American Civil War battle that saw the defeat of a Confederate counter attack after the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson to forces commanded by U.S. Grant. The two key forts, on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, had been the centre of the Confederate defensive line in Tennessee. Their lose had forced the Confederate commander, A.S. Johnston, to pull back to Corinth, Mississippi. There, with the help of General Beauregard, he was able to pull together an army 42,000 strong.
This army was still massively outnumbered. Grant’s superior, General Halleck, had 75,000 men at his disposal, and decided to concentrate them on the Tennessee River, ready to attack Corinth. U.S. Grant, with 40,000 men, was sent up-river with 40,000 men. This army camped at Pittsburg Landing, twenty miles north-east of Corinth, and settled down to wait for General Buell’s 35,000 men.
After his victory at Fort Donelson, Grant was now too complacent. None of the Union commanders expected a Confederate attack on their army, and so the camp was left unfortified. The junction of the armies was not rushed. When the battle began, one of Grant’s own divisions was still five miles to the north, while Buell’s nearest troops were nine miles away.
At Corinth, General Beauregard had persuaded Johnston to launch just such a counter attack. His plan required the Confederate army to march the twenty miles from Corinth to Pittsburg Landing on 3 April, ready to attack Grant on 4 April, before there was any chance of his being reinforced. Instead, the Confederate army reached the vicinity of Pittsburg Landing late on 5 April. Now Beauregard got cold feet, convinced that there was now no chance of launching a surprise attack, but Johnston was now determined to attack.
On 6 April Johnston committed his entire army as quickly as possible (a rare feat during the civil war), hitting two inexperienced Union divisions that happened to be camped a little further west than the rest of the army. Unfortunately for Johnston, one of those divisions was commanded by William Tecumseh Sherman, who made his reputation at Shiloh. Even so, the surprise was near-total.
While Sherman and his men were fighting, Grant was rushing up-river towards the sound of the guns. By the time he arrived, at 9.00 am, the fighting was already the fiercest yet seen in the war. Between then Grant and Sherman were able to hold off everything that Johnston and Beauregard could throw at them, although they were slowly pushed back towards the river.
Shiloh presents yet another of the Confederacy’s ‘if only’ moment. While attempting to encourage one of his units to charge, Johnston was shot through the leg. He refused to stop for treatment, until eventually almost falling off his horse as he died of blood loss. Johnston was considered to have been the best soldier of his generation (although had yet to prove it), and his lose is often blamed for the defeat at Shiloh. In reality, the Confederate army was almost exhausted by this point, while the Union army had a strong line to fall back on, as well as tens of thousands of reinforcements who started to arrive as evening fell.
Having been on the defensive on 6 April, Grant went on to the offensive on 7 April. The battered Confederates managed to hold on for a couple of hours of fighting that matched that of the previous day, but eventually Union numbers and freshness won out. Beauregard was forced from the field, and began a dispirited march back to the Confederate base at Corinth.
The true nature of Grant’s victory at Shiloh took some time to sink in. After the first day, the Confederates were already claiming a victory, and it was the first day’s fighting that most influenced early opinion in the North as well. When the scale of Grant’s victory eventually sank in, his reputation rose to unprecedented levels.