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1862 One Hundred And Twenty-five Years Ago

April 2023
2min read

Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston, one of the Confederacy’s most skilled professional soldiers, recognized an opportunity when he saw one. Retreating from losses in Kentucky and Tennessee, Johnston’s army of fifty thousand had hurried south, pursued by Ulysses S. Grant and his forty-five thousand men. In Corinth, Mississippi, Johnston received word that Grant had halted beside the Tennessee River not far north near a meetinghouse called Shiloh Church, encamped with few defensive precautions to await reinforcement by Brig. Gen. Don Carlos Buell’s army of twenty-five thousand. If the next encounter was to be a Southern victory, Johnston knew he would have to attack before Buell arrived. On the morning of April 6, the Southern general swung into his saddle and led his troops into the Battle of Shiloh. Before it was over, thirteen thousand Union men and ten thousand Confederates lay dead.

Most officers and soldiers on both sides of the line were green as summer apples. On the first day of battle, their inexperience was made plain. Troop movements were confused, units became entangled, and many men dropped their guns and ran. “It was an awful thing to hear no intermission in firing,” one Confederate wrote home, “and hear the clatter of small arms and the whizing minny balls and rifle shot and the sing of grape shot the hum of canon balls and the roaring of the bomb shell and explosion of the same seaming to be a thousand every minute.”

Yet there was no rout, and after long hours of hard fighting, the Confederates emerged on top. Foot by foot they forced the Federals back toward the Tennessee and would have pushed them into it were it not for several thousand men who stood their ground along an overgrown country lane. Dubbed the hornet’s nest, the lane was blasted by Rebel artillery and repeatedly attacked. Countless men died there, including General Johnston. But the Union soldiers held on until the sun fell low in the sky and they found themselves cut off. They surrendered, and the Confederates lost the remainder of the day rearranging their battle line.

That night a thunderstorm drenched the living where they camped among the dead. “O it was too shocking too horrible,” wrote a Confederate, who had looked out over the storm-lit carnage. “God grant that I may never be the partaker in such scenes again … when released from this I shall ever be an advocate of peace.” Other Rebels, less troubled by the dead, ransacked the Union camps they had overrun. Before the night was over, one officer wrote, “half of our army was straggling back to Corinth loaded down with belts, sashes, swords, officers’ uniforms, Yankee letters, daguerreotypes of Yankee sweethearts, likenesses of Grant, Buell, Smith, Prentiss, McClellan, Lincoln, etc., some on Yankee mules and horses, some on foot, some on the ground prostrate with Cincinnati whiskey.”

Confederates blamed the next day’s reversal of fortune on Union whiskey and the loss of General Johnston, but most historians agree that the Confederates’ only hope had been to crush the Union forces in one blow, before Buell’s army arrived. When the sun rose on April 7, it was too late, for Buell had crossed the Tennessee. Fighting resumed, but Johnston’s second-in-command, Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard, could only postpone what he ultimately did sometime after midday—call the retreat. The battered Union army, incapable of pursuit, let them go, but not for long. After the Battle of Shiloh, the war in the West belonged to the Union.

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