After a bleak winter that had proved tremendously unsettling to the Southern cause, spring 1862 brought hope that the Confederates in the west might redeem their losses. Johnston concentrated his defeated forces near Corinth, Mississippi, for an offensive into Tennessee. He had pleaded all winter for reinforcements, but none were forthcoming until March, when he was able to muster some 40,000 troops to engage the enemy. Realizing that the Federals possessed superior numerical strength, the Confederates would have to pull off a stunning surprise and run Grant's army into the river before Buell arrived if they were to be successful. The concentration of forces brought together a colorful group of commanders, including Major-Generals Braxton Bragg and Pierre G. T. Beauregard, the hero of the Battle of First Bull Run. Johnston assumed overall command.
In Hebrew. Shiloh translates as Place of Peace.' It is an ironic name given to a church near Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, the scene of the most fiercely contested battle of the war in the Western Theater; Shiloh church was located in the middle of the Battle of Shiloh. It proved the inspiration for the noted author Herman MelviIe to compose an elegiac memorial to those who perished beside the humble country church. In Shilon: A Requiem, 'Melville attempted with poetic words to return Shiloh church to the quiet refuge it had once been. (Harper's Weekly)
The Battle of Shiloh, 6-7 April 1862
The largely unseasoned Confederate Army of the Mississippi left Corinth on 3 April. Muddy roads and the inhospitable terrain, however, stalled the advance for two days, forcing Beauregard to conclude that the element of surprise had been lost. Nonsense, Johnston remarked on the evening of 5 April, 'I would fight them if they were a million.' The same evening Buell had made it to Savannah, a few miles downriver from Pittsburg Landing. The countryside around Pittsburg Landing was cut by ravines, blanketed by heavy underbrush and blossoming peach trees, and crossed by a maze of small creeks and old wagon trails that bisected one another. The only distinguishing landmark was a small Methodist church that stood near the main road to Corinth. The church was known as Shiloh, which in Hebrew means 'Place of Peace.'
It was early on Palm Sunday, 6 April, when a Union patrol ventured out toward the woods and detected a wave of
Confederates, who fired an enormous volley, opening the Battle of Pittsburg Landing. To the Federals' surprise, the Confederates had struck at dawn. Major-General William T. Sherman, who had insisted that the enemy was no closer than Corinth, commanded the Federals near the church and was forced to form a line to hold off the Confederate wave. The Confederates thrust forward throughout the early morning hours, pushing the panic-stricken soldiers back toward the river. Although somewhat oddly formed and badly intermingled in its deployment, the Confederate offensive was nonetheless so successful that by noon thousands of the disorganized Federals had simply run for cover, some cowering beneath the river bluff, others swimming across the river for safety. Still, most of the Federal troops remained steadfast and throughout the morning both sides engaged in a horrific slaughter.
When Grant arrived on the grisly scene it was about 8.30 am. He pulled stragglers together to form a defensive line and left word at Savannah for Buell to get his troops across the river. In the meantime, Grant had to hold on. As the Confederates continued to push the Federals back, they ran into a stubborn resistance in the center. BrigadierGeneral Benjamin Prentiss's division was located in a densely wooded area with open fields on both sides and an old sunken wagon trail in its front that provided an entrenchment. Grant ordered Prentiss to hold his position at all costs - an order that he obeyed throughout the day. Because of the intensity of the fight in this location, soldiers later dubbed this portion of the battlefield the 'Hornet's Nest.'
All day long, Johnston's Confederates tried in vain to envelop and dislodge the Federals. Although the Federals were running low on ammunition, they still repulsed wave after wave of Confederate assaults. At one point Johnston himself led one of the
These riverboats provided much needed assistance for the Union army at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862. Grant made his headquarters aboard the Tigress, the middle vessel of the three. It was aboard this steamer that Buell and Grant met briefly to discuss the strategy that brought ultimate victory on the second day of the battle. (Review of Reviews Company)
charges and was mortally wounded. He bled to death while his personal physician was helping to care for captured wounded Federals. After several futile and suicidal bayonet charges, the Confederates positioned over 60 cannon in a semicircle to rain down several hundred shells on the Union stronghold. Practically surrounded, Prentiss reluctantly surrendered at 5.30 pm to save the 2,200 men left in his division. During the remaining hour of daylight, Grant struggled to reposition his artillery to hold oft the anticipated final Confederate thrust. As darkness came, so did the rains, and the merciless fighting ended.
Now in command of the victorious Confederate forces, Beauregard concluded that the Federals would retreat during the night, so he did not position his scattered and disorganized forces to receive an offensive. Instead, he waited for Van Dorn to arrive from Arkansas. Buell was reportedly too far away to reinforce Grant. But the night rains and darkness favored the Union army. Although both sides were exhausted, Buell had, in fact, arrived and the four divisions that crossed the river numbered some 28,000 men, who were anxious to fight. Although it had been a rough day, Grant had been significantly reinforced and he would assume the offensive the following morning. As he walked the lines during the night, he came across a fatigued General Sherman, who had been in the thick of the fighting all day. Sherman suggested that it had been a horrific fight; Grant agreed, but remarked. 'Whip 'em tomorrow, though.'
Early the following morning, the Federals stunned the unsuspecting Confederates with an overwhelming counteroffensive. Throughout the morning and early afternoon, the soldiers fought over the same terrain, scattered with wounded and dead soldiers and horses, and half-submerged artillery pieces sunken by the rain. Like the previous day, the combat was severe and bloody. From the river, Union gunboats lobbed scores of shells down on the
Southern combatants. When Beauregard realized that Van Dorn was not coming, and that his troops were nearly out of ammunition and completely exhausted, he ordered a withdrawal to Corinth. Grant decided not to pursue because his soldiers were just as exhausted and disorganized as the retreating troops.
Although the Union won the battle, both sides lost overwhelming numbers of casualties. Union casualties totaled over 13,000, while the Confederates lost over 10,000. Never before was the American populace confronted by such staggering news as the losses at Shiloh. Northerners came to believe that the human toll far exceeded the strategic gains in the west and that something must have gone seriously wrong. Although the Federals had extinguished Confederate hopes for reclaiming West Tennessee and stalled the Union penetration of significant cotton-producing regions in Mississippi and Alabama, Northern politicians were pressed for answers about the high casualty rate. As rumors passed through the Federal camps that the Confederates had surprised Grant, that he had been drinking, and that he had not even been on the field when the battle opened, Lincoln and Halleck were forced to defend the commander. At one point, frustrated about the failures and inactivity in the east, Lincoln supposedly defended Grant, arguing that although he might be the cause of the losses at Shiloh, 'I can't spare this man; he fights.'
The same day that Grant and Buell defeated Beauregard, General Pope captured Island No. 10, which opened the Mississippi River all the way to Memphis, Tennessee. In the following weeks, the Union Navy steamed down the Mississippi toward Memphis, and Halleck came to Pittsburg Landing to direct the combined Federal armies of Grant and Buell against Corinth
Confederate gunboats burning at New Orleans on the approach of the Federal fleets. (Public domain)
Perhaps even more stunning than the Union victory at Shiloh was Flag Officer David G. Farragut's capture of New Orleans. Louisiana, three weeks later. His wooden frigates and gunboats, carrying BrigadierGeneral Benjamin Butler's 15,000 soldiers, approached the forts protecting the mouth of the Mississippi River. After a week of bombarding the strongholds, Farragut's mortars failed to reduce the forts, so the determined sailor decided to run his flotilla by the forts. Before daybreak on 24 April, Farragut slipped his 17 vessels past the forts and moved upriver, though the Confederates managed to disable three smaller vessels. Less than a week later, Farragut's sailors and marines captured New Orleans without resistance as Brigadier-General Mansfield Lovell sent his forces away from the city. Simultaneously, General Butler forced the surrender of the river forts and then sent his men to occupy New Orleans.
Not only had the Federals captured the Confederacy's largest city and leading port, but also the capture came on the heels of the defeat at Shiloh. Again the Confederates suffered the consequences of a lack of manpower to cover the vast western terrain. Confederate authorities believed that the main Union offensive was to come from upriver, so they ordered most of the soldiers and several gunboats north, leaving New Orleans vulnerable to attack.
The cumulative effect of these disasters was devastating to the Confederacy. The loss of Forts Henry and Donelson, the bloody defeat at Shiloh, and the capture of two of the Confederacy's most prominent cities, Nashville and New Orleans, cast a dark shadow over the war effort. The loss of these strategic places and manpower, coupled with the fact that McClellan had besieged Yorktown, Virginia, and was preparing to advance against Richmond with the largest force ever assembled on the North American continent, forced the Confederate government to consider desperate measures. On 16 April, the Confederate Congress approved the first National Conscription Act in the nation's history. Although some
Confederates bitterly opposed this Act, arguing that it was an infringement of their liberties, others argued that the Confederacy with its limited manpower must raise troops and that states' rights would have to succumb to the Confederate cause. All white males between 18 and 35 years of age would be subjected to three years militan service.
As the victory bells rang throughout the North in celebration of the accomplishments in the west, Southerners had no such expression. In fact, in stark contrast, church bells and plantation bells in the South were being melted down to be used in the war effort. At one point, Beauregard wrote to Father James Mullen of St Patrick's church in New Orleans that although 'our wives and children have been accustomed to the call, and would miss the tones of the "Church-going bells," ... there is no alternative we must make the sacrifice ... ' As much as he wanted to spare the necessity of depriving the South's plantations and churches of their bells, he simply could not. The war was heating up and Beauregard needed every available resource to carry on his operations to restore the Confederacy in the west.
Was this article helpful?