Social Studies | College Essays | The Battle of Shiloh

The Shiloh Methodist Meeting House was a place for love, for joy, and for the cleansing of the soul. But the serenity of its picturesque Tennessee countryside would soon—and forever—be broken. In April of 1862, the little church became the center point for one of the bloodiest battles in history.




The Battle of Shiloh

A college essay
by Cheryl Carroll
26 April 2012

Shiloh is a Hebrew place name that translates to words like peace, tranquility, safety, and opposition to war. In this spirit, the Shiloh Methodist Meeting House was born. The tiny log building was a place for love, for joy, and for the cleansing of the soul. But the serenity of its picturesque Tennessee countryside would soon—and forever—be broken. In April of 1862, the little church became the center point for one of the bloodiest battles in history.

Major-General Ulysses S. Grant was in charge of the Union’s Army of the Tennessee. He had five divisions camped near Pittsburg Landing, on the Tennessee River, and one division five miles north at Crump Landing. They were waiting for reinforcements from the Army of the Ohio, led by Major-General Don Carlos Buell. Once Buell arrived, they planned to attack Corinth, Mississippi, about twenty miles south, as it was the location of an essential north-south and east-west railroad intersection. Most of the divisions had set up camp around the little Shiloh Meeting House, two miles inland from Pittsburg Landing, giving Buell’s army plenty of room to dock. Grant spent his time going back and forth from Pittsburgh Landing to Savannah, Tennessee, which was on the east bank of the river, down from Crump Landing. Buell was marching from Columbia and expected first at Savannah.

Grant’s army had about 40,000 men, spread out over a few miles of the surrounding area. They had been camped there for three weeks, with orders not to provoke an enemy confrontation. With such a strong force, plus Buell’s 20,000 arriving any moment, they hardly worried about being attacked. The Confederates would not be foolish enough to take them on here. Still, in the days preceding the battle, reconnaissance parties were sent out on a regular basis. Grant would visit the camps daily to receive updates. He was made aware of a few skirmishes, but was not at all concerned about a full-on assault. Grant was so sure that his army would be marching on Corinth that he never ordered a single defensive structure to be built.

The Confederates, under General Albert Sydney Johnston, knew that Grant would not expect them to advance, so with a force almost equal to Grant’s and the element of surprise in their favor, Johnston’s Army of the Mississippi quietly left Corinth and headed toward the Army of the Tennessee’s camp. Their goal was to “crush Grant in battle before the arrival of Buell.” (Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Part One), but it had taken them much longer to get their army organized than expected. They didn’t leave Corinth until Thursday, April 3, and may not have left until later, had Johnston not learned on April 2 that Buell was rapidly approaching. Johnston’s plan was simple—to attack with columns of corps and to achieve victory or die trying.

The orders were to attack on Saturday, at three in the morning, but the conditions of the roads and a heavy downpour caused them to lose a whole day. Throughout the process, Johnston and his second in command, General G. T. Beauregard, discussed their differing views on what should occur. Johnston was firm in his plan to fight until the battle was decided, but Beauregard believed the Confederates to be greatly outnumbered and feared they had lost the element of surprise. At times Beauregard wanted to withdraw altogether and march back to Corinth. The discussions continued, even into the morning of the battle, until rapid gunfire was heard coming from the front. A Union reconnoitering party had met up with the advancing Confederates. Johnston promptly put an end to the talks, noting that it was now too late to change their minds. Together with Major-General Leonidas Polk’s First Army Corps, Major-General Braxton Bragg’s Second Army Corps, Major-General William J. Hardee’s Third Army Corps, and Brigadier-General John C. Breckinridge’s Reserve Corp, they began their all-out assault.

The reconnoitering party had been sent out by Colonel Everett Peabody from Grant’s sixth division, which was being led by Brigadier-General Benjamin M. Prentiss. Prentiss, along with other senior commanding officers, had recent knowledge of a large enemy presence and had stopped sending parties out. Peabody had acted on his own. After sending reinforcements to back up the party, Peabody lined up his brigade, ready for battle. Prentiss rode up to Peabody and said, “Colonel Peabody, I hold you responsible for bringing on this fight.” (Rich) Prentiss couldn’t know at the time that the fight was already coming and Peabody had saved his division—and in fact, the entire Army of the Tennessee—from being completely caught off guard. This was the beginning of the Battle of Shiloh.

One Federal soldier recalls a beautiful morning, an early breakfast, and a walk down the creek to look for spring flowers. Then he hears the sound of faint, but steady fire, and rushes back to camp. He tells of officers shouting, drums beating, men hurrying back and forth, and the noise of the approaching, but totally unexpected battle. He falls in line and nerves himself for “what bid fair to be a dreadful conflict.” (Olney) Later he speaks of wagons full of wounded, and poor, horribly mutilated wretches, and the demoralization of being pushed back to Pittsburgh Landing. He wonders why no attempt was made to fortify their position. He blames it on the inexperience of General Grant and fifth division commander, Brigadier-General William T. Sherman. “They had to learn their art, and the country and their army had to pay the cost of their teaching.”

On the other side, a Confederate drummer boy remembers his army’s advancing line becoming weak from the heavy barrage of lead and the enormous amount of men falling dead and wounded. Their colonel urges them to stand steady and then someone starts the “rebel yell.” He describes the yell as “a voluntary fury of sound” and one that “fixes itself in the minds and hearts of all who ever hear it.” (Reinhardt) The yell inspires him so much that he abandons his drum, grabs his gun, and rushes madly into the enemy line without an ounce of fear at all. And then he tells of the blue line finally wavering, as they look into the faces of those infuriated southern soldiers.

This was the first day. It went almost precisely the way it had been planned. The Confederates steadily pushed and the Union steadily fell back. It might have been a decisive Confederate victory, if not for the death of General Johnston. He had been injured early on, and thinking the injury minor, had sent his doctor to care for the captured Union prisoners. A short while later, he bled to death. The fighting carried on without him until just before dusk, when General Beauregard called it to a close. Both sides had suffered staggering losses, but the Confederates had gained Union ground—ground littered with the bodies of hundreds of men, on both sides, who had sacrificed their lives for the cause. There were so many dead that it would be possible to cross the fields walking on top of them, without ever touching the ground.

The Confederates at the front line were sure they had the Federals pinned, and indeed they did. Three of Grant’s six divisions, including Sherman’s fifth, Major-General John A. McClernand’s first, and Brigadier-General Stephen A. Hurlbut’s fourth, were crowded together at Pittsburgh Landing. Brigadier-General W. H.L. Wallace’s second (Wallace had been killed), and Prentiss’s sixth division had been captured. If Johnston had been there, he would have gone forward with the final push, but Beauregard misjudged the situation. Being in the rear, and receiving fire from the Union gunships, he assumed the front was in trouble, too. With an hour of daylight left, he thought it best to regroup and finish the Federals off the next day.

But Union reinforcements arrived just as Beauregard had made this decision. Brigadier-General William Nelson, leading the fourth division of the Army of the Ohio, was being ferried across the river and they were able to fight in the last minutes. Then Grant’s third division under Major-General Lew Wallace arrived from Crump’s Landing. Wallace had chosen the wrong road to march to the battle and had not arrived in time to help that day, but would be invaluable the next.

On Monday, April 7, the Confederates found themselves facing a Union army bulging with reinforcements and fuming from the unexpected onslaught the previous day. The Rebels were effectively beaten back, inch by inch, by Wallace’s and Buell’s fresh troops and Grant’s reenergized lot, until they had lost all the ground they had taken. With expected reinforcements not coming, Beauregard soon had no choice but to give the order to withdraw and retreat. Grant declined to pursue. Because the Confederates failed in their mission, the Union was able to proceed with their main objective and would later go in and capture Corinth.

It’s estimated there were nearly 24,000 casualties at the Battle of Shiloh, with just under 3500 killed (National Park Service). Because of the warm weather, most of the dead were hurriedly buried in pits, hundreds to each one. After the war, the Federals returned, exhumed their soldier’s bodies, and buried them properly, with their names if they knew them. But the Confederate fallen still lie entombed one on top of another— up to seven bodies deep—in their massive trenches.

Speak the word Shiloh now and for most, it will no longer mean “a place of peace.” In 1894, The Shiloh National Military Park was established, so that the Battle of Shiloh, along with its volumes of unknown victims, can live on in our memories forever. Now the word will conjure pictures of generals and soldiers, blunders and incompetence, horrific carnage, and a landscape filled with unmarked graves. But lest the namesake be forgotten, the Shiloh church, which was destroyed after the battle, now stands again. It hopes—it prays—for peace.

Bibliography

Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Part One. New York: The Century Co, 1887.

Howard, Samuel Meek. The Illustrated Comprehensive History of the Great Battle of Shiloh. Kansas City: Franklin Hudson Publishing Company, 1921.

National Park Service. Shiloh - National Military Park. 2012. http://www.nps.gov/shil/index.htm.

Olney, Warren. "Shiloh" as Seen by a Private Soldier. 1889.

Reinhardt, Vic. A Drummer Boy of Shiloh. Terrell: Vic Reinhardt, 1910.

Rich, Joseph W. The Battle of Shiloh. Iowa City: The State Historical Society of Iowa, 1911.


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