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Civil War Series

The Battle of Shiloh

   

THE NATION STUNNED

Shiloh, or Pittsburg Landing, as it was initially known in Union records, proved to be the costliest battle in the Civil War to date. Indeed, more casualties were inflicted at Shiloh than in all the rest of America's previous wars (Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and Mexican War) added together. The citizens of the divided nation were stunned when the Shiloh casualty lists began pouring in. Beauregard officially reported 1,728 killed, 8,012 wounded, and 959 missing, a total of 10,699. The Southern populace was horror-stricken by the immense suffering, as Corinth, along with numerous other Mississippi and West Tennessee communities, became vast hospitals. The recorded Federal losses for Grant's and Buell's armies were higher—1,754 killed, 8,408 wounded, and 2,885 missing, for a total of 13,047. Union soldiers across the battlefield recorded numerous grisly sights. An officer of the 6th Ohio counted 126 Confederates dead in a strip of land fifty yards wide and a quarter of a mile long. Eleven of them, evidently skirmishers, had fallen in front of the line. A burial detail in McCook's division interred 147 Southerners in a trench, including three lieutenant colonels and four majors.

A PHOTOGRAPH CIRCA 1895 OF DECORATION (MEMORIAL) DAY ACTIVITIES AT SHILOH NATIONAL CEMETERY. (SHILOH NMP)

On April 8, Beauregard sent a message by mounted courier to Grant, requesting permission to remove the Southern dead. Owing to the weather and deteriorating condition of the corpses, the Union commander had already assigned details to bury the almost 3,500 dead. The majority of Confederate dead were buried in trenches and large pits, five of which have since been located and marked with commemorative monuments in the Shiloh National Military Park. The Federal dead, too, were initially placed in mass trenches by their comrades, although later, beginning in 1866, the bodies of these National soldiers were exhumed and reinterred in the National Cemetery established on the river bluff overlooking Pittsburg Landing.

As the facts of the Union surprise became known, the Northern populace reacted with outrage. Grant and Sherman both came under particularly brutal attack by both politicians and the press. Unfortunately, journalists inflamed the public controversy by reporting numerous wild and totally false stories. There were politicians who came to their defense—Illinois congressman Elihu Washburne for Grant and Ohio senator John Sherman (the general's brother) for Sherman.

The clamor for Grant's removal remained intense. An administration official called on President Lincoln one spring evening immediately following the battle and discussed the issue with him. A. K. McClure was convinced that the popular resentment was so overwhelming that the president had no choice but to replace Grant. Lincoln reportedly replied: "I can't spare this man; he fights."

Shiloh had a dramatic effect on the war, beyond the enormous casualty list. Many historians argue this was the South's last best chance to recoup its recent loss of territory and the military initiative in the West. This may well be true, as both a tactical draw at Shiloh and numerical advantage were on the side of the North.

Even if Grant's army had been destroyed on April 6, thousands of Federals would doubtless have escaped. This number, combined with Lew Wallace's 7,500, Buell's total strength of 37,000, Gen. Ormsby Mitchell's 10,000-man column advancing on north Alabama, and Maj. Gen. John Pope's Union Army of the Mississippi (21,000 men fresh from a victory at Island No. 10 on the Mississippi River) transported by boat in mid-April to reinforce the Federals on the Tennessee gave General Halleck sufficient strength to recover from a temporary setback.

A GROUP OF CONFEDERATE ARTILLERYMEN, TYPICAL OF THOSE WHO FOUGHT AT SHILOH. (CHICAGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY)

The campaign that seized Forts Henry and Donelson had secured Kentucky for the Union, while the Battle of Pea Ridge, in northwest Arkansas, had accomplished the same for Missouri. By avoiding defeat at Shiloh, the Federal forces in the West retained all of the advantages they had won in the winter campaigns.

In the western Southern army, morale plummeted after the battle. The enlistments of the twelve-month troops were nearing completion. If the Confederate Congress had not passed the Conscript Act shortly thereafter, extending all enlistments to three years, a significant portion of Beauregard's Army of the Mississippi would doubtless have melted away. Indeed, several thousand did desert the Confederate cause and went home.

The campaign that seized Forts Henry and Donelson had secured Kentucky for the Union, while the Battle of Pea Ridge, in northwest Arkansas, had accomplished the same for Missouri. By avoiding defeat at Shiloh, the Federal forces in the West retained all of the advantages they had won in the winter campaigns. The western Confederate railroads remained imperiled and Federal conquest of the Lower Mississippi continued. Two days after Shiloh, Beauregard telegraphed Richmond: "If defeated here [Corinth], we lose the whole Mississippi Valley and probably our cause."

IN A LATE WAR PHOTOGRAPH, SOLDIERS OF THE 7TH ILLINOIS INFANTRY, VETERANS OF BLOODY SHILOH, HOLD THE HENRY REPEATING RIFLES THEY WERE ISSUED IN 1864 AND PROUDLY DISPLAY THEIR REGIMENTAL FLAG, WHICH BEARS THE PITTSBURG LANDING BATTLE HONOR. (COURTESY OF ILLINOIS STATE HISTORICAL LIBRARY)

Perhaps the greatest impact of Shiloh was the way the people of the divided nation viewed the war. For the first time both sides became aware of the magnitude of the conflict. Both combatants had conducted successful military movements and performed massive troop concentrations using steam to power trains and riverboats. Over two hundred thousand soldiers, plus all their animals and tons of supplies, had been carried across vast regions of the western theater. War operations had grown national in scope, as the field armies swelled in size and conducted campaigns over great distances. The vast number of volunteer soldiers and their officers were no longer raw recruits but battle-tested veterans. They had experienced the horrors of war. Each side had, in some measure, conducted successful military operations, and each had experienced great difficulty and some failure. There now appeared to be no immediate end to the troubling conflict.

Before Shiloh, U. S. Grant had believed that the Rebels in the West could be finished off in one last great action. After the battle he "gave up all idea of saving the Union except by complete conquest." The war would continue for three more years, but after Shiloh it would be different and increasingly bloodier.


(click on image for a PDF version)
Shiloh

Back cover: The Hornets' Nest, painting by Thomas Corwin Lindsay. Courtesy of Cincinnati Historical Society.
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