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Civil War Series

The Battle of Shiloh



In February 22, 1862, Confederate president Jefferson Davis was officially inaugurated in Richmond, Virginia—his previous swearing in had been only provisional. Washington's Birthday was a chilly day; by midafternoon a steady rain fell. The dismal weather provided an appropriate backdrop for the gloom that prevailed in the Southern capital. News from Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston's western Department No. 2, an area stretching from the Appalachians to the Ozarks, proved most disturbing. Rumors of a great military disaster at Fort Donelson, seventy miles northwest of Nashville, Tennessee, added to the gloom. While not mentioning any specifics, Davis conceded in his inaugural address that "the tide for the moment is against us."

A series of Southern setbacks in the West had begun a month earlier. On January 19, 1862, Maj. Gen. George B. Crittenden's division had been routed at Mill Springs, Kentucky. This defeat exposed Johnston's right flank. East Tennessee, a pro-Union region, was vulnerable to invasion by way of the Cumberland Gap. During the first week of February a joint Federal army-navy expedition, commanded by Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote, entered northern Tennessee and on February 6 attacked Fort Henry on the Tennessee River. The Confederate fort fell after a two-hour naval bombardment. The Tennessee River, a vital transportation artery, now lay open to Federal invasion all the way to Florence, Alabama. Hysteria seized many Southern citizens as Union gunboats raided upriver into northern Mississippi and Alabama.

By February 12 Fort Donelson, located twelve miles east of Fort Henry on the Cumberland River, had been invested by the Northern army. After a series of incredible blunders by Confederate generals John B. Floyd and Gideon J. Pillow, the garrison surrendered on the sixteenth. More than just a defeat for the Confederacy, the fall of Fort Donelson was a catastrophe. About one-third of Johnston's forces east of the Mississippi River, almost 15,000 men, had been captured. The vital Confederate heartland of Middle Tennessee and northern Alabama had been pierced. Nashville fell and the Mississippi River stronghold of Columbus, Kentucky, had to be abandoned. All across Middle and West Tennessee, Johnston's forces were reeling south in disorder.



Born and raised in Kentucky and an 1826 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, Albert Sidney Johnston had become one of the country's most dedicated soldiers. "Standing slightly over six feet in height, massively built, with broad shoulders and a large square-jawed head," the fifty-nine-year-old Texan weighed nearly two hundred pounds. Possessing a commanding presence and a magnetic personality, Johnston demonstrated high moral character and great dignity. His initial military service included garrison duty and the Black Hawk War, before he resigned in 1834 to return to Kentucky because of his wife's health. When she died the following year, he attempted farming in Missouri but failed. Placing his two young children with a grandmother in Kentucky, Johnston turned to soldiering, this time as a private in the Texas army during the revolution of 1836. Within a year, he was appointed senior brigadier general commanding the army and later served as first secretary of war for the Republic of Texas until 1840. Having remarried, Johnston settled his family in Texas. After brief service in the Mexican War, experiencing his only combat at Monterey, Johnston reenlisted in the regular army, performing several lackluster frontier assignments, including paymaster duties on the West Texas frontier during the 1850s. Commissioned colonel of the new 2nd United States Cavalry in 1855, Johnston was given one of the most coveted and important field commands in the old army. Serving in the regiment with Johnston, were Lieut. Col. Robert E. Lee (second in command) and Majors William J. Hardee and George H. Thomas. Partly responsible for granting Johnston this choice assignment was Jefferson Davis, secretary of war in the Franklin Pierce administration. Davis had been a close friend and a great admirer of Sidney Johnston since they attended college together at Transylvania University and studied as cadets at West Point. After commanding the Army Department of Texas (1856) and the Utah Expedition against the Mormons (1858-60), Johnston rose to the rank of brevet brigadier general and commanded the Department of the Pacific when civil war erupted in April 1861.

Johnston's reputation in the United States Army was now at its zenith; superior and subordinate alike looked upon him as the foremost and ablest officer in the service. When Texas chose secession however, Johnston submitted his resignation. Making a perilous overland journey from California to Virginia, Johnston met with President Davis and cast his lot with the South. Davis rewarded his friend by appointing him a full general with rank second only to Confederate adjutant and inspector general Samuel Cooper, who served in an administrative capacity from the Richmond War Department. As commander of Department No. 2, Sidney Johnston assumed responsibility for a huge area of the western Confederacy, including all or portions of seven states stretching from the Appalachian Mountains westward across the Mississippi River into the Indian Territory.


Johnston's six-month tenure commanding in the West had not been successful, and now, following the disastrous loss of Forts Henry and Donelson, along with evacuation of Columbus, Bowling Green, and Nashville, the western commander was bitterly criticized. A confused and angry Southern public demanded that Johnston be replaced. With one exception, the entire Tennessee congressional delegation petitioned Davis for Johnston's removal. The Southern press was particularly brutal. "Tennessee under Sidney Johnston is likely to fall [yet] Mr. Davis retains him," commented one editor. The president's confidence remained unshaken, however, and he replied to his critics: "If Sidney Johnston is not a general, the Confederacy has none to give you."

Had Davis responded promptly to Johnston's earlier pleas for reinforcements, the disastrous chain of events in early February 1862 might not have occurred. As it was, the Confederate president, now gravely concerned about the Tennessee River route of Union invasion into the Southern heartland, belatedly attempted to repair the damage. Under his orders, the Confederate War Department ordered 5,000 Southern troops under Brig. Gen. Daniel Ruggles from New Orleans and a 10,000-man corps from Maj. Gen. Braxton Bragg's Department of Alabama and West Florida to reinforce Johnston in the north. Though this national concentration of Confederate manpower was unprecedented in scope, Davis might have done more. Thousands of armed men still sat idle in Florida, along the Atlantic Coast, and in Texas. Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn's 20,000-man army in Arkansas was not ordered to Johnston's assistance until late March 1862. Van Dorn, recently defeated by a numerically inferior Federal force at Pea Ridge, did eventually receive orders from Johnston on March 29 (sent on the twenty-third) to cross to the east bank of the Mississippi River. A shortage of transportation for both overland and water travel slowed attempts to shuttle Van Dorn's western soldiers to the Memphis railhead. But if Johnston succeeded in getting Van Dorn's men and cannon into West Tennessee to join the thousands of reinforcements gathering to hold the Tennessee Valley, he would make good the loss of over 12,000 Confederates captured at Fort Donelson and amass the largest army yet organized in the South.

Besides more troops and equipment, President Davis also sent Johnston another general—Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, the popular hero of the South for his prominent role at both Fort Sumter and First Manassas (known also as First Bull Run). A native Creole from Louisiana Beauregard had graduated second in his class of forty-five cadets at West Point. The bright young officer served in the Mexican War on Gen. Winfield Scott's staff, winning two brevets and being twice wounded. Attaining the rank of brevet major in the Old Army by the start of the Civil War, Beauregard possessed excellent credentials as an administrator and engineer officer of high quality. By the winter of 1861-62, however, there was bad blood between Davis and Beauregard and some in Confederate service believed that the general was being vindictively exiled. Although there is no evidence to indicate the Confederate president was working to undercut his success, Beauregard would forever believe otherwise. Davis was, however, clearly glad to get the politically motivated, anti-administration, and vain Louisiana general out of Virginia.

Unfortunately, Beauregard arrived in the West just as Johnston's Kentucky defensive line collapsed. Alarmed by the unorganized and the weak state of Confederate armed forces in the West, Johnston's talented new second in command was pessimistic about the worsening situation and even considered returning to Virginia. Still critically ill, having had throat surgery before leaving Richmond, Beauregard would be plagued for several months in 1862 by a chronic bronchial infection and high fever which greatly impaired his military effectiveness.

One serious problem was brought about by the fall of Fort Henry; the wide Tennessee River now separated Johnston's immediate field army into two wings. Beauregard was ordered by Johnston to take command of Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk's corps, stationed in western Kentucky and Tennessee, while Johnston himself retreated southward through Middle Tennessee with Maj. Gen. William J. Hardee's corps, along with General Crittenden's shattered division from East Tennessee.

With Federal forces poised to ascend the Tennessee River and carry the war southward into North Alabama and Mississippi, both Johnston and Beauregard saw the critical need to concentrate their divided forces . . . .

With Federal forces poised to ascend the Tennessee River and carry the war southward into North Alabama and Mississippi, both Johnston and Beauregard saw the critical need to concentrate their divided forces and defend the important Memphis & Charleston Railroad. A vital artery of commerce, the railroad was the only all-weather east-west road in the South that linked the Mississippi River to the Atlantic seaboard. The location selected by the Confederates to collect and organize their converging forces was the strategic railroad junction of Corinth, a small town of about 1,200 inhabitants located in northeast Mississippi. There the north-south Mobile & Ohio Railroad, linking Kentucky with the Gulf, crossed the Memphis & Charleston's east-west axis. Using the steam-powered technology of the modern industrial age, the Confederates transported thousands of soldiers and tons of equipment, both on land and water, from every corner of the western Confederacy to Corinth. By the end of March about 45,000 men, present for duty (a total of about 56,000 men, rank and file, were recorded on the army muster rolls), had been amassed in northern Mississippi and southwest Tennessee. The arriving Confederate forces were reorganized into a new and somewhat unwieldy four-corps structure called the Army of the Mississippi. Major General Polk commanded the First Corps; Bragg, the Second; Hardee, the Third; and Brig. Gen. John C. Breckinridge was given command of Crittenden's division, now designated the Reserve Corps.



Johnston's decision to concentrate was hazardous, and even some of his own officers believed that it might not work. For nearly two hundred miles his right flank would be exposed to Federal attack. Fortunately, the Federal army occupying Nashville did not aggressively pursue Johnston's retreating forces in Middle Tennessee. Nonetheless, a Union raid in mid-March on the important Memphis & Charleston Railroad in northeast Mississippi came too close for comfort. Only the wretched weather and a late winter flood kept Union cavalry from cutting the vital east-west rail link.

The Southern army at Corinth bore a hodgepodge appearance. Major General Bragg, the strict disciplinarian, contemptuously referred to it as a "mob." A young Louisiana soldier noted the varied dress of the different commands—some wore uniforms, some half uniforms, some no uniforms at all, wearing the civilian dress they brought from home. In addition, several different kinds of battle flags were carried among the four corps. The most serious problem in Johnston's western army, however, was the lack of proper firearms. Perhaps less than 10,000 modern rifled muskets were in use. General Johnston had arranged for the shipment of several thousand British Enfields, which had reached Southern ports through the Federal naval blockade, but mostly a motley collection of old smoothbores, flintlocks, squirrel rifles, and shotguns could be found among the army. Morale, nonetheless, was generally high in the Southern army. Upon these untested men now rested the hope of restoring Confederate fortunes in the West.

The news of the western victories electrified the North. The New York Tribune printed an extra: "Freedom! Fort Donelson Taken!" A gun salute was fired on Bunker Hill in Boston. Business stopped on the Chicago Merchant's Exchange and the "Star Spangled Banner" was sung. In Washington, D.C., the news was greeted with wild cheering in both houses of Congress. Many believed that the war would be over by the end of the year—perhaps the Fourth of July!

Taking credit for the Union success was forty-seven-year-old Maj. Gen. Henry Wager Halleck, commander of the Department of the Missouri. He served as an assistant professor while still an undergraduate at the Military Academy, and his widely recognized academic brilliance and career accomplishments won him the nick name "Old Brains." One of the nation's leading military theorists, Halleck was well suited for the administrative responsibilities of his vast department, which stretched west from the Cumberland River into Kansas. Though widely respected in the Old Army, he was essentially a desk general and not a bold and inspiring field commander. Rarely did he venture from his headquarters in the Planter's House Hotel in St. Louis. Aloof and stern, he sought complete autonomy for himself. In early 1862, Halleck and Department of the Ohio commander Brig. Gen. Don Carlos Buell were in virtual competition for overall command in the West.



Although intense pressure from the White House had been necessary to get Halleck to move, the St. Louis commander had seen the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers as the true point of penetration in the middle South. With the twin victories of Forts Henry and Donelson under his belt, he boldly requested a merged western department, with himself at the head.

The individual most responsible for the greatest Northern victory in the war to date was a relative unknown—thirty-nine-year-old Maj. Gen. Ulysses Simpson Grant. Before the war, the West Point graduate (class of 1843) had been clerking in a leather goods store owned by his two brothers in Galena, Illinois. A combat veteran of 4th United States Infantry, "Sam" Grant discharged his duties as a company line officer and as regimental quartermaster in the Mexican War with great ability, winning brevets of first lieutenant and captain. Stationed in isolated frontier posts on the Pacific Coast after the war, however, Captain Grant did not enjoy being cut off from his young wife and children. The lonely and bored young officer developed a reputation for hard drinking. Warned by his commanding officer, he faced damaging charges of drunkenness and neglect of duty, Grant resigned his commission in 1854. After returning to his family, the next six years saw Grant fail repeatedly in several farming and business pursuits in Missouri and Illinois. Appointed colonel of the 21st Illinois Infantry in June 1861, within two months, much to the disdain of some Old Army officers, Grant obtained a brigadier's commission largely through political association with Illinois congressman Elihu Washburne. Short in height and plain in appearance, U. S. Grant did not look the part of a dashing army commander.


General Grant's victory on the Cumberland capturing Fort Donelson and most of its garrison, won him overnight acclaim, and ten thousand congratulatory cigars were sent to him, causing him to take up the habit (he had formerly been a pipe smoker). President Abraham Lincoln had never met the general, and the administration was somewhat taken aback that such an unknown had gained so significant a victory. The Senate quickly confirmed upon him the rank of major general of volunteers. Grant's success at Donelson was really only partly his own; inept Confederate leadership within the Southern fort had greatly contributed. During the operation, Grant had not entrenched his men at Fort Donelson, nor was he present on the field when the Confederates launched a surprise attack on the morning of February 15—failings that would recur in the near future. But in Grant the North had a bold fighter at a time when one was desperately needed.

An event with potentially far-reaching effects now for a brief time made a virtual mess of Federal communications. In late February, while Grant was preparing his army for a projected expedition up the Tennessee River, the Union telegraph operator at Cairo, Illinois, later discovered to be a Rebel sympathizer, purposely withheld many of Grant's dispatches to department headquarters in St. Louis. By early March, sitting in his headquarters several hundred miles away from the front, an increasingly frustrated, and by now perhaps envious, General Halleck was not receiving daily reports or answers to his formal inquiries from Grant in the field. Halleck angrily demanded that General in Chief George B. McClellan remove Grant from command. In addition to several unofficial charges of neglect of duty and insubordination, Halleck passed on to McClellan an unconfirmed rumor that Grant had resumed his "former habits," a veiled reference to his drinking. McClellan informed Halleck that if it was necessary for the good of the service, he had the authority to relieve Grant of command. Although not officially relieved, for a full week in early March, a stunned Grant was instructed by Halleck to turn over command of the proposed Tennessee expedition to Brig. Gen. Charles F. Smith (promoted to major general on March 21) and remain at Fort Henry. "Why do you not obey my orders to report strength and positions of your command?" chided an enraged Halleck. Virtually under house arrest, a depressed and confused Grant desperately attempted to provide answers to Halleck's damaging official charges. Eventually President Lincoln became involved and the Union War Department demanded that facts, not rumors, be forthcoming on the Grant matter. Faced with such opposition, Halleck backed down when reports from Grant provided the tardy information.

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