The Battle of Shiloh: Johnston’s Gambit

When people think of the Civil War, they think of different things from slavery to Abraham Lincoln to the battles to women serving in combat. I, as a history teacher, tend to think of the massive loss of life. Some 600,000 men and women perished, more than any American conflict. In 1861, the Battle of Bull Run (1st Manassas) showed that the war would not won in a single battle. Rather, it was going to be a long drawn out affair. The Battle of Shiloh (Pittsburg Landing) showed just how bloody this war was going to be.

The fact that battle took place in south east Tennessee was not where Grant wanted his next battle to take place. Grant’s objective was 20 miles away at a railroad junction in Corinth, Mississippi. As part of the Anaconda Plan, Grant was trying to cut the Confederacy in half by capturing railroads and the Mississippi and Tennessee Rivers that connected the Confederacy. Corinth contained a railroad junction. Capturing the junction would be a coup for Grant. Grant and the Army of the Tennessee made their way down the Tennessee River and began disembarking near Pittsburg Landing, about 2 miles from the Shiloh church. AT Pittsburg Landing, Grant was to hook up with Buell’s Army of the Ohio and then reek havoc on the South. Upon receiving word of Grant’s arrival in SE Tennessee, General Albert Sidney Johnston began organizing a complex plan to drive Grant from his positions and all the way back to the Snake Creek, and thus destroying the Army of the Tennessee before Grant and Buell could combine forces. Things did not go as planned, for either side.

April 6, 1862
The Confederates, stationed at Corinth, surprised the Army of the Tennessee at 6 a.m. Grant did not think the Confederates would dare leave Corinth. As a result, the Union had no defensive positions established. On the other hand, the Confederate attack, although 44,000 strong did not dispel the Army of the Tennessee from the grounds near the Shiloh Church. Ironically, Shiloh is a Hebrew word meaning Peace. The battle this day, and the next, would be anything but peaceful.

Throughout the 6th, Johnston attempted to push Grant’s forces back into the river and nearby Snake Creek. The Union took up a defensive position in what has become known as the legendary “Hornet’s Nest” for which the battle is also known. Throughout the day, the Confederates sent wave after wave of soldiers at the Union entrenchment. They all failed. Johnston was mortally wounded that afternoon. PGT Beauregard took command. Rather than bypassing the “Hornet’s Nest” and focusing on the Union forces at Pittsburg Landing, Beauregard kept hammering away at  a futile position, much to the chagrin and detriment of his troops. Eventually, the Hornet’s Nest fell. The Union fell back to even more defensible positions around Pittsburg Landing.

Even southern newspapers of the day had all but declared victory after April 6

Both sides had suffered heavy casualties on the first day, an estimated 8,000 plus . As night began to fall, the Confederates believed they would be victorious come morning. The night proved to be decisive. A thunderstorm battered the Confederate positions. Along with constant shelling by Union gunboats along the Tennessee and nearby creeks, the Confederates were left in tatters by the morning. What had been a force of 44,000, some estimate that only 20,000-28,000 were left come the morning of the 7th. Grant, meanwhile, had been reinforced by the Army of the Ohio. The second day of fighting would bring a greater number of killed and wounded.

April 7
The day began with what the Confederates saw as a surprising Union advance. The whole day became surprising for Beauregard as Grant, Buell, and Sherman attacked the Confederates at every opportunity. By the afternoon, Beauregard had left the territory he had only gained the day before. His men, tired, hungry, and disheveled, gave up the battlefield that night and straggled back into Mississippi. Over 23,000 casualties showed that this war, this Civil War, would be anything but Civil. The aftermath of the battle saw Grant chastised in the Press for his command and inability to command the battlefield the first day despite being four miles away on crutches when the battle began. Grant was also criticized for his failure to properly set up a defensive position upon his arrival in south east Tennessee. Grant had instead chose to drill his young army. Despite calls to sack Grant, Lincoln paid no heed. “I can’t spare this man, he fights.” The victory to Lincoln was still a victory. In the east, the Army of the Potomac had yet to taste it. Lincoln knew Grant would taste it yet again. It would be at Corinth after a long siege.

A cartoon of the day lampoons the Confederate retreat


Although Grant was attacked by surprise, Shiloh was only the beginning of a year of hell for Confederate forces opposing him. Grant, rather than attack head on in the next year, did so sparingly. He used the tactics of siege warfare not only at Corinth but again at Vicksburg, both times to success.

In 2005, my wife and I traveled to Shiloh. Here are some pictures of the hallowed scene.

Pittsburg Landing along the Tennessee River where Grant made his camp on the night of the 6th
The Shiloh Church for which the battle is named. It is a replica.
The Bloody Pond where dehydrated soldiers attempted to drink and clean wounds
The Hornet's Nest where most of the fighting took place on April 6

2 thoughts on “The Battle of Shiloh: Johnston’s Gambit

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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