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Grant At Shiloh
Surprised and almost overwhelmed, he stubbornly refused to admit defeat. His cool conduct saved his army and his job
February 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 2
For a time early in the spring of 1862, it seemed that Union armies were about to destroy the Confederacy in the west. A hitherto inconspicuous officer named U. S. Grant had, in close succession, captured the two major Rebel strongholds in Tennessee, Forts Henry and Donelson; an aggressive follow-up might well have overwhelmed the badly disorganized Confederates. But the Union high command hesitated, and a fine opportunity was wasted. Grant was ordered south toward the important railhead at Corinth, Mississippi, on an expedition that was little more than a reconnaissance action; then he was briefly held back by an unfounded charge of insubordination. Meanwhile the Confederate commander, Albert Sidney Johnston, gathered his scattered forces and prepared for a sudden and devastating counterthrust at Grant’s unsuspecting army, which was bivouacked along the banks of the Tennessee River at Pittsburg Landing. In the battle that was to take place around a rural meetinghouse nearby called Shiloh Church, the Union advantage in the west was nearly lost—and with it, the promising future of U. S. Grant. The story of this crucial moment in his life is taken from Grant Moves South , a continuation by Mr. Catton of the late Lloyd Lewis’ projected multivolume biography, which began with Captain Sam Grant . It will be published this month by Little, Brown. The photograph at left, taken by Brady about a year after Shiloh, is one of a set of wet plates found in an upstate New York barn in 1949.
When March began, the Confederacy was facing nothing less than destruction of its power in the west. It reacted with great vigor—Richmond could see, as clearly as anyone else, that the loss of the Mississippi must ultimately be fatal—and reinforcements were summoned, even at the cost of stripping the seacoast of defenders who were badly needed where they were. Five thousand troops were sent to Corinth, on the north border of the state, from New Orleans, and Braxton Bragg was rushed up with 10,000 more from the Gulf Coast; but it took time to move these troops, just as it took time for P. G. T. Beauregard and Leonidas Polk to come down from Columbus in Kentucky, and for Albert Sidney Johnston and W. V. Hardee to move down from Murfreesboro in Tennessee, and by any logical appraisal of the situation the Confederacy did not have time enough. But in the end it was given forty-nine days—seven weeks, from the fall of Fort Donelson to the opening day of Shiloh—and this was just time enough.
By the end of March, Johnston had between forty and forty-five thousand men at Corinth, with able lieutenants to lead them. Twenty-five miles away, across the Tennessee line, was Grant, with a slightly smaller army; coming down from Nashville was Don Carlos Buell, with an army about the size of Grant’s. Johnston’s only chance was to beat Grant before Buell arrived, and when April began he undertook to do this. His army had been hastily put together, most of his soldiers had never been under fire before and were imperfectly trained, and staff organization was so poor that, when the advance began, the different divisions got into one another’s way, straggled all over the landscape, and made such bad progress that Beauregard, in despair, wanted to cancel the whole operation, on the logical ground that such a stumbling, disorganized offensive could not possibly succeed. But Johnston’s mind was made up. He muttered grimly, “I would fight them if they were a million,” and he drove his men on toward Pittsburg Landing.
So a Confederate army, which had been considered too weak and dispirited to do anything better than await destruction, was about to launch a sudden, shattering offensive; and in the ironic chance of war the offensive was to strike the one Union Army commander in Tennessee who, in the campaign now approaching its surprising climax, had been trying without success to bring on a fight. Striking him, it would find him unready—as if the hoped-for battle were inconceivable unless it were imposed by him on his opponent. Grant had learned much in war’s brutal school, but his military education was still incomplete. Now he was about to learn a great deal more—at prodigious cost to himself and to some thousands of young men who, without quite realizing it, had joined the Union Army in order to pay for his education.
Grant was developing as a military realist. The war had taught him a few good lessons: that when untrained armies face each other, neither general gains by deferring a fight until the training of his own men is perfected; that in any hard battle there comes a time when both armies are ready to quit, and that the one which can nerve itself for one more attack at such a time is very likely to win; that troop morale is better in an active campaign than in training camp; that war means fighting, so that feints and demonstrations accomplish little, and the real object of a campaign is not to make the enemy retreat but to destroy him root and branch.