Overview of the Battle of Shiloh

by S. E. Williams

 

Official Map of the Shiloh Battlefield
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from The Civil War Home Page by Ron O'Callaghan
In ancient Israel Shiloh was the place where the Tabernacle containing the Ark of the Covenant was during the Judges period. Some scholars think the word means peace. In April, 1862 the word took on a new meaning. For many Americans it now brings to mind one of the bloodiest battles in our nation's history. This battle which raged around Shiloh Church near Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River was claimed as a victory by both the Union and the Confederacy. In many ways it was a loss for both sides. It was a loss of innocence since, after Shiloh, nether side could realistically expect that the war would end quickly or that the virtue of their cause would sweep them to a quick victory. It was a terrible loss of young men's lives and vitality, a greater loss of life and more wounded than in all wars our nation had fought before the battle took place. It resulted in the loss to the Confederacy of General Johnston, arguably its best general in the west and nearly derailed the career of General Grant, who would later command the entire Union Army and who, together with General Sherman, would insist that he was not surprised at Shiloh. Both Confederate claims of victory and Union commanders claims of not being surprised indicate that there was also a loss of candor by both sides.

Who won? Strategically Shiloh was a Union victory. Memphis was isolated and was later yielded to the Union army without a fight. The major rail head at Corinth was abandoned after a bit of bluffing by the Confederate army and Union forces held both the battlefield and the Tennessee River at the end of the second day. Any thought of invading Kentucky was removed from immediate consideration by the Confederacy. The losses of men and material by the South were essentially irreplaceable while those of the North, while tragic, were easily replaced. It was a Union victory in a technical sense but it was not a triumphant victory. Massive losses of life and the humiliating rout of some regiments and many more smaller units and individuals were very upsetting to the people of the North. Indeed the massive casualties resulting from the clash of the two ill-trained, mostly untested armies stunned the populations of both the North and the South. Because of the nature of the battle field any Confederate deserters could fade into the woods but Union deserters accumulated at the landing along the Tennessee River in full view or reporters and visiting dignitaries some of whom received the story of the battle from these panic stricken men. This combined with the justifiable criticism of Grant for not planning a more adequate defense created a storm of controversy. A situation worse for public relations is hard to imagine. On the Public relations front the Union lost.

Was Grant surprised? The lack of defensive preparations by General Grant known at the time only as the hero of Ft. Donelson and General Sherman, the relatively obscure brother of Senator John Sherman, were particularly disturbing to many in the North. The Surprise attack at Shiloh did damage to the careers of these two great Union generals and might well have provided one of the few real benefits of the battle to the South. Both men would swear the rest of their lives that they were not surprised at Shiloh. Reading the Official Reports it is hard to come to any other conclusion than that of Colonel J. E. Smith who said the Union army "had not been surprised; it was worse, we were astonished."

Why Shiloh? To the Union, before the battle, Camp Shiloh and Pittsburg Landing were a staging area for a planned attack on the strategic railroad town of Corinth Mississippi. Green regiments, including the 48th, were being drilled in preparation for the battle. Sometimes they were unknowingly passing in review before Col. Forrest, CSA. General Grant was commander in the field but General Halleck in St. Louis, had ordered Grant not to provoke an attack by the enemy and to wait until he and General Buell were on site so that General Halleck could march the overwhelmingly powerful combined force to Corinth for the offensive. Grant's headquarters was at Cherry Mansion in Savannah, about 5 to 6 miles down river, and General Lewis Wallace's Division was isolated at Crump's landing, 5 miles away across the river from Savanna. General Buell was marching his Army of the Ohio from Nashville.

The Confederate strategy devised by General Johnston was to destroy Grant's Army of the Tennessee before Buell's Army of the Ohio could unite with it. General Johnston had gathered a force about slightly superior in number to Grant's at Pittsburg Landing (Johnston 44,699 to Grant 41,330, not counting Wallace's division at Crump's landing) and equally untested in battle. He had then moved them from Corinth to Shiloh Camp over near impassable roads under cruel conditions to launch an all out attack that caught Grant by surprise. It was a very bold move but in the end the two Union armies united and started their slow deliberate march south under the over cautious guidance of General Halleck.

The second day and Sherman's pursuit. The Union forces enjoyed overwhelming superiority in numbers after the arrival of General Buell's Army and General Wallace's Division the evening of the first day. This occurred just as Grant's troops were being pressed into their final line of defence by the Confederate attack. The second day of the battle was the reverse of the first as the Union forces pushed the Confederates back through the Union camps which they had captured the previous day. Despite this, the normally aggressive General Grant failed to pursue the retreating enemy except for a token effort led by General Sherman with a small group of fought-out regiments, including the 48th Ohio. These forces were held back by Colonel Forrest's Tennessee Cavalry and The Confederate army stumbled back into Corinth. This lack of pursuit may have been because Grant's own troops were exhausted from two days continuous fighting and Buell's relatively fresh troops were not under Grant's command, but regardless of the cause, the Union Army missed an opportunity to destroy the major Confederate force in the west.

Valor was exhibited by many despite all the problems the first day. The Army of the Tennessee was saved by General Prentiss' troops' tenacious and heroic obedience to Grant's order to "hold at all hazards" along a sunken road overlooking the area which has come to be called "The Hornet's Nest". It also benefitted greatly by the courage and level-headed leadership exhibited by Generals Grant and Sherman once the battle began and by numerous regiments that did not "skedaddle" but maintained as much order as their limited training allowed and fought valiantly throughout the several Union withdrawals during the first day's battle.

One of the regiments that held together and acquitted itself well was the Forty-eighth Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment which was camped just to the west of Shiloh Church and was one of the first units into battle. During Shiloh, which was their first battle, they were in General Sherman's Division and Colonel Buckland's Brigade. They were Commanded by Colonel Sullivan during most of the battle until he was forced by the severity his wounds to yield command to Lieutenant-Colonel Parker on the second day of the battle.

References: The following books give objective accounts of the Battle of Shiloh and also make excellent reading. The factual information in the introduction is taken entirely from them.

Larry J. Daniel 1997. "Shiloh: The Battle that Changed the Civil War", Simon & Schuster.

Bruce Catton 1960. "Grant Moves South", Little Brown and Company, Boston.

Stanley P. Hirshson 1997. "The White Techumseh: A Biography of General William T. Sherman", John Wiley & Sons.

The Battle of Shiloh, from the Civil War Home Page by Ron O'Callaghan.

 

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3/12/99