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Civil War Series

The Battle of Shiloh



Before dawn on April 7 the combined armies of Grant and Buell began to edge slowly forward in a massive counterattack. Lew Wallace's division on Grant's extreme right flank, overlooking the broad valley of Tilghman Branch, led off the combat with an artillery duel with Ketchum's Alabama Battery posted in a portion of McClernand's camp in north Jones field across the ravine. Positioned to Wallace's left were the remnants of Sherman, then McClernand, along with the remainder of William Wallace's (now under James Tuttle) and Hurlbut's commands stretching the line eastward to the landing.

Deployed forward of Grant's left were Buell's troops—the divisions of Nelson (left), Crittenden (center), and McCook (right). First moving Nelson's troops across Dill Branch, Buell finished his initial battle deployments by advancing Crittenden and McCook inland on the Corinth road. With his left flank anchored on the river, Buell's front extended westward for over a mile, where his right flank formed astride the Hamburg-Savannah and Corinth road junction, one mile southwest of Pittsburg Landing. In all, Grant had over 45,000 men in line, nearly half of them in fresh units.


The Confederates were so badly commingled that little corps, division, or in some cases even brigade organization and cohesion existed. It took two hours for aides first to locate, and then mobilize, General Polk and his command, which had unfortunately retired the previous night to a point well south of the rest of the army, four miles inland from the river. Therefore, as Beauregard hastily set about locating and then deploying his scattered troops, only General Breckinridge would manage to form all three brigades of his corps side by side in line of battle. Meanwhile, Generals Hardee, Bragg, and Polk would each again lead groups of commingled commands on different sectors of the broad three-mile front. By 10 A.M., Beauregard had established a stable front, which ran across the field from southeast to northwest, about a mile and a half inland from the river. Hardee, with his forces formed along the Hamburg-Purdy road, directed operations on the right, where he met Buell's advance on the River road. On Hardee's left came Breckinridge where the Southern front angled northward from the Eastern Corinth and Hamburg-Purdy road junction. Breckinridge's corps held the Confederate center along the old Hornets' Nest front. Further north Bragg assumed command of the far left flank, anchoring the Southern front on the bluffs overlooking Owl Creek. Once General Polk returned to the field from the rear, he assumed command of the left center, between Breckinridge and Bragg. On this front, Beauregard managed to deploy about 28,000 men.

The sheer power of the Federal thrust jolted the unsuspecting Southerners. "They appeared to me like ants in their nest, for the more we fired upon them, the more they swarmed about; one would have said that they sprouted from the ground like mushrooms," noted a member of the Crescent Louisiana Regiment of New Orleans. For the first time, Mississippi Private A. H. Mecklin recorded in his diary, "I began to have doubts as to the issues [outcome] of this contest. I knew that the enemy were reinforced and stoutly." Observed Pvt. Thomas C. Robertson of the 4th Louisiana: "At daybreak our pickets came rushing in under a murderous fire and the first thing we knew we were almost surrounded by six or seven regiments of Yankees."

Nelson's division led the advance on the Federal left south along the Hamburg-Savannah road. No serious opposition was encountered until his troops arrived at the Widow Wicker's field after 8 A.M. Suddenly, Col. William B. Hazen's brigade was fired on by General Chalmers's troops, who had moved up from their bivouac in Colonel Stuart's captured camps. Chalmers, joined by several other Southern detachments, blocked Nelson's further advance along the road. Heavy skirmishing continued for the next hour and a half as both sides awaited reinforcements. Crittenden's and McCook's divisions, which moved southwest and west into the Hornets' Nest thicket, astride the Eastern Corinth and Corinth roads, followed Nelson's advance. By 10:00, troops from both divisions were heavily engaged.

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Overnight, Crittenden and McCook ascend the river to the battlefield. With Buell's men, Lew Wallace and veterans from Sunday's battle, Grant assumes the offensive at dawn. The Confederates are taken by surprise. Wallace crosses Tilghman Branch at 7 A.M., drives Pond from Jones field, then halts to await Sherman and McClernand. Buell, with Nelson (Hazen, Bruce, Ammen) left Crittenden (Smith, Boyle) center, and McCook (Rousseau, Kirk) right, advances down the Corinth and Hamburg-Savannah roads. As Beauregard patches together a hasty battleline—with Bragg left, Polk left center, Breckinridge right center and Hardee right—heavy fighting erupts. By late morning, Crittenden carries the Hornets' Nest thicket, and Nelson enters Davis and Bell field. Determined counterattacks by Breckinridge and Hardee hurl Nelson and Crittenden back. On Grant's right, Wallace, Sherman, McClernand, and Hurlbut advance, driving the Confederate left under Bragg and Polk steadily south. Under renewed attack from Crittenden and McCook, Breckinridge also retires. By noon, Beauregard's weakening battleline parallels the Hamburg-Purdy road.

Lew Wallace's division on the right had opened the day's fighting by sparring with Col. Preston Pond's brigade in Jones field. Pond was soon ordered to move his men to the opposite flank in the fight against Buell. This movement allowed Wallace to advance his division across Tilghman Branch into the north end of Jones field. In front of Wallace, S. A. M. Woods's and Randall Gibson's Confederate brigades were hurriedly thrown forward to contest further Union advance south through Jones field. As on the Federal left, the Union advance here stalled as Wallace was forced to wait out Grant's promised support from Sherman and McClernand on his left. Those troops had not yet advanced over Tilghman Branch. About 9:00 to 9:30 General Ruggles brashly ordered both Wood and Gibson to counterattack Wallace's division. The Rebels were driven back by the fire of Morgan L. Smith's and John M. Thayer's brigades, along with the five guns of Thurber's Battery I, 1st Missouri Light Artillery, which supported Wallace's hold on Jones field.


Buell, meanwhile, began to make headway on the left. After 10:00 his divisions advanced to the Sarah Bell peach orchard, the sight of such heavy fighting the previous day. Here they encountered a reinforced Confederate line under Hardee along the Hamburg Purdy road. Col. Sanders L. Bruce's brigade of Nelson's division attacked south across the Sarah Bell field but was driven back by musketry and a heavy right flank enfilade (cross) fire from Hodgson's 5th Company, Louisiana Washington Artillery, and McClung's Tennessee Battery, both positioned to the west in Daniel Davis's wheat field. General Hardee ordered a counterattack, which was spearheaded by Bowen's brigade (Breckinridge's corps) now commanded by Col. John S. Martin, but they in turn were swept back to the Hamburg-Purdy road by the advance of Colonel Hazen's brigade. Hazen's Indiana and Ohio troops, joined by Col. William Sooy Smith's brigade of Crittenden's division on their right, surged southwest into Davis's wheat field, where they overran part of Captain Hodgson's Washington Artillery. The Crescent Louisiana Regiment, along with the 19th Louisiana, rushed forward to assist the hard-pressed cannoneers. In a frantic melee of hand-to-hand fighting, the Louisianans retook the battery. With heavy Confederate pressure on both flanks, Nelson's entire division was forced to retire to Wicker field and regroup. Breckinridge's men had held firm on Hardee's left, therefore Crittenden, like Nelson, was forced to retire Smith's brigade back into the Hornets' Nest thicket, where he busied himself reforming his lines within the thicket. As midday approached, the fighting along the Confederate right seesawed back and forth.

Before noon, General Crittenden again attacked Breckinridge's front. As his left pressed down the Eastern Corinth road, Crittenden's right, along with McCook's division to their right, advanced west across Duncan field. This drive captured Southern cannon and broke the back of Breckinridge's resistance at Duncan field. Having lost a large number of men, Breckinridge's corps retired fighting toward the southwest. From noon until 2:00 the Northerners gained the upper hand astride the Eastern Corinth Road, where Crittenden, reinforced by detachments from Grant's army, advanced south to the junction with the Hamburg-Purdy road. Meanwhile, General McCook pressed west along the Corinth road toward Water Oaks Pond and Woolf field. On Buell's left, Nelson had also been reinforced with small detachments from Grant's army. Once again, Nelson's division entered Sarah Bell's field and attacked south toward the junction of the Hamburg-Savannah and Hamburg-Purdy roads. By 2:00, Nelson's men had pushed Hardee's front southward into Prentiss's camp and seized the Hamburg-Purdy road. This time Nelson's men came to stay.



Since midmorning, fierce fighting had raged on the Union right, where Confederate forces under Bragg and Polk fought unsuccessfully to halt the advance of Sherman, McClernand, and Hurlbut across Tilghman Branch. By 11:00, the Southern left was retiring south from Jones field under the mounting pressure from Grant's army. From his headquarters at Shiloh Church, Beauregard worked frantically to form a new line north of Water Oaks Pond. Beginning at noon, some of the heaviest fighting of the day occurred in this sector. With Hardee starting to give way on the right, most of the Southern resistance was located west of the Eastern Corinth road, in a line extending west along the Hamburg-Purdy road to Owl Creek. Just after noon, Brig. Gen. Lovell Rousseau's brigade, joined by the brigades of Col. Edward Kirk and Col. William Gibson, all from McCook's division, attacked westward through Woolf field astride the Corinth road. Meanwhile, further west, Lew Wallace and Sherman continued to apply pressure on the Southern left flank.

As the Federals swept forward through the center of McClernand's recaptured camps, Beauregard committed his remaining reserve—Preston Pond's brigade. Pond arrived at Shiloh Church with only two regiments, but several other disorganized detachments were pieced together to form a conglomerate attack force. Col. Robert Russell stated that the assault was led by "General Beauregard, who bore the colors (flag) in front of the line under the fire of the enemy." Several times during the day, Beauregard exposed himself to great harm by leading units into battle. Scolded by his aides, who argued that he was unnecessarily endangering himself, the army commander bluntly fired back, "The order must now be 'follow,' not 'go!'" Unfortunately, "the fire and animation had left our troops," observed Col. Jacob Thompson of Beauregard's staff. Many Southern soldiers were disconsolate and refused to respond to further pleadings by their officers. Beauregard observed this change in morale, and as the bitter contest wore on, he increasingly attempted to rally his soldiers in person.


A last-ditch Confederate counterattack proved momentarily successful. Southerners surged back across Water Oaks Pond and entered the southern portion of McClernand's camp, forcing McCook's men to give ground. Riding up to Col. James Veatch's brigade of General Hurlbut's division, which stood in support of McCook, General Grant personally ordered Veatch forward to stabilize the faltering Union front. Moving steadily forward, Veatch's men advanced across Review field past McCook's left and struck the Confederate right flank. Caught within the Federal vise, Colonel Russell remembered that despite the "courage" displayed by Beauregard, "human endurance could stand no longer against such odds, and our forces were compelled to fall back to the . . . church."

It was now evident to a troubled Beauregard that the Federals had received heavy reinforcements and his exhausted Confederates would be unable to prevail. Col. Thomas Jordan inquired of the general: "Would it not be judicious to get away with what we have?" The Louisiana general replied: "I intend to withdraw in a few moments." About 3:00, on the ridge across the valley of Shiloh Branch, south of Shiloh Church, a Confederate rear guard of some 5,000 men from Breckinridge's corps, mixed detachments, and about a dozen guns was formed. This line held the Federals at bay on the Corinth road, until 5:00, while the Southerners conducted an orderly withdrawal.

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