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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Battle of Shiloh



Throughout the late morning of April 6, Grant anxiously awaited the arrival of Lew Wallace's division. Shortly after reaching Pittsburg Landing and learning the true extent of the Confederate attack, Grant's staff quartermaster, Capt. A. S. Baxter, was dispatched by steamboat with instructions for Wallace to move up to the battlefield. Fearing he might err in relating Grant's verbal instructions, Baxter wrote the orders down on paper before departing the landing. The series of events that followed would be the spark of a great historical controversy in the years to come. Ultimately, these events cast a dark cloud over the future military career of General Lew Wallace.


Wallace's arrival on the battlefield was severely delayed. The distance to be covered by his division to reach the field was just under six muddy miles, but by midafternoon, after several hours of savage combat, during which the Union front was driven back nearly a mile, Wallace had not appeared. The cause of delay was a misunderstanding such as one continually experiences in everyday life. In the rush and confusion of this deadly day, the Federal commanders would not comprehend the series of common errors made by the key participants—Ulysses S. Grant, members of Grant's inexperienced staff, and Lew Wallace.

About an hour following Baxter's departure from the landing, Grant sent a second courier, a cavalry lieutenant, to Lew Wallace. This man rode across Snake Creek along the Hamburg-Savannah road and found Wallace in his camp west of Crump's Landing. Returning to the battlefield afternoon, he found General Grant and told him that General Wallace had very specifically, and cautiously, stated that he would not march without written orders. This may not have been exactly correct; the courier may have misunderstood Wallace's questioning whether he "had written orders" from Grant. Annoyed by what he considered an unnecessary delay by Wallace, Grant dispatched Capt. William A. Rowley to ride up the Hamburg-Savannah road and deliver firm orders for General Wallace to march to Pittsburg Landing. If Wallace demanded a written order, Rowley was to prepare it for him personally. Two hours later, at 2:30, there was still no Lew Wallace. Grant again dispatched members of his staff to see about his lost division's whereabouts. This time, both Lt. Col. James M. McPherson, chief engineer officer for Grant's army, and Capt. John Rawlins, staff assistant adjutant general, were sent galloping overland by way of the River road to hasten Wallace forward to the field.

When Captain Rowley arrived at Crump's Landing he found a lone teamster, who related that Wallace's division had "gone up to the fight," pointing not to the River road, but west toward the Purdy road and Adamsville, Rowley galloped six miles before he caught up with the rear of the wayward division, crossing Snake Creek on the Shunpike road, south of Adamsville. Rowley observed that Wallace's men were then at rest with their muskets stacked. General Wallace was found at the head of the column about two miles south of the Snake Creek crossing, on a ridge paralleling the west bank of Owl Creek. Rowley told Wallace it had been reported to Grant that Wallace had refused to march without a written order. Wallace snarled that it was a "damned lie!" and pointed to his men on the road as evidence to the contrary.


Rowley informed Wallace that the road he was on did not lead to Pittsburg Landing. Wallace claimed it was the only road he knew about that led to Sherman's and McClernand's camps. "Great God," exclaimed Rowley. "Don't you know Sherman has been driven back? Why, the whole army is within a half mile of the river, and it's a question if we are not all going to be driven into it." Wallace was stunned and later conceded he was "rattled" by the news.

How had Wallace made such a mistake? The answer lies in the fact that the Union division commanders had prepared a contingency plan to send troops from Pittsburg Landing to reinforce Wallace if he were attacked by Confederates moving east from the railroad at Bethel Station via the Purdy road. Grant was concerned about the safety of Wallace's division camped north of Pittsburg Landing across the flooded channel of Snake Creek. Wallace's camps were somewhat isolated from the rest of the army. Grant, therefore, instructed his generals to prepare a plan to move reinforcements north across Snake Creek. Because heavy rains and floodwaters had damaged the approaches and bridge on the Hamburg-Savannah road, that route across Snake Creek was not serviceable for the immediate passage of troops. So while William Wallace's men attempted to repair that route, an alternate route over Snake Creek was selected. Union forces would march west across the Owl Creek bridge, where they could immediately gain access to the Shunpike road, which would take them north to cross Snake Creek five miles west of Crump's Landing at Adamsville, where Lew Wallace's advanced outposts were located.

Since it was Pittsburg Landing and not Crump's Landing being assaulted by Confederates that morning, Lew Wallace followed the prearranged plan, only in reverse. Grant apparently had not made himself aware of the particulars of this prior plan. It had not occurred to him that Wallace would march over a route other than the Hamburg-Savannah road, which Grant stated had been his verbal instructions to Baxter for Wallace. Wallace claimed that Baxter's note instructed him to join the right of the army, which of course was Sherman's division at Shiloh Church. There was no way Wallace could have known that at the same hour Baxter gave him Grant's order to march, Sherman had already retired a mile north and abandoned the Owl Creek bridge to the Confederates.

The question for Wallace now was what to do with his division. Wallace stated in his battle report, written days following the battle, that upon learning from Captain Rowley that the Confederates had beaten Sherman back and now controlled the bridge, he feared that his "command was in danger of being cut off." Weeks after the battle, Wallace became the victim of unfair and inaccurate charges that his dilatory march was responsible for the high Union casualties suffered on April 6. In response to these charges that plagued the dishonored general into the postwar years, Wallace fabricated the story that he had purposely taken the Shunpike road to come up on the Confederate rear. But even if Wallace had continued on to the bridge to make an attempt to flank the Southerners and strike their rear, it would not have succeeded. Wallace's division had been under observation by Confederate cavalry patrols. In addition, Owl Creek was then flooding, and the wooden bridge over the creek, on the Hamburg-Purdy road, was guarded by detachments of Confederate infantry and artillery. General Wallace himself conceded as much years later when he revisited the area.


Alerted by Rowley that the Shunpike road was not where Grant wanted him, Wallace, rather than simply reverse his long column, ordered a countermarch. This meant the lead brigade would have to double back over the entire length of the column. Wallace did this so as to have his artillery and most experienced troops up front when they reached the battlefield. More delays occurred when the head of the column was halted for the rear to catch up. Later, after recrossing Snake Creek and moving onto a country lane that would take the column to the River road, Wallace was overtaken by Captain Rawlins and Lieutenant Colonel McPherson, the last of Grant's couriers. Rawlins grew angry at Wallace's continued tardiness, especially when the general halted the column again to allow the rear elements to close up. Rawlins pleaded with Wallace to hurry forward with what troops were available. Sitting down on a log, Wallace remarked that "General Grant . . . wanted the division, not a part of it . . ., there should be no forward movement until the column was closed up." As a result of this day-long series of misunderstandings and individual blunders, Wallace's vanguard did not arrive on Grant's right until 7 P.M. It is difficult to say how Wallace's presence on the battlefield on April 6 would have affected the course of that day's events. One fact is known, however. A simple six mile march that could have been made in just over two hours had required seven hours for Wallace first to march, and then countermarch, his division across fifteen miles of poor country roads. This undeniable fact would haunt Lew Wallace for the rest of his life.

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