Shiloh at 150

By Brown, John S. | Army, April 2012 | Go to article overview

Shiloh at 150


Brown, John S., Army


In February's "Historically Speaking," we discussed MG Ulysses S. Grant's successful seizures of Forts Henry and Donelson. Daringly exploiting the mechanized advantages of steamboats, he pushed upstream on both the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. He cut Confederate rail communications across these rivers and stood poised for even deeper penetrations into the middle South. His twin victories left the Confederates in Tennessee momentarily split in two, but an opportunity to defeat either wing in detail evaporated because of dithering among Grant's superiors as to who was in charge of what and what they should do next. A next logical geographical target for advancing Union forces was the rail line running from Memphis through Corinth, Miss.; Chattanooga and Knoxville to Petersburg and Richmond, Va. This was the only continuous rail line spanning the Confederacy from east to west. One had to travel 150 miles south of this line to find another high-volume east-west route, rail and water, running from Vicksburg through Montgomery to Atlanta.

Now master of the Tennessee River by virtue of Fort Henry and a fleet of armed steamboats, Grant's Army of the Tennessee had ready access to Pittsburg Landing, Term., within 20 miles of the strategic rail junction at Corinth. His forces began arriving there on March 11, 1862, and fanned out to occupy an assembly area dominated by scenic Shiloh Church. Meanwhile the Confederates, led by Generals Albert Sidney Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard, recognized the hazards of their separation and the vulnerability of their rail line. They concentrated at Corinth, where they amassed 40,000 troops to slightly outnumber Grant's force of 35,000. The Confederates decided to attack.

For reasons that are not altogether clear, the security thrown up by Union forces around their expansive Shiloh assembly area was grossly inadequate. There had been perturbations in leadership as command passed from Grant for a while and then came back to him. Grant had been injured when his horse fell, and he was moving around on crutches. Grant's soldiers were supremely confident after their twin victories and went about training and preparing for future advances without giving much thought to local security. Grant and his superiors realized he would have to be reinforced to advance. Accordingly, he personally was positioned downstream at Savannah, about 10 miles from Pittsburg Landing, to facilitate the arrival of reinforcements from MG Don Carlos Buell's neighboring Army of the Ohio. Ultimately, Grant was so aggressive he is reputed to have given far more thought to what he was going to do to his adversary than to what his adversary was going to do to him.

Advancing along poor roads in thickly wooded terrain, the Confederates came on line undetected within two miles of divisions commanded by Brigadier Generals William T. Sherman and Benjamin M. Prentiss. Prentiss sent out heavy patrols during the early morning of April 6, and these almost immediately came into heavy contact. The volume of fire animated the previously careless Union leadership. Sherman and Prentiss got their divisions on line quickly, and divisions commanded by MG John A. McClernand and BG Stephen A. Hurlburt marched immediately to their relief. Nevertheless, the Confederate attack swept all before it for a time, forcing the embattled Union divisions back all along the line. Union camps were overrun. Union losses mounted. Unfortunately for the Confederates, they had oddly configured their deployment. One corps was on line in front and another on line behind. Neither corps had actual reserves. As the battle developed in the thick terrain, unrelated units became hopelessly jumbled together. …

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