The Battle of Shiloh, also known as the Battle of Pittsburg Landing, was a major battle in the Western Theater of the American Civil War, fought on April 6 and 7, 1862 in southwestern Tennessee.
The Confederates under General Sidney Johnston had massed 42,000 men at Corinth, Mississippi. Meanwhile, Union Commander Henry Halleck sent Ulysses S. Grant to Pittsburgh Landing on the Tennessee River, twenty miles north of Corinth, and ordered Don Buell to join him there with additional troops. Combined, they would have 75,000 men. As James McPherson writes in Battle Cry of Freedom, Grant should have been prepared but he was not: “Once again, he focused his mind so intently on plans for attacking the rebels that he could spare no thoughts for what the rebels might be planning to do to him.” Thus, Grant’s men did not prepare any defensive lines. Their picket posts and patrols were inadequate. William Sherman was also overconfident, saying “[Confederate General] Beauregard is not such a fool as to leave his base of operations and attack us in ours.”
Against all odds, the Confederates achieved a surprise, and early on the morning of April 6, thousands of screaming rebels burst out of the woods near Grant’s encampment at Shiloh Church. It appeared at first as though the rebels would win, but Grant was finally reinforced with Buell, and with fresh troops and more men, the Yankees beat the rebels back.
The number of killed and wounded at Shiloh was nearly double the casualties of previous battles combined. Before Shiloh, both Grant and Sherman thought the Civil War would be over quickly. After Shiloh, Grant “gave up all idea of saving the Union except by complete conquest.”
In the book Confederates In the Attic by Tony Horwitz, the author tours around various Civil War battlefields, and picks up some fascinating information from the park historians he meets about what really happened on the fields of battle.
At Shiloh in particular, what he finds out is extremely interesting. He spoke with Paul Hawke, a park historian trained in physical anthropology. Hawke observed that “[t]raditional historians tend to ignore the best primary source out there – the ground. If you read it right, you realize a lot of the written history is simply wrong.”
For example, most history books describe Shiloh during the battle as a thicket of impenetrable spring woods. But Allen studied old weather charts and farm records and discovered that spring came to Shiloh very late in 1862, and most of the trees were still bare. He suggests that the confusion at the battle was probably more due to smoke, dust, and poor maps than to dense trees.
Furthermore, after the two-day fight, Grant ordered the dead of both armies buried in mass graves right where they fell. What Allen discovered to his surprise was that no burial trenches had been found near the “Hornet’s Nest,” where a group of Union defenders supposedly held the line against repeated onslaughts and turned the battle. He then did time and motion studies of units that claimed to have fought in and around the Nest and concluded that many of them couldn’t possibly have been where they claimed they were. Also, the casualty rates for these units were comparatively light.
What does all this mean? Allen believes there are several reasons for the stories about the Hornet’s Nest. One is that the men there could not see the rest of the battlefield. They may have felt like they fought the battle all on their own. A second is that many of them became prisoners of war, and had months to talk over the battle and firm up, to their minds, what happened. They also formed a veteran’s group after the war called the Hornet’s Nest Brigade led by their commanding officer who had become an influential politician. “He was eager to foster the impression that the Hornet’s Nest and his role there were crucial to the battle,” Allen said. ‘He played it up big, particularly later in life.’”
So gradually, reports Horwitz, the myth grew, until the Hornet’s Nest became the battle’s turning point. Allen said to Horwitz, “Grant once said that Shiloh was the most misunderstood battle of the Civil War. It’s taken me awhile to grasp how true that was.”
There are many more interesting vignettes and insights into battles in this delightful book. It’s not by any means a complete history of the Civil War, but rather a series of “dispatches” as Horwitz follows Civil War reenactors around the country. Highly recommended!