Tennessee: Shiloh Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Shiloh is the site of one of the earliest and most decisive full-scale battles in the western theater of operations during the Civil War. On April 6 and 7, 1862, Union and Confederate forces numbering almost 110,000 men fought on the west bank of the Tennessee River between Shiloh Church and Pittsburg Landing. The battle, fought to control the strategic railroad junction of Corinth, Mississippi, resulted in 24,000 casualties and set the stage for the Confederate loss of the upper Mississippi Valley. Within the park also are thirty Indian burial mounds, which were excavated by the Smithsonian Institution in 1934.

Site Office

Shiloh National Military Park

1055 Pittsburg Landing

Shiloh, TN 38376

ph.: (901) 689-5696 (visitors’ center), 689-3475 (bookstore)

Web site: www.nps.gov/shil/

The four thousand-acre military park in Shiloh contains a visitors’ center, a small theater where a short film introduces the battle, and a bookstore. Visitors can take a self-guided automobile tour to decisive points on the well-marked battlefield, though the looping road does not follow the action of the battle chronologically or geographically. It is also important to note that the vegetation is much denser and the open fields much smaller than at the time of the battle. This is particularly true, for example, at the artillery positions protecting Grant’s left flank on the high ground above the Tennessee River, which are now heavily overgrown. The battlefield tour also takes visitors past the Indian mounds.

The Battle of Shiloh

The Battle of Shiloh provides military historians and students of Civil War history with many insights into combat difficulties for leaders, soldiers, and sailors. Inadequacies of transportation, communication, intelligence, training, and experience confronted both leaders and the rank and file.

The strategic problem for the Confederacy in the western theater lay in covering the great distances with adequate forces. Concentration to deliver a decisive blow meant leaving much of Tennessee and Arkansas undefended, while defending along the Confederacy’s whole northern border meant being weak everywhere. Western Tennessee provided a particularly difficult problem because the Mississippi sliced north and south through the Confederacy. To the east, the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers flowed north into the Ohio River, providing the newly forming Union gunboat navy the opportunity to penetrate as far south as Florence, Alabama, and Nashville, Tennessee.

These key rivers were opened to exploitation when General Ulysses S. Grant’s forces took Forts Henry and Donelson in February, 1862. As a result, General Albert Sidney Johnston, Commander of the Confederacy’s Western District, was compelled to abandon Nashville, the Confederacy’s most important regional depot. The loss stunned authorities in Richmond, who finally realized the danger.

General Johnston moved southwest from Nashville and, receiving reinforcements from all directions, was able to concentrate approximately fifty-one thousand men at Corinth, Mississippi. This was the key junction where the major east-west railroad line connecting Memphis to Chattanooga and the East crossed the major north-south link from Mobile, Alabama, through Jackson, Tennessee, to Columbus, Kentucky. It was the strategic linchpin of the region’s defense. The Union recognized its significance as well. General Grant’s Army of the Tennessee, numbering forty-seven thousand men and supported by Union gunboats, moved up the Tennessee River toward Corinth, while General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio, numbering almost fifty thousand, moved cross-country from Nashville to join him. Their rendezvous point was Pittsburg Landing, on the west bank of the Tennessee River approximately twenty-five miles northeast of Corinth.

General William Tecumseh Sherman, though only one of Grant’s division commanders, commanded the entire force on the ground west of the landing as General Grant stayed at his headquarters at Savannah, Tennessee, several miles upriver and on the opposite bank. The Union troops were in an offensive frame of mind and expected to move forward to attack the defenders of Corinth. Sherman has, therefore, been criticized for the lax security of the troops that poured into the encampment and the administrative, rather than tactical, disposition of his forces.

The Confederates realized that their only hope for success was to defeat Grant before Buell could reinforce him, and they thus moved to attack. The movement out of Corinth to contact was, however, hampered by a poor road network, lack of communications, poor intelligence, and inexperience. These factors delayed the attack until the morning of April 6. Although some of Sherman’s subordinates, sensing an enemy presence, sent out patrols, who actually triggered the battle, most of his force was surprised by the early morning attack. The Union defenders were driven back and their camps overrun. Despite this early success the Confederate attack began to suffer from disorganization. General Pierre G. T. Beauregard, the author of the plan, had attacked with two corps on line, one behind the other, with units of two additional corps trailing in column. While the initial attacks were a success, overrunning, as they did, Sherman’s command post at Shiloh Church and many Union camps, following Confederate troops began to pile into the lead units. The result was that, despite their success, Confederate units became intermingled, disorganized, and very difficult to control. The fight became one of regiments commanded by whatever senior officer was near at hand whether they were his troops or not.

General Sherman, though he can be faulted for his early lack of alertness and his dispositions, proved his skill as a battlefield commander in what was to be the bloodiest fight of his long career. Under his leadership, his troops and those of General John A. McClernand on the Union right flank reorganized, fought back, and grudgingly gave ground into the middle of the afternoon.

The intermingled troops of Generals Lewis Wallace, Benjamin M. Prentiss, and Stephen A. Hurlbut in the center of the line ultimately saved the Union position. General Grant, who had heard the fighting and rushed to the scene from his headquarters, realized the natural strength of their position and ordered it held at all costs. The key to the defense was a slightly sunken road through a patch of underbrush facing an open field the Rebels had to cross. The dogged defense against repeated Confederate attacks produced some of the bloodiest fighting of the war. The defenders’ intense fire so galled the Rebel attackers that they named the position the “Hornet’s Nest.”

On the Union left, Confederate attacks had more success, though here they suffered a catastrophe. Troops of General John C. Breckinridge, former vice president of the United States, while driving back the Union forces in the vicinity of the Peach Orchard, momentarily lost momentum. General Johnston, attempting to organize a new attack, was mortally wounded. Though command devolved upon General Beauregard, General Braxton Bragg seems at this point to have assumed the role of combat commander.

The Confederate drive on the Union right flank ultimately succeeded, but instead of pushing forward toward the lightly defended Pittsburg Landing, the real objective, they swung left to encircle the Hornet’s Nest. The position had endured six hours of attacks and been pounded by concentrated fire of over fifty cannon. In the late afternoon with General Wallace having been killed, General Prentiss surrendered the remaining two thousand defenders. They had held on long enough, however, for Grant to organize a final defensive line on high ground in front of Pittsburg Landing. There in the late afternoon a Union artillery line, supported by gunboats and bolstered by the leading elements of Buell’s army, drove off the last Confederate attacks.

Beauregard, believing that General Buell’s troops were too far away to assist Grant, assumed that he could complete the victory the following morning. Through the night, however, seventeen thousand of Buell’s troops disembarked in a driving rain. In addition General Wallace’s division, numbering more than seven thousand men, who had marched and countermarched while the battle raged, now joined the battle line. General Nathan Bedford Forrest had sent scouts into the Union lines and knew of these reinforcements, but he was unable to convey the crucial intelligence to General Beauregard.

Though the element of surprise was gone, the second day of battle was much like the first, but in reverse. Generals Grant and Buell conferred neither during the night nor the next morning and launched their attacks essentially as two separate armies. The result was a soldiers’ fight–head-on attacks with little finesse across tangled terrain. Now the Union had the upper hand, and the blue lines surged forward. General James A. Garfield, another future president, led his brigade forward in this advance. A lack of coordination among the attackers allowed the Confederates to give ground slowly in the face of frontal attacks and even deliver occasional counterblows. The battle raged from first light to mid-afternoon when Beauregard, realizing that his force was spent, broke contact and retreated toward Corinth. The Union troops, too bloodied and exhausted to pursue, lost the opportunity that a coordinated attack would have provided to destroy the Confederate’s largest western field force.

The cost of the battle had been enormous. Confederate casualties have been estimated at 10,700 of 40,300 engaged (over 25 percent), and Union casualties at 13,000 of 62,700 engaged (20 percent). The enormity of these numbers brought criticism of all involved in the battle. Grant, nevertheless, emerged after several months of eclipse, as a rising star, who would ultimately command all Union forces and win the presidency. The battle also made the career of General Sherman, Grant’s trusted subordinate, who as a result of his combat leadership emerged from a cloud of suspicion regarding his mental stability. The Confederacy lost the leadership of General Albert Sidney Johnston, who was killed in action, and General P. G. T. Beauregard, who was never again trusted with a significant field command by Confederate president Jefferson Davis. General Bragg was given command of the Army of Tennessee.

Neither side had been able to deliver a knock-out blow, but Confederate hopes of sustaining their presence in the upper Mississippi Valley were doomed. In May they abandoned Corinth. The loss of Nashville had been followed in rapid succession by the loss of Island Number 10, New Orleans, and Memphis, opening up long stretches of the Mississippi River to Union gunboats. The Confederate army itself survived the Battle of Shiloh, and the Union failure to pursue meant it would fight another day. Nevertheless, Shiloh was a decisive event in the defeat of Confederate hopes in the West.

For Further Information
  • Arnold, James. Shiloh 1862: The Death of Innocence. Oxford, England: Osprey, 1988. One of the titles in Osprey’s Campaign Series, this short treatment is well illustrated and contains interesting and informative maps.
  • Daniel, Larry F. Shiloh: The Battle That Changed the Civil War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. Sets the battle well within the strategic and operational framework and gives a good tactical account supported by excellent maps.
  • Espisitio, Vincent J., ed. The West Point Atlas of American Wars: Vol. 1, 1689-1900. New York: Praeger, 1959. A short analysis of the campaign accompanies a series of excellent operational and tactical maps.
  • Frank, Joseph A., and George Reaves. Seeing the Elephant: Raw Recruits at the Battle of Shiloh. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989. Contains moving and insightful eyewitness accounts from participants.
  • Luvaas, Jay, Stephen Bowman, and Leonard Fullenkamp. Guide to the Battle of Shiloh. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1996. This is the book for those with an interest in a detailed study of the battle and the ground. The authors take the reader on a self-directed automobile tour of the battlefield, using after-action reports from the Official Record.
  • Sword, Wiley. Shiloh: Bloody April. New York: William Morrow, 1974. A well-written account of the battle, though it lacks the maps that enhance Daniel’s book.
Categories: History