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Civil War Series

The Battle of Shiloh

   

THE FEDERAL ADVANCE

In the meantime, General Smith, an Old Army officer and Grant's subordinate, was placed in command of a Tennessee River expeditionary force of 27,000 troops, with more to follow. The initial purpose was to raid the Memphis & Charleston Railroad bridge over Bear Creek, near Eastport, Mississippi. With two gunboats, the Tyler and Lexington, and about fifty-eight transports, the expedition presented a grand sight. "I wish you could see our fleet in column as we move up the river these splendid moonlight nights. It is the grandest sight I ever saw," an Illinois soldier wrote his wife. Some of the local inhabitants "cheered us and made great profession of union," observed an Iowa infantry man. The journey was mostly uneventful, but at least seven men drowned.

The strategic mission of the Tennessee expedition changed when, on March 11, 1862, Halleck was granted his long-held desire for overall western command. "Old Brains" immediately directed Buell (recently promoted to major general) and his Army of the Ohio to rendezvous with Smith's expedition at the small river town of Savannah, Tennessee, 110 miles southwest of Nashville. Rather than use the river, Buell decided to march his troops overland, believing he could move in less time and clean out pockets of resistance as he advanced.


(click on image for a PDF version)
THE ARMIES CONVERGE ON THE MEMPHIS & CHARLESTON RAILROAD, FEBRUARY-APRIL, 1862
After the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson, Albert Sidney Johnston's western Confederate forces concentrate to hold the Memphis & Charleston Railroad. Thousands of soldiers from the Gulf the Trans-Mississippi, western Kentucky, and middle Tennessee assemble around the strategic crossroads at Corinth, Mississippi. In early March, a Federal expedition (C.F Smith) ascends the Tennessee River to sever the Memphis & Charleston near Eastport, Mississippi. The mission fails. Confronted by the Confederate concentration, Grant's army assembles in southwest Tennessee. Five Union divisions disembark at Pittsburg Landing, while one garrisons Crump's Landing. Buell is ordered to march from Nashville to join Grant. To communicate with Buell's column, Grant establishes headquarters at Savannah. Once combined, the Federals plan to sever the southern railroads.

Buell underestimated his task. The Army of the Ohio, five divisions with 37,000 troops, snaked out of Nashville on the night of March 15. At Columbia, the Federals found the turnpike bridge over the Duck River in flames. Recent rains had swollen the river to two hundred yards across. New bridges were not completed until March 30, and by then the river was fordable. Beyond the Columbia turnpike lay sixty-five miles of poor country road. As a result, Buell's march, which on paper could have been made in nine days, required twenty-two. Although Buell was later criticized for this slow pace, Halleck never expressed any urgency.

Smith's expedition, meanwhile, penetrated deep into enemy territory, reaching Savannah. A town of about 600 mostly loyal Unionist inhabitants who had voted two to one against secession, Savannah consisted of one small street "lined with dilapidated weatherworn, wooden buildings," according to one Federal soldier. From this base, two raids were conducted on Confederate communications. On March 13, thirty-four-year-old Brig. Gen. Lewis "Lew" Wallace (promoted to major general on March 21), disembarked his division on the west bank of the Tennessee River at Crump's Landing, three miles upriver from Savannah (Wallace would later author Ben Hur). A Federal cavalry foray advanced inland (west) from Crump's Landing and succeeded in slightly damaging the Mobile & Ohio Railroad near Bethel Station.

THE WOODEN GUNBOAT USS TYLER. (USAMHI)

BUELL'S TROOPS CROSSING THE DUCK RIVER AT COLUMBIA ON THEIR WAY TO REINFORCE GRANT. (HP)

Hoping to repeat this success, Smith next sent Brig. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's division on a raid against the Memphis & Charleston Railroad at Burnsville, Mississippi, just eight miles east of Corinth. Red-haired, high-strung, but competent, the forty-two-year-old Sherman had only months earlier suffered a nervous breakdown. A Northern newspaper subsequently labeled him as "insane." Sherman disembarked his men at Tyler's Landing on March 14 and attempted to march the nineteen miles inland to the rail depot at Burnsville. Torrential rains and swollen creeks, however, forced the cancellation of the expedition. Sherman returned downriver and camped his division on the river's west bank at Pittsburg Landing, described by one soldier as "three log cabins and a pig sty." Two other Federal divisions also disembarked at Pittsburg Landing with Sherman's men.

Resuming command, Grant proceeded upriver in the wake of his advanced army. Arriving on March 17, he made his headquarters at the large white brick home of William H. Cherry, sitting atop the Savannah bluff. Grant found his army widely dispersed. Retaining Lew Wallace's division at Crump's Landing, west of Savannah, he agreed with General Smith's idea to concentrate the balance of the army further upriver at Pittsburg Landing, located eight miles by river southwest of Savannah. The decision to establish a beachhead on the west bank of the river at Pittsburg, from which to operate against the strategic Corinth rail junction, was influenced by a favorable report from Sherman to Smith but was entirely Grant's to approve or disapprove. It might have been safer for the Federal army to have remained on the east bank, at Savannah, placing the river between them and the Confederate forces reported to be concentrating in large numbers at Corinth. Union gunboats patrolled the river, and the Confederates lacked a large pontoon train to make such a formidable river crossing. But, there was a pressing need to release the large number of steamboats for other duty downstream. In addition, Grant desired to position his forces to threaten immediate attack on the Southern railroads lying south and west of the river. These matters decided the issue for Grant—the bulk of the army would establish camps at Pittsburg Landing. Halleck instructed Grant that he was not to become involved in a battle before the linkup with Buell had occurred.

THE LANDING AT SAVANNAH. (BL)

Despite its vulnerability, Pittsburg Landing did offer some advantages. The rolling plateau back from the landing provided ample campground for a large army. Three major watersheds, Snake Creek to the north, Owl Creek to the west, and Lick Creek to the south, all tributaries of the Tennessee River, were now out of their banks. Backwatered by the rising river, these flooded bottomlands protected the Federal flanks. The terrain, almost a wilderness in places, was composed of steep banked ravines, which could be easily defended, Several farms with small fields and orchards dotted the countryside. About two miles southwest from the landing, on the Corinth-Pittsburg road, sat a one-room log Methodist church called Shiloh Meeting House.

Grant's troop dispersement on the forested plateau was highly questionable. Holding the advance were two untested divisions—Sherman's on the right astride the Corinth and Hamburg-Purdy Roads and Brig. Gen. Benjamin M. Prentiss on the left across the Eastern Corinth road. The three combat-tested veteran divisions, those of Brig. Gen. John A. McClernand (promoted to major general on March 21), Stephen A. Hurlbut, and William H. L. Wallace camped in the rear, closer to the landing. The collective Federal force, nominally called the Army of the Tennessee numbered just over 48,000 men encamped at Pittsburg. Lew Wallace's division, erecting camps inland from Crump's Landing along the Purdy Road westward for five miles to Adamsville, totaled 7,500 effectives.

THE UNION ENCAMPMENT AT SHILOH MEETING HOUSE. (HP)

Morale remained high—too high. "I think the rebellion is getting nearly played out, and I expect we will be home soon" concluded one Federal. A steady trickle of Rebel deserters came into camp, all telling stories of a demoralized Southern army. The troops' overconfidence was shared at army headquarters. "I want to whip these rebels once more in a big fight," Grant boasted to his wife.

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