It was the first Sunday morning in April–6 April, 1862, and had been raining for days in south central Tennessee. The boys from Illinois and Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota, Indiana and Iowa were just waking up. Down the Tennessee River, to the north of the 35,000 man Army of West Tennessee’s encampment, Ulysses S. Grant was at breakfast in his headquarters steamboat Tigress.near William Cherry’s mansion.. The northern boys were in those pine barrens split by creeks and streams because Corinth, Mississippi was important. The junction of four rail lines was just a day’s ride to the southwest, and this flatboat near Pitts Tucker’s long forgotten saloon–called Pittsburg Landing by then, was the best boat landing closest to the only road to Corinth that was thought (wrongly, as it turned out) to be complete with adequate space for an army.
For six days before that Sunday a 40,000 man Confederate Army of Mississippi under Albert Sidney Johnson had marched through the mud and water to position itself to the south and west of Grant’s. William T. Sherman, who was encamped at a Methodist meeting house called Shiloh Church, “knew” that Johnston was cowering at Corinth, waiting for Grant’s army to come and crush them.
It was not quite five in the morning when it started. A bunch of Mississippi boys from William H Hardee’s corps ran into a bunch of Missouri and Michigan boys from Benjamin J. Prentiss’s division in the dark. The Unionists were outnumbered and fell back to their camps, where they found the rest of the division, likely all of two thousand or so, just getting out of their tents and falling in on the company streets. Few had ever seen combat before. Many never would again, but the first thunderous blast from Prentiss’ two brigades into Hardee’s men at about a hundred yards was probably what Grant and his staff heard nine river miles away that made them end their breakfast and cast off for Pittsburg Landing. The time was about 7:00 AM.
Prentiss’ men held on for probably 45 minutes. His command gradually disintegrated as Hardee’s and then Braxton Bragg’s corps edged closer and closer. His two batteries finally pulled out and the last of Prentiss’ stalwarts broke for the rear.
The other Federals shook themselves out of their tents as the noise grew: the “bayoneted in their tents” meme of Shiloh has always been a myth. Sherman finally came to understand what all the fuss was about for the past three days that he had been getting reports of Confederate movement when his aide was decapitated next to him that morning. “My God,” he is said to have muttered, “we are attacked.” After that bit of understatement, he lost two horses and was wounded five times that day. John A. McClernand, another Federal division commander, sent a brigade south to join Sherman’s open flank to Prentiss’ while Stephen A. Hurlbut and WHL Wallace shook out their divisions and marched to the sound of guns.
The Confederates drove into every successive Federal line like a rising tide, but it was 10: in the morning before Sherman and McClernand’s forces were overwhelmed. By then Prentiss’s survivors had combined with Wallace’s and Hurlbut’s arriving men to form around a small pond, several stands of woods, a sunken road and a peach orchard, where they stood for the next seven hours against more than a dozen brigade-sized attacks. Grant had told Prentiss to hold onto his position “at all hazards” because the road around it was the direct route to Pittsburg Landing.
Despite their early success, Johnston’s army was hardly a well-oiled machine. The officers had hardly any experience with commanding men on drill fields, let alone a battle field: most brigades had yet to create a morning report. Regiments and even whole brigades were often found simply standing around in the Confederate rear. Much of the army’s ammunition was stuck in a titanic traffic jam on the Corinth road; the army’s medical director was down with pneumonia. There was little coordination between the disparate forces slamming the Federals.
By 2:00 that afternoon Prentiss’ survivors, about a third of Grant’s artillery, and Hurlbut’s and Wallace’s divisions were holding off attack after attack in a position on the Federal left that came to be called the Hornet’s Nest when Johnston caught a hot piece of metal behind his knee that killed him in half an hour. By that time the fight around the pond and the peach orchard had devolved into a maelstrom of screaming metal and choking smoke, dying men and frustration.
On the Federal right, with a yawning gap that might have accommodated a Confederate division, Sherman and McClernand built line after line of men and guns they could get to stand for a few minutes: at least nine lines in ten hours. All along the fighting line on both sides the fight was a desperate race against time and exhaustion, hunger and dehydration. Water sources near the fighting line, despite the recent rains, were quickly exhausted or polluted by the dead and dying. Gunners urinated into buckets so the guns could be swabbed; infantrymen discarded muskets after they became too fouled to load.
Behind the Confederate lines Daniel Ruggels organized the elements of a grand battery that would pin down the Federal guns in the Hornet’s Nest so that an infantry attack could finally push the Federals back against the Tennessee River. On the eastern shore of the river, separated by the swollen torrent, Don C. Buell’s Army of the Ohio was scrambling to get across, but was badly placed to load on the steamboats, having only partly arrived just the day before after a fifteen day route march. Footsore and short on food, William A. Nelson’s division gathered steamboats for the half-mile crossing of the river. Miles away to the north, Lew Wallace’s Federal division marched to the sound of the guns, but was delayed by confused interpretations of Grant’s orders and arguments as to routes.
By 4:30 Ruggels’ grand battery was forcing the Federal guns to pull out of the Hornet’s Nest. The few Federal infantrymen still on their feet clung to what cover they could find. At the Landing behind them, men and animals strained to unload the steamboats loaded with heavy artillery, ammunition and the odd infantry regiment. Refugees from the battle started to arrive at the Landing and the bluffs above it soon after the battle commenced. By nightfall thousands of frightened men, women and children huddled under the bluffs waiting for the fighting to end. The roads and trails were jammed with traffic going both ways all day.
By 5:00 the Hornet’s Nest collapsed as parts of five Confederate brigades pushed into the woods, capturing guns and Prentiss, a dying WHL Wallace, men and a geographic feature that they didn’t need. The only reason that Johnston, then his successor Pierre G.T. Beauregard had been mesmerized by the place was because the Federals were there: sidestepping it would have been easy. But the Confederates couldn’t see that at this stage of the war, their tactical reconnaissance at that time was nearly non-existent and their staff work was abysmal. But behind the Hornet’s Nest there had been building a Federal grand battery, called alternately Webster’s Battery (after Grant’s chief of staff John Webster) or Grant’s Last Line. By 5:30 a brigade of Nelson’s division had got across and positioned themselves near the Landing, anchoring Grant’s line on the river. At the other end of the line, Sherman and McClernand shoved what men and guns in they could grab into a semblance of a fighting line. In between were more survivors and a half a dozen gun batteries that had yet to fire a shot As two Confederate brigades–one without ammunition–inched closer to Grant’s line at about 6:00, the line erupted in a storm of fire and metal that was heard at Savanna nine miles away. The shock wave blew off men’s hats and broke a mule’s back. The Confederate attack ground to a halt; the sun went down at about 6:15; Beauregard stopped offensive attacks at 6:30; Lew Wallace’s division arrived near the Landing at about 7:00.
Through the night Buell’s men and guns were hustled across, but it was a logistic nightmare. Landing stages were too small; the guns and horses had to be manhandled and hoisted; crowds of refugees partly blocked the Landing; the rain started again at about 10:00; steamboat skippers, few of whom knew the treacherous Tennessee well, were reluctant to break the sabbath to brave the rain-swollen river in the dark with so much traffic on it. But by daybreak about 12,000 of Buell’s 32,000 men were across, and another gun battery. Grant still outnumbered him, with about 25,000 men and fifty-odd guns on the line. But few of the Federal guns had horses for limbers, let alone caissons or ammunition wagons. Buell had brought few reloads, using most of his cargo space to bring riflemen across.
During the long night the Confederates did little to consolidate their position, feed their men or even resupply them with ammunition. There were some 20,000 casualties on this field, a charnel house of some eight square miles. Through the night two Federal gunboats shelled the Confederate line, some say without effect While the physical damage was certainly small, the morale effect was great. Every shot fired reminded the Confederates that as long as the Union gunboats were on the river, they would not be able to cross. The nearest bridge was forty miles away, up the river.
In the morning Grant and Buell attacked the Confederates and pushed them off the battlefield. Until mid-afternoon on 7 April Beauregard expected Earl Van Dorn’s 18,000 men from across the Mississippi to march up the road from Corinth. Little did he know that Van Dorn’s army had saluted the Confederate “victory” at Shiloh while waiting for steamboats on the White River some four hundred miles to the west that same morning.
In his retreat Beauregard left behind thousands of his wounded, which were just a fraction of some 23,000 casualties, including about 3,000 dead, in two days of fighting. The numbers shocked both North and South, and staggered financial markets worldwide. In two days more Americans had been killed and injured from 19 April 1775 to 5 April 1862. But war wasn’t supposed to be like this. Up until Shiloh war for Americans was a lark; an adventure of men and animals, colorful uniforms and precision marching, dancing flags and cheering crowds. Battles were supposed to end in parades, not abattoirs.
Exactly fifty-five years later, America was at war with Germany. Woodrow Wilson had asked Congress for a war declaration on 2 April 1917. Congress voted on it on 4 April, and it went into effect on 6 April. It had come after hundreds of Americans died in passenger ships that the Germans torpedoed without warning, after a veiled threat of a German alliance with Mexico and Japan, after America had offered to mediate a just peace in Europe over and over again since 1914.
For Wilson it was a personal disappointment, but the decision for war he felt became inevitable because of Prussian intransigence. Long striving for progressive principles, Wilson, whose father was with the Confederate army briefly, earnestly believed that men and nations should work out their differences peacefully, with solemn treaties openly arrived at. That such beliefs should end in places called Tannenberg and Verdun and Argonne was to Wilson and his fellow progressives an aberration of human progress.
Humanity wasn’t supposed to be this way. But it was.