Grant At Shiloh

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From this distance it seems clear that the great missed opportunity at Shiloh was the failure to press the retiring Confederates pitilessly during the twenty-four hours following Beauregard’s withdrawal. The Union army was worn out, and its command arrangements were very imperfect; but the Confederates’ plight was desperate. They were, in short, ready to be had, and a driving chase down the muddy roads to Corinth might have knocked them out of the war for good. Braxton Bragg, who was one of the most dour pessimists in either army but who nevertheless had a clear military eye, wrote to Beauregard on the morning after the battle: “If we are pursued by a vigorous force we will lose all in our rear. The whole road presents the scene of a rout, and no mortal power could restrain it.”

 

One solid blow on April 8 could have shattered the Confederate army beyond repair, but the Federal army was not up to it. The Federals followed their foes just long enough to make sure that they had actually left the premises and then stopped, and although Grant exhorted both Sherman and McClernand to jam the Rebel rear guard with cavalry and infantry in hot pursuit, nothing much came of it. The Unionists went into the camps they had occupied before the battle began, the Confederates loitered just out of gunshot range, and the terrible Battle of Shiloh was over. Between them, Grant and Buell had lost more than 13,000 men, Beauregard had lost more than 10,000, and the greatest battle ever fought on the North American continent up to that date had come to an end.

It had been a very near thing indeed, and the most that could be said for the Northerners was that they had beaten off an unexpected attack; and yet one of the decisive struggles of the Civil War had been won. The end of the war was a long way off in April of 1862, yet when the exhausted Confederates drifted southwest from Pittsburg Landing a faint foreknowledge of what that end would be went down the road with them. The Northern victory had been purely negative, but it was of far-reaching consequence. For this was one battle which the Confederacy had to win in order to survive, and the Confederacy had not quite been able to win it. In the long run many things killed the dream of Southern independence; one of them, compacted in the wilderness above the Tennessee River, was made up of the desperate fighting of many Middle Western soldiers, the power of the row of guns on the bluff in the twilight … and with these, the unbreakable stubbornness of Ulysses S. Grant.