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  • James Houser

April 7, 1862 - The Battle of Shiloh

Updated: Jun 7, 2021

April 7, 1862. The Battle of Shiloh, one of the most harrowing of the Civil War, comes to an end with a traumatic Union victory. Ulysses S. Grant has won his first great battle of the Civil War, but at terrible cost. Shiloh is the beginning of the *true* Civil War, with all its brutality, slaughter, and casualty lists – the American death of innocence.

In February 1862, Grant’s capture of Forts Henry and Donelson on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers had cracked the Confederate defensive line between the Mississippi River and the Appalachian Mountains. The 150-mile front had been beyond the capabilities of Confederate General Albert S. Johnston to defend, but he had bluffed his way into establishing a perimeter across southern Kentucky, hoping that the Union generals would be too cautious to probe his ostensibly strong defenses. When Grant called this bluff, Johnston had no choice but to retreat from Kentucky.

Thanks to Grant’s newfound control over the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, Johnston had to abandon most of Tennessee as well – including Nashville. Less than a year after the Civil War had begun, the Confederacy had lost Kentucky as well as western and central Tennessee. It was not really Johnston’s fault. The Confederacy didn’t have enough of an army to maintain a long defensive perimeter, especially in the face of an aggressive, hard-fighting general like Grant who was willing to fight. This was irrelevant. Johnston had let the Union strike a deep wedge into Southern territory without a serious battle, which was a huge blow to Southern morale.

In retrospect, it is easy to see that the Confederacy was doomed in the Western Theater from the beginning. The Mississippi, Tennessee, and Cumberland Rivers provided easy invasion routes into Confederate territory, especially since the Union gained naval supremacy on the rivers early thanks to their greater shipbuilding ability and dominance of naval power. If the Union exploited these rivers, it could divide the South in half and make its defeat inevitable. All it took was an aggressive, capable general to perceive the opportunity, and the Union had that general in Ulysses S. Grant.

When Grant captured Henry and Donelson, there was no obstacle preventing Union ships from roaming down the Tennessee and Cumberland, and March saw the capture of Island No. 10 on the Mississippi, permitting Union ships to strike down to Memphis and even farther. The Deep South was open to attack. In March 1862, Union gunboats penetrated as far as Alabama on the Tennessee River.

Confederate General Johnston began to concentrate his scattered forces at the railroad junction of Corinth, Mississippi. Grant had moved his force down the Tennessee River to a small town called Pittsburgh Landing, due east of Memphis and north of Mississippi. Here, he was waiting for reinforcements from General Don Carlos Buell’s Union force marching overland from Nashville to join in on the planned assault on Corinth. If the Union took Corinth, they would have control of vital rail connections extending in all directions, and stood a strong chance of splitting the Confederacy in two down the Mississippi.

Johnston’s war plan had been shattered by Grant’s advance, and now he was determined to turn things around. He knew that he was in for a political beating because he had lost Kentucky and Tennessee, and in so doing maybe lost the war for the Confederacy. He decided to hit Grant’s force fast in a surprise attack, hoping that he could turn this victory into a greater triumph by driving the Union back out of Tennessee. It wasn’t much of a chance, but it was the only chance he had.

Compared to the great traumas to come, neither North nor South had any idea what they were in for in the coming battle. The largest battle of the war so far had been First Bull Run, a battle of amateurs versus amateurs, and even that was troubling enough. What was about to happen would be far worse.

The Confederate army was recently assembled and poorly equipped, many of the troops still armed with hunting rifles or sawed-off shotguns, hardly weapons of war, and almost all untried in combat. The Union troops were mostly green as well, most having never seen combat and overly confident in their recent victories. The coming battle would be a rude awakening for everyone: the death of innocence.

Johnston advanced cautiously north from Corinth, Mississippi, headed for Grant’s army. Grant was completely unaware of his approach; though he would later be a great general (maybe the greatest American general) his conduct before Shiloh was straight up careless. He had no security around his army, and reports of approaching Confederates were dismissed as fear-mongering. “Take your damn regiment back to Ohio!” said one of Grant’s chief subordinates, the fiery and red-headed William T. Sherman, on hearing one such report. “There is no enemy nearer than Corinth.”

Johnston’s surprise attack was planned for April 5, but his troops arrived worn-out and disorganized. He had to postpone the attack until the 6th, and was shocked that the Union didn’t discover him. After consulting with his generals, including second-in-command Pierre G.T. Beauregard, he determined to attack in waves. This was a terrible tactical formation that could only result in mass confusion, but Johnston seemed to have a fatalistic air about the whole battle. Some historians suspect that he sought death as a way of preserving his reputation, and that he saw no way of turning the war around for the South.

On April 6, 1862, the Tennessee woods around Shiloh Church exploded with deer and birds bolting for the north. As shocked Union troops around their campfires looked on, the Confederates burst out of the woodline in waves. Most of the Northern forces were shocked into a panicked retreat, even as officers like William Sherman tried to rally them and form them back up into formation. The initial panic was soon brought under control, and both Grant and Sherman tried to piece a defensive line back together as the true chaos of battle erupted across the field.

In the forests of Dixie around Shiloh Church, the two armies collided in a field of utter chaos. Massed clumps of men poured fire into each other as units became intermingled, retreating northerners forming up into ad hoc battalions fighting on their lonesome, and Confederate troops piling into each other until officers no longer knew who they led. The whole battlefield was covered in smoke and carnage, and the din of melee and the stench of gunpowder wrecked any semblance of order. Shiloh became something like a great steam-cloaked arena of death.

On the Union side, Grant began to pull his troops together from near disaster. Remaining utterly calm in the crisis – one of his great traits – he began funneling reinforcements and preparing successive fallback lines to hold on until Buell’s reinforcements arrived from the north. On the Confederate side, the command structure fell apart. Around midafternoon, General Johnston was killed while making a personal reconnaissance, but due to the chaos and lack of control by headquarters Beauregard didn’t even know he was in charge until much later in the day.

Shiloh descended into a series of isolated fights between random packets of men, most concentrated around the terrible “Hornet’s Nest” in the center. Here a Union division held up most of the Confederate army until they were finally surrounded and forced to surrender, but they had bought Grant precious hours to build his second defensive line. The Confederates tried to complete their triumph, but reinforcements had arrived and the attack was halted.

On the next day, April 7, Grant counterattacked with both his fresh troops and the battered survivors of the previous day. Leading from the front, he directed his men into the enemy’s gaps and vulnerabilities, and the exhausted Southerners could stand no more. Slowly but surely, the Confederates were driven from Shiloh battlefield, until only Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry regiment provided the rear guard for their withdrawal. The Union had won the Battle of Shiloh.

But what exactly had they won? Union forces suffered about 13,000 casualties at Shiloh, with at least 1800 killed and more presumed dead. The South had suffered 10,000, with 1800 of their own dead. By American standards, this was a nightmare: four times the losses suffered at First Bull Run, and easily the costliest battle in American history to that point. It is claimed that the United States suffered more at Shiloh than in its previous three wars combined, which is not true, but gives an idea of the scale.

The debacle of Shiloh did not change the broader war situation. The Confederacy mourned the death of Johnston, and later Southern historians believed that his death doomed the South – ignoring the bad decisions he made before and during the battle. Despite the victory, Grant came in for much criticism for the high losses, and deserves some blame for being caught by surprise. Yet when prominent figures called for his firing, Lincoln simply responded, “I can’t spare this man…he fights.” This was in contrast to other generals like McClellan, Buell, or Halleck, who shied from fighting. Lincoln had found his general.

What it did change was the American view of the war. At Shiloh, any hopes on either side of a short, low-risk war faded rapidly into the background. Shiloh wasn’t the worst battle of the Civil War by a longshot. Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Chickamauga, the Wilderness and Spotsylvania laid ahead. Shiloh, though, was the turning point in the American psyche. From now on it would be war to the knife: the romantic notions were gone, and both sides were in it to win.

Modern war had come to America. Shiloh was the death of innocence.

Book Recommendation: Like every battle of the Civil War, the Battle of Shiloh has had more books written about it than soldiers that died during it. Two of the best are Wiley Sword, Shiloh: Bloody April (New York: William Morrow, 1974) and Larry J. Daniel, Shiloh: The Battle that Changed the Civil War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997).

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