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Civil War Series

The Battle of Shiloh



As Powell's patrol neared the Corinth-Pittsburg road, three-quarters of a mile southwest of camp, they were suddenly fired on by Confederate cavalry vedettes. Not realizing the danger ahead, the major hurriedly formed his 250 men into a skirmish line and advanced into J. J. Fraley's field. Ahead in the darkness was Brig. Gen. Sterling A. M. Wood's brigade of Hardee's corps. The Federals had at long last discovered the advancing Confederate army. Maj. Aaron B. Hardcastle's 3rd Mississippi Battalion, 280 muskets, had been thrown forward as skirmishers for General Wood's brigade. About 4:50 A.M., as the shadowy forms of Powell's skirmishers closed to within two hundred yards, Hardcastle's Mississippians opened fire. The Battle of Shiloh had begun. For the next hour, as sunlight streaked the sky, both sides doggedly traded blows, each refusing to give way.


Back near Beauregard's headquarters, Johnston and several general officers continued the conversation from the previous night. Johnston, according to a witness, was "mainly a listener." The crash of musketry cut short the debate. The army commander declared, "The battle has opened gentlemen; it is too late to change our dispositions." Tucking his sword under his arm, he mounted his Kentucky thoroughbred "Fire-Eater." "Tonight we will water our horses in the Tennessee River," he confidently proclaimed.

Johnston decided to lead his army from the front rather than the rear. He left to Beauregard the task of supervising and forwarding the large number of reserve brigades and supplies. Some historians have argued that by making this decision, Johnston unknowingly reversed roles with his second in command. Over the course of the next several hours of combat, Johnston did seem to abrogate his role of overall field commander by subsequently leading individual brigades, and even regiments, into various fighting positions on the front.

From his brigade headquarters, Colonel Peabody also heard the faint musket shots to the southwest. A messenger arrived from Powell, indicating that his patrol was being driven back. Henry Bently, a journalist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, was present and later indicated that Peabody dismissed the matter as a sharp skirmish. Moments later the firing doubled in intensity. The colonel jumped to his feet and immediately ordered the long roll sounded. There was "great excitement in camp," admitted George Washburn of the 21st Missouri, "and I felt sure that I was going to see a sure enough battle." Prentiss galloped into camp and angrily accused Peabody of starting a fight—a violation of Halleck's standing order. The colonel, mounted on a horse, snaply saluted and was heard to say: "If I brought on the fight, I am to lead the van." He advanced his troops about a quarter-mile south in line of battle and halted on a slightly inclined wooded ridge north of a branch of Shiloh Creek. There Peabody's men waited and listened intently to the din of musket fire drawing closer from the south.


Stumbling ahead in the semidarkness was General Hardee's assault line, some 9,000 Confederate soldiers. Had the attack been launched at sunrise, the near surprise advantage the Confederates achieved would have been maintained. Yet an hour and a half of precious daylight had been squandered in useless skirmishing in clearing the Federals out of Fraley's and Lewis Seay's fields. The Confederate advance was sluggish and uncoordinated, hardly the "Alpine avalanche" later boasted by Beauregard.

About 7:30, Peabody's troops, standing in line, suddenly saw the enemy emerge from the woods ahead. "We were dumbfounded by seeing an enormous force of Confederate troops marching directly toward us," wrote a private. To another private "it was a sublime but awful scene, as they advanced slowly, steadily and silently till within about 125 yards." Confronting the Federals was the right wing of Wood's brigade, along with Col. Robert G. Shaver's brigade of mostly Arkansas troops.

The opening Federal volleys caused the Southerners to stagger to a halt, and some units, such as the 55th Tennessee, even ran pell-mell to the rear shouting, "Retreat!, Retreat!" Within one hour, Peabody's line had been overlapped, however, and his men fell back to their encampments. Although suffering four wounds, Peabody remained on the field, attempting to rally his troops. He suddenly threw up his arms, reeled back, and fell dead from his horse—a fatal bullet had struck him in the head.

The badly scattered Federal ranks streamed back through their tents, firing from behind trees and bales of hay. Ambulances raced to the rear as frantic soldiers jumped on, fighting off their comrades.

The badly scattered Federal ranks streamed back through their tents, firing from behind trees and bales of hay. Ambulances raced to the rear as frantic soldiers jumped on, fighting off their comrades. Surg. Samuel Eels of the 12th Michigan was tending the wounded when Confederates suddenly burst into the hospital tent and "leveled their guns at us." By 8:45, Peabody's brigade had been rolled up and his camps were in enemy possession.

Col. Madison Miller, commanding Prentiss's Second Brigade, had hurriedly formed his brigade on Peabody's left, taking position on the south edge of Peter Spain's field at 7:30. Capt. Andrew Hickenlooper's 5th Ohio Battery, organized in Cincinnati, unlimbered in the northwest corner of the field, east of the Eastern Corinth Road. Also anchoring Miller's right was Capt. Emil Munch's 1st Minnesota Battery, placed astride the country road. Miller's troops waited perhaps five minutes. "We were drawn up in line of battle. I was looking as anxious for the Secesh as I ever did a squirrel," wrote Edgar Embly of the 61st Illinois, "but I did not look long before I seen their guns glittering in the brush."


About 8:00, Miller was attacked by the brigade of Brig. Gen. Adley H. Gladden from Bragg's corps. The Southerners advanced under a galling storm of musketry and artillery fire, and soon hundreds of men recoiled across the entire Southern line. General Gladden was carried mortally wounded from the field, where a Southern correspondent found him "pale, faint, but still smiling." Despite horrible losses, the Confederates launched a second assault at 8:30 with Gladden's men reinforced by Brig. Gen. James Chalmers's Mississippi and Tennessee brigade, also of Bragg's corps. The Southern advance collided with Miller's front. An intense fire consumed the Federal line, and within minutes of this renewed attack fifty-nine of Prentiss's artillery horses were shot down in their traces. A Southern officer observed that "the horses lay dead in their harness all piled up in their own struggles." Hickenlooper lost two guns, but Captain Munch, though wounded, got all of his pieces away.

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At 4:55 A.M., Powell's patrol discovers Hardee's pickets in Wood field—skirmishing erupts. Hardee advances at 6 A.M., driving Powell, reinforced by Moore, towards Prentiss's camps (Peabody, Miller). As general alarm sounds, Prentiss and Sherman engage the Confederates and call on McClernand, William Wallace, and Hurlbut for assistance. In an effort to turn the Union left, Johnston maneuvers half his army, under Hardee and Bragg, against Prentiss. A third of the army, herded forward by Beauregard and Polk, attacks Sherman at Shiloh Church. Reinforced by Raith's brigade (McClernand's division), Sherman repulses several uncoordinated attacks. At 9 A.M., Prentiss is overrun and retreats. McClernand, William Wallace, and Hurlbut deploy north of the Hamburg-Purdy road and Grant arrives at Pittsburg Landing. From Prentiss's camp, Johnston sends five brigades under Hardee and Bragg, to seize McClernand's camps. This attack turns Sherman's left and at 10 A.M. he retires beyond the Hamburg-Purdy road. Advised that a Federal force (Stuart) threatens his right, Johnston has Chalmers and Jackson redeploy further east, and directs Breckinridge to reinforce the right.

Panic struck many of the young Federals as they fled through their camps. "The main thing was to get out of there as quick as we could," attested one Illinois soldier. The brigade was later ridiculed by the Northern press for having run, but Colonel Miller merely pointed to the number of bodies found after the battle in the Spain field as grim testimony of the courage of his men. The victorious Confederates, under the supervision of Johnston, Hardee, and Bragg, swept forward. A member of the 26th Alabama, walking through the street camps, found dead and wounded soldiers "mangled in every conceivable form."

Northern newspapers later detailed graphic stories of men being bayoneted in their tents. These accounts proved false, but the truth was bad enough. By 9:00, Prentiss's two brigades, a total of 5,400 effectives, had been swept away and the Confederates appeared on the verge of a great victory in the wooded thickets of western Tennessee.

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