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
These were good things to learn, and in learning them Grant had done little more than sharpen his naturally aggressive instincts. But he had the defects of his qualities, and experience had not yet applied a corrective. He underestimated both the fighting heart and the initiative of his enemy, believing that a Confederate army in his front was likely to be very passive, and in his devotion to the offensive he was likely to overlook defense. Apparently he was only slightly impressed by the possibility that the enemy might strike first.
A newspaper correspondent assayed the headquarters feeling correctly when, at the end of March, he wrote that there would be a big fight just as soon as Buell’s army arrived: “Within two weeks, measures will have been accomplished that will render retreat by the Rebel army at Corinth impossible.” Writing to his wife, Grant said that “a big fight may be looked for some place before a great while,” and added that he believed this would be the last big battle in the west.
Like a great many of his soldiers, Grant had been unwell. Whether, as the men believed, the water supply around Shiloh was contaminated, or whether the standard diet of fried pork and hardtack was having its natural effect, there was a great deal of camp diarrhea, which Grant in a letter referred to as “Dioreah” and which the rank and file commonly mentioned derisively as “the Tennessee quickstep.” Grant recovered from this malady, but shortly thereafter he received a painful injury to his leg. On the evening of April 4, Confederate cavalry jumped a picket post on the Corinth road a few miles from the landing, and Grant rode out to see about it. Returning with W. H. L. Wallace and Colonel James B. McPherson, he found the night so impenetrably dark (a heavy rain was coming down) that there was nothing any rider could do but trust to his horse to stay on the road. Grant’s horse lost his footing and fell in the mud, pinning Grant’s leg under him and wrenching his ankle severely. Grant’s boot had to be cut off, and for the next day or two he needed crutches when he walked.
Grant believed that as soon as Buell’s men arrived, the advance could begin. His own army contained six divisions, the newest of which had been made up from six green regiments that had just reached camp; its command went to Brigadier General Benjamin M. Prentiss. Five divisions, with a total of possibly 37,000 men, were camped on high ground between the creeks near Pittsburg Landing. The sixth, Lew Wallace’s division of 7,500, was stationed on the western bank of the Tennessee at Crump’s Landing, half a dozen miles downstream. There had been increasing contacts with aggressive Confederate patrols in the last few days, and these aroused a suspicion that some sort of attack on Wallace’s men might be brewing. Brigadier General William Tecumseh Sherman had been alerted to be ready to send help if necessary, but the general assumption was that the Rebels meant no particular harm along the main Federal front. One Federal explained, long afterward, that “the almost absolute necessity that no battle should be fought before the arrival of Buell’s army seemed to forbid scouting or anything that might appear aggressive,” and Sherman said much the same thing when an officer on outpost duty told him he had seen Rebel infantry not far beyond the Union lines. “I have got positive orders,” Sherman told him, “to do nothing that will have a tendency to bring on a general engagement until Buell arrives.” To Colonel J. J. Appler of the 53rd Ohio, Sherman was more snappish. Appler formed his regiment in line and sent word to Sherman that the enemy was in sight; for his pains he got the reply, “Take your damn regiment back to Ohio. There is no enemy nearer than Corinth.”
Sherman did notify headquarters that there was plenty of contact with Rebels on his front, and on the afternoon of April 5 Grant went to the front to see for himself. Everything seemed to be fairly quiet—undeniably there was a good deal of Confederate activity not far off, but it seemed to be mostly reconnaissance parties-and Grant accepted Sherman’s appraisal. When he returned to his headquarters at Savannah, Tennessee, Grant wired to Major General Henry W. Halleck who commanded the Union armies in the west: I HAVE SCARCELY THE FAINTEST IDEA OF AN ATTACK (GENERAL ONE) BEING MADE UPON US, BUT WILL BE PREPARED SHOULD SUCH A THING TAKE PLACE . After the battle had taken place, Grant admitted that his outposts had been skirmishing freely with Confederate patrols for two days: “I did not believe, however, that they intended to make a determined attack but were simply making reconnaissances in force.”