- Historic Sites
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
Two exhausted armies pulled themselves out of the mud at dawn on Monday, April 7, stumbled into line, and made ready to go on with the battle. There really was no need for any more fighting, because the ultimate decision had already been reached. Johnston and Beauregard had had one slim chance to cancel all that the Federals had won at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, one desperate hope to restore the balance that had been upset during the winter, and they had come within a hand’s grasp of seizing it. But when the night and the storm came down on April 6, with Webster’s great row of guns pounding the thickets and ravines, with Buell’s soldiers shouldering their way through the fugitives on the riverbank, and with Lew Wallace’s men marching across the Owl Creek bridge, the business was settled. There might be more killing, with much bloodshed and agony to be drawn from young men not yet hurt, but for the Confederates, the moment when the main current of the war could be reversed had passed.
The opposing armies had paid a dreadful price for what had been done on the first day. General Johnston was dead, W. H. L. Wallace was dying, Prentiss was a prisoner, and fully 17,000 of other ranks had been killed, wounded, or captured. There had been immense losses from straggling, and probably no more than half of the men who had taken up their muskets Sunday morning were in line ready to fight on Monday. The concentrated fury of the fighting had been appalling, and it left its mark for all the rest of the war. The southern novelist George W. Cable was to write sadly that New Orleans “had never really been glad again after the awful day of Shiloh,” and a Union veteran said that the most any Union soldier could say of any later fight was: “I was worse scared than I was at Shiloh.”
The Federal army had all of the advantage today. Beauregard was able to muster no more than 20,000 infantry, and every man had fought hard the day before; nor had any man had a decent sleep on Sunday night. Grant’s veterans were no better off, but reinforcements were on hand. On his left, Grant had Buell’s men; Nelson’s division, and that of Brigadier General Alexander McD. McCook; and two brigades from the division of Brigadier General Thomas L. Crittenden. These soldiers were bone-tired from a forced march. McCook’s division had hiked thirty miles on Sunday, had been ferried across the river at midnight, and had stood in the mud in pelting rain most of the rest of the night, so miserably uncomfortable that one veteran remembered that night as the worst of his entire three years’ service. But they had not fought, their organization was complete, and they considered themselves the saviors of Grant’s army and accordingly were somewhat cocky. On the right of Buell’s troops were three battered divisions from Grant’s army-Hurlbut’s, McClernand’s, and Sherman’s —and on the right flank was Lew Wallace’s unfought division. Grant’s orders were to attack at dawn, and as the gray light streaked the sodden fields and thickets, the big line began to roll forward.
Grant rode over to see Wallace just before the attack began. He looked fresh and unworried, and when he said “Good morning,” he did not sound like a man who had been within inches of a disastrous defeat twelve hours earlier; looking back long afterward, Wallace put into words a thought that struck many men, at various times—“If he had studied to be undramatic, he could not have succeeded better.”
Overpowered they might be, but the Confederates were very stubborn about giving up the ground they had won. In the main, it was like Sunday’s battle, a soldiers’ fight, a tangled series of desperate small combats all going on at once; as Lew Wallace said before the battle ended, “the two armies as a general thing degenerated into mere fighting swarms”; tactical formations and maneuvers were forgotten, and in advance or retreat only one rule prevailed—“to watch the flag and stay with it.” The Confederates slowly gave ground, but until the middle of the day things were fairly even. Then the Federal advantage in numbers began to tell; by two in the afternoon the Confederate front was ready to cave in, and when one of Beauregard’s staff came to the General, in the rear of Shiloh Church, and suggested that it was time to retreat, Beauregard said that he had the same idea: “I intend to withdraw in a few moments.” Rear-guard lines were set up, the Confederates began to pull away, and Grant, sensing the change, picked up two regiments, formed them in line of battle, and led them forward for one final blow. Reaching a proper vantage point, he ordered the men to charge, and it seemed to him that this broke the last enemy resistance.
But the Confederates were leaving anyway, and after the most perfunctory of pursuits the Federals let them go with blessings on them. No one in Grant’s army wanted to keep in touch with these foes any longer than the law required. Buell was not the man to crowd anybody, and Beauregard got his shattered army off on the muddy roads toward Corinth.