Shiloh: First Mass Slaughter at 'Place of Peace'

Article excerpt


The word Shiloh, which in Hebrew means place of peace, instead evokes images and reflections of the violence and slaughter of war.

For two days in April 1862, Union and Confederate armies clashed in fields and wooded areas near a religious meeting-house called Shiloh in southwestern Tennessee. It was the first mass-casualty battle of the Civil War.

More Americans fell at Shiloh than in all previous American wars combined. The Union commander, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, concluded after the battle that the Union could be saved only by the "complete conquest" of the Confederacy.

After the capture by the Union of Tennessee forts Henry and Donelson in February 1862, Confederate forces under the command of Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston concentrated at Corinth, Miss., just below the Tennessee border. Union forces, meanwhile, traveled down the Tennessee River and disembarked on the western bank of the river at Pittsburg Landing.

Union troops under the command of Gen. William T. Sherman camped near Shiloh Chapel, about four miles inland of Pittsburg Landing. Grant planned to attack Confederate forces at Corinth, an important railroad hub, after Union reinforcements under Gen. Don Carlos Buell arrived from the north. Johnston, however, ordered Confederate forces to leave Corinth and attack the Union Army in Tennessee before Buell's reinforcements could arrive.

The battle began on April 6 at about 5 a.m., when a Union reconnaissance force ran into Confederate skirmishers in a clearing known as Fraley Field. When word of the initial clash reached Johnston, he ordered the Confederate army forward to attack. About an hour later, Sherman's forces near Shiloh Chapel, caught somewhat off guard, were under heavy assault by Confederate troops.

Union troops gradually gave way under the fierce Confederate charges. Some soldiers, and even whole regiments, panicked and took flight toward Pittsburg Landing. Sherman, attempting to rally his forces, was twice wounded.

Grant arrived on the battlefield at midmorning and observed firsthand the precarious position of his army. Union troops were falling back across a four-mile front. On the left, Gen. Benjamin Prentiss occupied an "eroded wagon trail" later described as a "sunken road," and Grant ordered him to hold the position "at all hazards."

This area became the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the battle and of the entire war. Prentiss' troops held the position for several hours in the face of repeated Confederate assaults. Union firing from the position was so fierce that Confederate soldiers reportedly cried, "It's a hornet's nest in there," thus giving the place its historic name.

Twelve times the Southern forces attacked the Hornet's Nest, and each time they were repulsed, creating what historian Shelby Foote called "a thickening carpet of dead and wounded." The Confederates then massed 62 cannons and fired grape and canister across the "sunken road."

"It was as if," wrote Mr. Foote, "the Hornet's Nest exploded, inclosing its defenders in a smoky, flame-cracked din of flying clods, splintered trees, uprooted brush, and whirring metal." The toll of repeated Confederate assaults combined with the fury of Confederate cannons resulted in Prentiss' surrender of more than 2,000 troops. But Union resistance in the Hornet's Nest bought Grant precious time.

All along the front, the Union Army was in retreat. By about 4 p.m., a defensive perimeter had formed near Pittsburg Landing. …