the blooming April peach trees into confetti, twirling in tandem with thick swirling smoke and lethal projectiles. Advancing through the briars and thickets, the Confederate soldiers’ clothes and gear – blanket rolls, canteens, blouses, trousers, knapsacks, caps, et cetera, became snagged in the heavy underbrush. They had to choose: Either drop what was caught or attempt to maneuver their way out. All while dodging heavy cannon and musket fire that was dropping men by the dozens. One Union soldier in the Sixth Division recalled that so many dead men were caught upright in the briars, thickets, and bushes that the silhouettes resembled living puppets.◊
Gray-clad soldiers thrown back by the stubborn Yankees yelled to the approaching Johnston, “It’s a hornet’s nest in there!” Johnston rode through the men falling back, pleading with them to reform for one more assault. When they were formed, he rode along the line clinking his tin cup against their bayonets. He stood up on his stirrups, removed his hat, and called over his shoulders, “I will lead you.” Then he touched his spurs to the back of his horse, and they surged forward into a sheet of red flame. The Confederates overwhelmed Hurlbut’s division and pushed them back to the howl of the rebel yell.
There was a great clash and clatter of firing, and over all this, I could hear them all around me, screaming and yelping, like on a foxhunt except there was something crazy mixed up in it too, like a horse trapped in a burning barn. I thought they’d all gone crazy – they looked it, for a fact. Their faces were split wide open with screaming, mouths twisted every which way, and this wild lunatic yelping coming out. It wasn’t like they were yelling with their mouths: it was more like the yelling was something pent up inside them and they were opening their mouths to let it out. That was the first time I really knew how scared I was. – Private Otto Flickner
Johnston came riding back with a smile on his face. His blood was up, but not for long. Shortly after the charge, he began to sway in the saddle. Governor Isham Harris of Tennessee, Johnston’s aide, saw him reel in the saddle and cried, “General are you hurt?”
“Yes, and I fear seriously,” Johnston said.
Harris guided Johnston’s horse down a ravine close by. He checked Johnston’s body for a bullet entry but found none until he pulled off his boot and found the source. A minie bullet had pierced his femoral artery behind his right knee. A tourniquet could have saved him, but his medical staff was tending to Union casualties. Early in the battle, when his staff officer protested being separated from him, Johnston cut him off: “These men were our enemies a moment ago. They are our prisoners now. Take care of them.”♠
Johnston bled out around 1430, and command passed to Beauregard. He kept news of the General’s death quiet and pressed the attack on all fronts, especially in the Hornets’ Nest, which was, by then, surrounded. When twelve successive attacks on Prentiss failed, Beauregard ordered Brig. Gen. Ruggles to move his heavy guns, 62 of them, to support a renewed Confederate attack. Ruggle’s artillery raked the Union front with canister and grapeshot from three sides. The 600-yard defensive line that made up the Hornet’s Nest turned into a churning piece of hell. Union defenders confronted whirling metal, iron balls, splintered trees, uprooted brush, and the body parts of their comrades. One Union soldier wounded in the arm was sent to the rear by his company commander but returned shortly after, stating, “Captain, give me a gun! This damn fight ain’t got no rear.”
Prentiss held strong along the Sunken Road while Hurlbut and Wallace fought a rearguard action. Under cover from Ruggles artillery, Breckinridge smashed into Hurlbut’s position, forcing him to retreat back to Pittsburg Landing, where he joined Sherman and McClernand, forming a new defensive line along the Hamburg-Purdy road. This, in turn, exposed Prentiss’s left flank, forcing him to change fronts under fire – a deadly maneuver, especially for green troops. With Hurlbut gone and his flank exposed, Prentiss’s defensive position resembled a horseshoe. While Ruggles hammered away at the Federal line, Gen. Polk (CSA) and Gen. Hardee (CSA) attacked Prentiss and Wallace from the front and both flanks. Wallace was cut down by a bullet that went through the back of his neck and exited through his right eye socket. His men tried to evacuate him but had to leave him to escape the advancing Confederates. They thought he was dead anyways. Wallace was recovered during the Union advance the next day and found alive. They put him on a steamboat to Savannah, where he passed away in the Cherry Mansion on April 10th. (Note: He died with his wife, Anne Wallace, by his side. She arrived at Pittsburg Landing on a steamboat the day of the battle. She hoped to surprise her husband before their move south to Corinth.)
The remnants of Wallace’s command buckled under the Confederate onslaught and the loss of their leader. They retreated north, allowing the Confederates to complete the envelopment of Prentiss. The horseshoe turned into an iron hoop. Even then, though his dead were legion, Prentiss continued to fight. By 1730, ammunition was low, and the remnants of Prentiss’s command were either dead, wounded, or hanging on by a thread. Prentiss and the remaining 2200 soldiers surrendered, almost half the strength he began with. His efforts weren’t in vain, though. Prentiss stood fast at the most critical part of the battle. He bought Gen. Grant enough time to build a final, firm, defensive position along the Landing road. Without his bulwark stand, the Confederates would have overrun Union positions along the whole front, isolating the remnants in the bogs north of Pittsburg Landing.
As the Hornet’s Nest burned, the Confederate left emerged from the woods directly south of Sherman’s camp. The Shiloh Branch bottoms disrupted their formation, so they come out piecemeal, bounding from one piece of cover to the next. Private Dade and the 6th Mississippi encountered Yankee defenders unprepared for an attack, “then I saw they were moving, wiggling, and the rim broke out with smoke, some of it going straight up and some jetting toward our line, rolling and jumping with spits of fire mixed in and humming like wasps past my ears. I thought, Lord God, they’re shooting; they’re shooting at me!”♣
The sound of gunfire drew Sherman and his staff to Rea Field. Sherman peered southward, trying to make out the identity of troops streaming from the south end of the field. One of his aides called his attention to the right as Confederate skirmishers emerged from the thickets along Shiloh Branch. Sherman made eye contact with the hostiles as they opened fire and threw up his hand in reaction. A buckshot pellet pierced his raised hand, and a minie bullet went through the head of his orderly, Sgt. Thomas D. Holliday.
“My God, we are attacked!” he exclaimed.♦
Sherman was actually shot twice. The other bullet clipped his shoulder strap, nicking his skin. But at no point did he consider leaving the field. He wrapped his hand in a handkerchief and thrust it into his breast, never taking his eyes off the enemy.♥ Sherman quickly rode to Col. Appler and ordered him to hold his position while he gathered the rest of the division. Large formations of Confederate infantry emerged from the thickets along the main fork of Shiloh Branch and charged toward Appler and the 53rd Ohio. They held their fire until the Confederates were 50 yards out and then tore into them with a devasting volley. The massed volley sent the Confederates reeling back, where they reformed over a crest.
Brig. Gen. Patrick Cleburne (CSA), “Stonewall of the West,” ordered his 6th Mississippi to make a bayonet charge across an open plain on the Confederate left. The north end of the plain was defended by the determined-looking Yankees of Sherman’s Fifth Division. “I was running, bent low with the rifle held out front, the way they taught me, and all of a sudden, I saw I was going to have it with a big Yank wearing his coat unbuttoned halfway, showing a red flannel undershirt. I was running, and he was waiting, braced, and it occurred to me, the words shooting through my mind: What kind of man is this would wear a red wool undershirt in April?”♣
The two men clashed, and both were thrown to the deck. Everywhere along the line, Johnny Reb and Billy Yank engaged each other in hand-to-hand combat. “We were two feet apart, looking at each other. He seemed even bigger now, up close, and there was something wrong with the way he looked. Then I saw why. My bayonet had gone in under his jaw, the hand-guard tight against the bottom of his chin, and the point must have stuck in his head bone because he appeared to be trying to open his mouth but couldn’t. It was like he had a mouthful of something bitter and couldn’t spit – his eyes were screwed up, staring at me and blinking a bit from strain. All I could do was look at him; I couldn’t look away, no matter how I tried.”♣
The experience of Patrick Cleburne and the 6th Mississippi illustrates the difficulties presented by the battlefield’s rough, broken, and heavily wooded terrain. The morass they encountered, he later reported, was literally impassable for a line of troops. “The attacking 6th Mississippi of Brigadier General Patrick R. Cleburne’s Brigade lost 300 of its 425 men in this fight.”♦
The Confederates pushed Sherman’s Fifth Division and Maj. Gen. John McClernand’s First Divison, further north, but they fought hard the entire way. The first wave of Confederates overrun Sherman’s original front-line camps, and Beauregard set up headquarters in Shiloh Chapel. His job was to control the rear area and forward reinforcements to points in the line where strength was needed. This freed Gen. Johnston to move up and down the battle line, motivating his troops to press forward. To a brigade of Arkansas boys, he left them with, “Men of Arkansas, they say you boast of your prowess with the bowie knife. Today you wield a nobler weapon: the bayonet. Employ it well!”♠
Overrunning Union camps presented an unexpected problem for the Confederates. Still cooking in Union fire pits, the food smelled too good for many hungry rebels to resist. Many stopped to gorge themselves on bacon, white bread, or sweet coffee. Private Dade didn’t miss out on the party. “Officers were running around waving their swords and hollering. “Form!” they yelled at us. “Form for attack!” But nobody paid much mind – we were too busy rummaging tents.”♠ This slowed the Confederate attack. But overall, the results of the first attack were successful, except in reverse. The Union right gave way rather than the left, as Johnston had intended. Regardless, the senior Confederate commander on the field was dead. And the stand of Prentiss and the Sixth Division did an outstanding job of frustrating and delaying the overall Confederate advance.
As Sherman withdrew to a new position along the Hamburg-Purdy Road, McClernand’s division advanced from its camps in the Woolf Field vicinity and moved in on Sherman’s left. This gave the Federals a continuous line across the entire northern hold of the battlefield, with five full brigades deployed and remnants of a sixth. But Confederate Gen. Hardee spotted a small gap to the left of Sherman’s line that appeared to be an open highway to the Federal flanks and rear. He quickly ordered the brigades of Randall Gibson, Patton Anderson, and Preston Pond into the gap in an attempt to sweep around Sherman and flank his left. Sensing the mass confusion in his ranks, Sherman withdrew toward McClernand’s camp. Both divisions made a stand in the camp but were driven further north. Their battered divisions regrouped in Jones Field, where they set up nine guns on the high ground at the south end. A fierce artillery duel ensued between those guns and Confederate artillery situated at the north end of Woolf Field.
Finally, with the Hornet’s Nest in their rear, Beauregard could finish the job he envisioned on paper, throwing what was left of Grant’s army over the bluff and into the Tennessee, or so he thought. The Confederate attack began to waver as Polk and Hardee’s corps exhausted their last. They’d lost too many men from combat, heat, and straggling. There was nothing more to give. On the Confederate right, Gen. Bragg refused to call it quits. He ordered two brigades to attempt an assault on the road leading to the Landing. They crossed a ravine filled with knee-deep backwater, but when they reached the far side, they encountered a mass volley as heavy as Prentiss received in the Hornet’s Nest. The Confederates scrambled for cover back across the ravine, thus ending the last chance of a breakthrough.
The sun finally began to wane and shrouded the battlefield in darkness. Beauregard sent couriers to his corps commanders for a general halt. Throughout the night, Union gunboats Lexington and Tyler lobbed 11-inch shells, known to the receiving end as “wash pots” and “lampposts,” onto Confederate positions.♠ Not knowing where the next shell would land lingered in the minds of the Confederates and significantly interfered with much-needed rest. One Confederate soldier in Gen. Hardee’s Corps, trying to stay dry during the evening downpour, observed a group of six soldiers playing cards in a captured Yankee tent when a shell suddenly landed in their midst. The body parts of the men were strewn all around this soldier. He noticed that the set of arms closest to him still held onto the last cards dealt.◊ The wounded from both sides were scattered throughout no-man’s land, where they received the worst end of the shelling. The only illumination in the sky was the streaks of shells groaning across the starless night, two every fifteen minutes. The shelling lasted until 0700 when Grant ordered the gunboats silenced.♠ It was an awful way to spend a night.
During the night, Grant moved his much-needed reinforcements into place along the Landing road. He mounted heavy artillery batteries on the high ground behind the Tilghman and Dill branches to strengthen his last line of defense. Next, he moved the remains of Hurlbut’s, McClernand’s, and Sherman’s divisions into a last defensive line.♥ Gen. Lew Wallace and the Third Division finally made a late appearance around 2000 and were placed on the Union right. William “Bull” Nelson and the Fourth Division of Buell’s Army crossed through swamps and pathless bottom lands to finally make the crossing to the west bank and take a position on the Union left. By morning, 20,000 of Buell’s men had made the crossing. And none of them had endured the brutal nature of the previous day’s bloodletting. They were fresh and ready to fight. By dawn, the Union army was reinforced and prepared to advance south with Grant’s four divisions on the right and Buell’s three on the left.
The Confederate situation was far different; they had also taken mass casualties. But unfortunately for them, there were no reinforcements to call on. The men who made the advance yesterday would make the advance the next day, the 7th. A terrible thunderstorm and biblical rains brought an intermission to Act I of the Battle of Shiloh. Not far from the front, Grant tried to get some sleep under a large oak but was doused with rain. It had been a long day. He was exhausted like everyone else involved in the first day’s fighting. Once Grant arrived at the Landing, he rode from one side of the battlefield to the other. He suffered from a nasty leg wound received a couple of days before the battle. His horse fell and landed sideways on Grant’s leg. Luckily, there had been heavy rains the night before, and the ground was soft. During the battle, he rode with field crutches strapped to the side of his horse like a carbine. The heavy loss of men weighed heavy on his mind. He tried to take refuge in a cabin on the bluff but was kept awake by the medical staff hard at work. The bone saws sang their horrific tune all night. Disturbed, he returned to the oak tree and took his chances in the rain.
While Grant tried to find a place to sleep, Confederate Col. Nathan Bedford Forest scouted Union positions on the right. He was ordered to guard the Lick Creek ford, where he observed the mass of men of Buell’s army crossing over to the west bank. Forest understood that all would be lost if the Confederate army didn’t attack now. He galloped through the lines trying to get any commander he found to attack, but to no avail. The men were bone weary. And aside from dodging “lampposts” from Yankee gunboats, the men needed rest if they were to attack the next day. Forest couldn’t locate Beauregard but came across Hardee, who put the matter to bed. There would be no attack that night. Forrest slept in Shiloh Chapel with a deep sense of foreboding for the morrow.
Forest couldn’t find Beauregard because he was asleep, safe and sound in the thought that the Confederates had won a resounding victory that day and the next would simply be a clean-up operation. He received good intelligence, or so he thought, from Col. Helm in Northern Alabama stating that Buell’s Army of the Ohio was being diverted to Decatur, AL. He was so confident of victory the next day that he sent a wire to Richmond announcing the army had scored “a complete victory, driving the enemy from every position.”♠
At first light, Grant ordered an advance to drive southwest and retake the ground lost on April 6th. Buell’s army on the left encountered little resistance until they reached the scene of the previous day’s fighting. Here the Union soldiers met a furious defense by the Confederates that lasted until mid-afternoon. The Confederates desperately counterattacked several times, but they were all short-lived. The steady Union pressure drove the fighting relentlessly southwestward. Grant’s army, on the right, outflanked the Confederate line repeatedly and forced them into a headlong retreat.
The Confederate left held along Shiloh Chapel Ridge, but gradually the exhaustion from two days of hard fighting overcame them. When they went to sleep the night before, they expected to simply wake up and clean up the remainder of Grant’s army. They, like Beauregard, still thought Buell’s army was days away, and Grant was still isolated. Instead, the morning kicked off with a battering and retreat, bringing morale crashing down. By mid-afternoon, Confederate commanders were convinced the army was on the verge of collapse and could take little more punishment.
Governor Harris, still acting as an aide on the field, saw the writing on the wall. He rode to Beauregard’s’ side and asked, “General, do you not think our troops are very much in the condition of a lump of sugar thoroughly soaked in water – preserving its original shape, though ready to dissolve? Would it not be judicious to get away with what we have?”♠ Beauregard studied the field and nodded, “I intend to withdraw in a few moments,” he said calmly.
Shortly thereafter, couriers sent the order to the corps commanders to begin the withdrawal. Gen. Breckinridge was tasked with setting up a defensive line along Shiloh Ridge to cover the retreat. By 1600, the maneuver was complete with minimal pursuit by Union forces. Intermittent showers broken up by steamy April sunshine accompanied the Confederate retreat back to Corinth. Already clogged from the advance north, the roads turned into a bedraggled mass of exhausted men, endless mud, wounded soldiers, dead horses, dropped equipment, and stuck wagons. That night the full fury of nature unleashed itself on all combatants. There was a hard downpour followed by a freeze that blanketed the ground in a frosty white, adding to the miseries of the wounded.
Captain Metcalf, the Confederate staff officer who drew the Napoleonic “masterpiece” attack plan, struggled to keep up with the retreating column. Metcalf lost his horse in a rearguard action at Fallen Timbers and had to withdraw on foot. He was so exhausted that he grabbed onto the tailgate of a passing wagon full of wounded soldiers and allowed it to drag him along. Metcalf described the sound of men with horrific wounds scratching the planks of the springless wagon beds and hearing their teeth grind as their bounced to and fro. In the back of the wagon was a young boy, “He looked at once young and old, like the boy in the tale who aged suddenly because of some unspeakable overnight experience in a haunted house. His head bobbed and weaved in time with the jogging of the wagon. He muttered to himself, saying the same thing over and over: ‘It dont hurt much, Captain; I just can’t lift it.’ The stump, which was boneless, extended about four inches below his armpit. Wrapped in a rag, it swung there, a little bloody sack of bloody meat.”♣ Another wounded man sat in front of the wagon, facing Metcalf with his back against the driver, “there was a man whose face I avoided. His jaw had been shot away, but his tongue was still there; it hung down on his throat like a four-in-hand tie.”♣
The Battle of Shiloh was an earthshattering event for the country. Its death toll shocked America. The dead and wounded were estimated at 23,746. Casualties during the battle exceeded the total casualties of all of America’s previous wars combined. And that was unexpected. Amid such loss, many blamed Gen. Grant, who failed to anticipate the Confederate surprise attack and ran up the so-called butcher’s bill. Shortly after the battle, rumors spread that Grant was drunk; it proved untrue, but the mainstream news ran with it anyway. Another parallel of today. It was all a reaction to the unforeseen human cost of the civil war. The romantic farce of war in the early days was squashed. Grant wrote in his memoirs that Shiloh convinced him that one battle wouldn’t win the war. There was only one way to end the war. And that was by prosecuting total war on the South, with all its capabilities and by any means necessary. The end game was unconditional surrender. It’s not surprising that Ulysses S. Grant (Unconditional Surrender Grant from Fort Donelson on) became the man to lead that effort. The Battle of Shiloh was where we grew up. And it was a hard lesson.
My experience on the battlefield was one of awe. And I got to spend it with my brother, making it more special. Some would ask why the battle, or even the civil war, is relevant today. History is filled with precedents. If you look at it long enough, you see a pattern. Again, the world is on the brink of a great war. Our country is rife with division, a clash of opposing values and ideas. Unity is at its all-time low, at least in my lifetime. Much like the Civil War, our mainstream news exacerbates whatever situation we find ourselves in. Instead of investigating and informing the public of facts, they run with the latest rumor or whatever spin a political party is peddling. Sound familiar? They are responsible for most of the division we see today. All of this and more remind me of the circumstances in 1861 and 1938. Fire breathing from the” elites” in our society, who ironically will never have to make the bayonet charge when the time comes. Nor will their sons and daughters, who will be raised in their safe spaces. That bill has always fallen to us.
New York Times article on the Battle of Shiloh and death certificates of veterans that fought in the battle:
♠ Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol 1: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1986.
♣ Foote, Shelby. Shiloh. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.
♦ Bowman, Stephen., Leonard. Fullenkamp, Stephen Lee. Bowman, and Jay. Luvass. Guide to the Battle of Shiloh. Lawrence, Kan: University Press of Kansas, 1996.
◊ Force, M.F. From Fort Henry to Corinth. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1881.
♥ Echelberry, Earl. “Death in the Woods.” Civil War Decisive Battles, August 14, 2018.
Δ Morton, Charles. “Opening of the Battle of Shiloh.” Commandery of the District of Columbia. War Papers 88. Library of Congress. Read at a meeting on April 3, 1912.
Martin, David G. The Shiloh Campaign. New York: Fairfax Press, 1987.
Frank, Joseph Allan, and George A Reaves. “Seeing the Elephant”: Raw Recruits at the Battle of Shiloh. University of Illinois Press, 2015.
Redwood, Allen. Confederate Charge upon Prentiss’s Camp on Sunday Morning. JSTOR.