The word Shiloh means “place of peace,” but on 6 and 7 April 1862, the area around Shiloh Church in a quiet corner of Tennessee was a place of war. One of the bloodiest conflicts of the U.S. Civil War raged there: the Battle of Shiloh. Confederate generals A.S. Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard matched wits with Union Generals Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman and Don Carlos Buell. The result was the battle of Shiloh, a battle that at first seemed to have no winners, but turned out to be a decisive point in the war.
Confederate General Johnston knew the Union forces were coming through Tennessee. After the Union victory at the battle of Forts Henry and Donelson, he knew they would turn south into Mississippi, which, if he wanted to maintain any position of strategy, he could not permit. Turning south into Mississippi meant the Union Army would contend for Corinth, Miss.
Corinth was a vital stronghold. In Corinth, the two major railroads east of the Mississippi River crossed. Whoever held that intersection effectively controlled the southwestern theater of operations. So, Johnston planned to take on the Union forces about 30 miles north of Corinth, in the woods around Shiloh Church in Tennessee.
The Shiloh area abuts the Tennessee River. Although it is sometimes called the Battle of Pittsburgh Landing, the Battle of Shiloh is the common name. The river was wild in those days before the dams were built, but it still ran much of its length through Alabama, before it turned north through west Tennessee and emptied into the Ohio River at Paducah, Ky. Nevertheless, the river was a defensible point and Johnston’s plan was to turn the Union forces away from the river, forcing them into the swamps around the lowlands where they could be destroyed.
An article of this scope cannot cover all the minutiae concerned in the Battle of Shiloh, which involved over 100,000 men, but the major points can be addressed.
The Confederate forces attacked in the pre-dawn hours of 6 April 1862. The Union commanders figured an attack was imminent, but did not think the Confederate forces would start the Battle of Shiloh on a Sunday. They were wrong. The Confederates raged out of the woods and the Union forces were caught by surprise. The fighting continued furiously through the morning, with the Confederates pushing the Union steadily back north until they hit what they called “a hornet’s nest.” This line of Union resistance refused to fall for seven hours. The area was along what is now known as “the sunken road” and in 1862, it was a couple of feet below ground level.
Finally, the Confederate heavy artillery broke the line, but the seven hours spent on it gave the Union generals time to reposition their troops. Johnston’s wheel was starting to turn, but it was turning the wrong way. His generals had miscalculated where Grant’s flank actually was, and the Confederate Army was turning the Union troops toward the river, rather than away from it. Also, when General Johnston was struck in the leg by a minie ball, he bled to death under a tree, depriving the Confederates of its best tactician, and transferring command of the Battle of Shiloh to General Beauregard who had been in the rear all morning.
By nightfall on 6 April, the Confederate troops had taken over the Union camp, and were enjoying the abundant food and coffee there. However, they were exhausted by the long day of battle and were unaware that reinforcements from Union General Don Carlos Buell even then, were coming in via the Tennessee River.
At dawn on the morning of 7 April, Grant’s now far superior forces attacked savagely, surprising Beauregard, who was ignorant of the reinforcements’ arrival. By that night, he decided to retreat with his exhausted troops, and the Union forces were back in their camp at Shiloh Church. A few skirmishes occurred here and there, but the bulk of the Confederate Army was marching back to Corinth. The Battle of Shiloh was over.
The Battle of Shiloh was so decisive because it decimated the Confederate Army and because the Confederates lost critical strategic ground. The South was not as heavily populated as the North, and those soldiers lost could not be replaced as easily as the U.S. Army could replace their fallen. By October 1862, the Union Army also held Corinth, Miss. and its railroads. The Confederates never did recover the offensive in that part of the country.
Nowadays, the Corinth Road is Tennessee 22, a winding, two-lane country road, whose quiet rural curves give little hint of the carnage occurring in its vicinity. The traveler arrives at Shiloh National Military Park rather suddenly. Monuments from various states dot the landscape here, and the visitor can get a map at the visitor’s center, view a short film about the battle and look around in the bookstore. The battlefield route has stops along the way.
The Union soldiers fallen in the Battle of Shiloh are interred in the Shiloh National Cemetery, on the manicured grounds, remembered with white stone markers. The weather was warm that April weekend, and the Confederate dead had to be buried quickly. Their mass graves are marked in plots around the battlefield.
The Tennessee River is wider now, but deeper and calmer than when General Buell made his landing with his troops. Quiet lingers over the place, even at the Peach Orchard, where fierce fighting took place, and at the Bloody Pond, where so many soldiers from both sides bathed their wounds, filled their canteens and died. There is still a Shiloh Church, and it now fits its name, “a place of peace.”