The Union's building-block advance of its western strategy arrived in the late winter of 1862 at Pittsburg Landing, Term., which was not much more than a wide muddy spot on the banks of the Tennessee River that provided a notch between bluffs on its flanks. A tiny roughhewn-log Methodist meeting house was perched on a hillside above, and the churchyard had been given the name Shiloh for the biblical place of peace. Confederate and Union forces, led by generals and senior officers of compelling personalities and histories, would visit upon it battle, blood and death for two days. The military objective lay some 25 miles away at Corinth, Miss. [For a timeline account of the battle, please see "Historically Speaking," page 86.]
The Principals and Strategies
Union forces under recently promoted MG Ulysses S. Grant encamped on the wooded knolls and grassy flats above Pittsburg Landing to drill green regiments and wait to link up with forces under MG Don Carlos Buell, coming (albeit reluctantly and slowly) from Columbia, Tenn., with three divisions to make a combined attack on Corinth.
The Confederate army knew the importance of the Corinth rail center and concentrated a force of its own to defend it, reinforcing it from various points and dispatching the Confederacy's overall western commander, GEN Albert Sydney Johnston, to command its defense.
Johnston, a tall, burly frontier fighter with a wide gentlemanly streak, was a friend of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, and the general whom he considered the most able on the South's rolls at the time. At the war's outset, Johnston resigned his federal commission in California and made a perilous trek across the country that eventually landed him in Richmond, Va., where Davis commissioned him as a full general, giving him command of the western department with responsibility for all or parts of seven states, stretching from the Appalachian Mountains to Indian Territory in today's Oklahoma.
During his time in command, Johnston's fighting abilities had failed to fulfill expectations, and his reputation had been severely marred. Troops throughout his command had suffered a series of defeats and setbacks and withdrew all along the department's front. Among them were the losses of Forts Henry and Donelson, where about 12,000 of his men became prisoners. In addition to control of the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, Federal control at Donelson/ Henry also created a Union salient that divided Johnston's two main forces in Kentucky, making their positions that much more untenable.
The failure of this offensive into Kentucky and the collapse of his defensive line ceded neutral Kentucky to Union control for the time being and forced the Confederates to withdraw to Tennessee. Later, Johnston ordered a withdrawal from the important center of Nashville, which allowed Federals to take the city easily, adding to the wholesale criticism poured upon him.
Since taking command, Johnston had pleaded for reinforcements in the contested portions of his department, but none arrived to give him the strength to blunt the Union's two wings of advance from Kentucky and a major base that had been established on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River at Cairo (pronounced KAY-row by local custom).
Davis suddenly realized the perilous situations facing Johnston in Tennessee and Mississippi, especially concerning Corinth, so he sent reinforcements, along with trainloads of supplies, to consolidate with Johnston's field army.
GEN P. G. T. Beauregard had been transferred from Virginia to be Johnston's deputy just as Confederate efforts in Kentucky broke down. Beauregard was cocky and pontificating. He was given to shooting off his mouth in an endless stream of breathless dispatches and wildly ambitious plans to Davis. The Confederate president apparently decided to put some distance between them under the smokescreen of bolstering the west. …