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Civil War Series

The Battle of Shiloh

   

THE LOST OPPORTUNITY

In postwar years many writers, including Sidney Johnston's son Col. William Preston Johnston, criticized General Beauregard for halting the battle. "One more and determined assault would have brought us on the banks [of the Tennessee River], with the Federals at our feet, had not General Beauregard ordered the retreat at 4 P.M.," insisted W. P. Johnston. Thus began a persistent myth of the so-called Confederate lost opportunity at Shiloh.

Immediately following the battle, Braxton Bragg had written that on the late afternoon of April 6, the Confederates were disorganized, demoralized, and exhausted. He also wrote to his wife that he was quite confident that Grant's army could be beaten the next day. After the war, however, Capt. Samuel Lockett, Bragg's engineer officer, told a different version. He remembered General Bragg shouting: "One more charge, my men, and we shall capture them all." When Bragg received Beauregard's order to cease firing, he reportedly uttered: "My God, was a victory ever sufficiently complete?" Seeing that Polk's forces had also received the order and were withdrawing, Bragg lamented: "My God, my God, it is too late!"

Lt. Alexander Chisolm, one of Beauregard's aides, told quite a different story. According to him, Bragg rode up to General Beauregard at dusk near Shiloh Church and was heard to say: "General, we have carried everything before us to the Tennessee River. I have ridden from Owl Creek to Lick Creek and there is none of the enemy to be seen." Beauregard replied: "Then, General, do not unnecessarily expose your command to the fire of the gunboats."

UNION GUNBOATS TYLER AND LEXINGTON BOMBARD CONFEDERATE POSITIONS. PITTSBURG LANDING IS SHOWN IN THE BACKGROUND. (COURTESY OF THE MARINERS MUSEUM, NEWPORT NEWS, VA)

Despite these conflicting impressions, several important factors can be determined. First, the Confederate soldiers were utterly exhausted from the day-long battle. Even one of Bragg's own staff officers wrote some years later that at the time the order to halt was received, "our troops at the front were a thin line of exhausted men who were making no further headway and were glad to receive orders to fall back." Second, Chalmers's and Jackson's troops, of Withers's division, did test Grant's final defensive line and were compelled to fall back under a murderous and sustained Union barrage. Third, the time of day was a critical factor. By the time the prisoners of the Hornets' Nest had been secured, it was 6:00—not 4:00 as Johnston's son would later claim. At most, only thirty to forty-five minutes of meager daylight remained to organize and launch a general assault. It had required six hours to reduce the Hornets' Nest, which although a strong position, did not have as much natural and combat strength as did Grant's last line. Besides, the Southern generals and their troops perceived that they had won a tremendous victory over the Federal forces. They had possession of four of the enemy's division camps, thousands of prisoners, tons of captured supplies, and had taken forty cannon. To the Southerners, it appeared that Grant's beaten army would he ripe for the picking the next morning.

Few modern historians contend that Beauregard's order to quit fighting for the night lost the battle for the Confederates. At the very least, however, Beauregard might have ridden forward to the front to examine the tactical situation there for himself, rather than remain back at Shiloh Church, where he could act only on information provided by subordinates.

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