On the morning of April 6, 1862, the sun rose over the Union encampment at Pittsburg Landing. Neither Ulysses S. Grant, the Union commander, nor Albert S. Johnston, the Confederate commander, could possibly know what this day would hold. It would bring advances in military tactics. It would bring innovations in the medical field. It would change all preconceived notions that the Civil War would be short-lived. For Johnston and thousands of other brave soldiers on the Union and Confederate sides, it would bring death.
During the winter of 1861-62 Federal forces pushing southward from St. Louis captured Forts Henry and Donelson on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. This action forced Gen. Johnston to abandon southern Kentucky and much of West and Middle Tennessee. After withdrawing further south, he established a new line covering the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, the only all-weather link between Richmond and Memphis. Realizing that he could not wait for another Federal advance, Johnston began concentrating forces at Corinth, Mississippi, where he hoped to take the offensive and destroy General Grant's Army of the Tennessee before it could be joined by General Don Carlos Buell's Army of the Ohio.
On April 2, 1862, Johnston began his march from Corinth. "The roads were meandering cow paths," one confederate soldier said. Because of the lack of marching experience, the march took much longer than expected.
Meanwhile, at the Union camp at Shiloh, the Federals troops spent a day drilling and merry-making. Hundreds went for a swim in Owl Creek. Others rested. There was also a good deal of diarrhea, which the boys labelled the "Tennessee quick step".
Grant wired his superior General H.W. Halleck. "I have scarecely the faintest idea of attack." Halleck told Grant to "sit tight at Shiloh and wait for Buell to arrive." William Tecupseh Sherman, division commander, was quoted saying to reporters, "Take your regiment to Ohio. No enemy is nearer than Corinth." Little did he know that the night of April 5, the huge and powerful Army of the Mississippi was poised to strike just out of sight of the Union camp. P.G.T. Beaureguard, second in command of the Confederates, felt they had lost the element of suprise because of some shots fired by the men in front. Beaureguard pleaded with Johnston to postpone the attack. "I would fight them if they were a million," Johnston said.
On the morning of April 6, Johnston told his fellow officers "Tonight we will water our horses in the Tennessee." When Johnston's powerful Army of the Mississippi hit the federal camps, they had achived complete suprise. The attack pushed most Union divisions back to reform elsewhere. Others fought doggedly to hold their line.
Once the attack started, there was mass confusion on both sides. Most of the boys had never been in battle before, and did not know there orders. "It was a murderous fist fight."
The Rebels rolled over one Union position after another. Then, amongst the confusion along a sunken road, the federals finally established and held a line that stopped the southern advance. The division consisted of Illinois and Iowa farm boys mostly, under the command of General Prentiss. Grant's orders were to "Hold the sunken road at all costs." Prentiss greatly understood the seriousness of Grant's orders. Bullets buzzed through the saplings around the area, and it appeared and sounded like a hornet's nest. The Confederate infantry launched eleven attacks on the Hornet's nest. The Union line wavered and bent, but would not break. The Confederate artillery lined up sixty-two cannons at point blank range and fired on the sunken road. It was the largest number of cannons ever used at that time in a war effort. Under protection of the cannons the Rebel troops were able to move in and take the sunken road. The Union troops were forced to surrender. They had fought well holding the Confederates for six hours. For years to come Union veterans were proud to say, " I fought with Prentiss at the Hornet's Nest."
There was also a great deal of fighting at a peach orchard, just yards away from the Hornet's Nest. The peach trees were in full bloom. Many soldiers lay dead. Peach blossoms covered the dead like a fresh-fallen snow. Gen. Johnston led the last raid on the peach orchard. He came out with his clothes tattered from bullets that had grazed him, and his boot sole was shot. A Confederate officer saw him wobbling in his saddle and ask if he were hurt. "Yes," he replied. "And I feel seriously." His aid took him to a nearby tree. He was shot in the back of the leg. He bled to death. He could have easily been saved with a touniquet, but he had sent his surgeon off to care for Union prisoners.
A farm pond near the peach orchard was covered with soldiers from both armies. Many men went to bathe their wounds and drink from the water. For many it was their last drink The water was stained red with blood.
That night dead lay everywhere. Neither army had developed a system for gathering the dead General Grant said a peson can walk in any given direction without stepping on ground." In a Confederate camp that night one soldier said, "You can hear the screams of the injured. They screamed for water, God heard them for the heavens opened and the rain fell." Flashes of lightening showed vultures feeding on the ungathered dead.
On the night of April 6, the long-awaited arrival of Don Carlos Buell's reinforcements arrived. Through the cover of gunboat fire, his troops came in on steamboats. The gun boats fired on fifteen minute intervals, allowing Buell's forces to come aground, and robbing the Confederates of their greatly needed rest.
That morning the Confederates were pushed back on the ground that they had fought so hard to win the day before. With the fresh troops, the weary Rebels had little chance to win a complete victory. The Southerners were forced to march back to Corinth.
The final number of dead or missing was 13,000 on the Union side and 10,500 on the Confederate side. There were as many people killed at Shiloh as there were at Wateloo. The difference between that Napoleanic war and the Civil War is that there weren't twenty more Waterloos to come.
Shiloh was a decisive battle in the war. The South needed a win to make up for land lost in Kentucky and Ohio. It also needed to save the Mississippi Valley. Memphis and Vicksburg were now vulnerable to Union attack, and after Corinth there is now doubt that those cities would be the next targets.
However, Grant and his men had been rid of their over-confidence by the battle of Shiloh. They now knew that hopes for and easy victory over the south were ill-founded. Grant knew then that this war was going to be, in the words of a Union Soldier, "A very bloody affair."