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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Battle of Shiloh



Between 7:30 and 8:00 Brig. Gen. Stephen Hurlbut began receiving urgent messages for help. The long roll sounded and by 8:30 two of his infantry brigades (a third had been dispatched earlier to assist Sherman at 7:40) consisting of Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Kentucky troops, were pushing down the Hamburg-Savannah (or River) road to reinforce Prentiss. Later, Brig. Gen. William H. L. Wallace dispatched Brig. Gen. John McArthur with a portion of his brigade, the 9th and 12th Illinois, who wore rakish Scotchberets, plus the 50th Illinois Infantry (from Col. Thomas Sweeny's brigade), along with Willard's Battery A, 1st Illinois Light Artillery, down the River road after Hurlbut.

Meanwhile, moving south on Hurlbut's right, General Wallace advanced his other two brigades and three artillery batteries down the Eastern Corinth road. Hurlbut's and Wallace's reinforcements encountered Prentiss's refugees streaming northward in retreat. "Stragglers were seen coming down the road which leads to the front of our lines some wounded, but most of them badly scared," observed a Federal. As the roar of battle increased, an officer in the 3rd Iowa shouted that any man seen deserting his post would be shot. The entire regiment gave a resounding cheer.

At 9:00 General Hurlbut, a former Illinois Republican politician known for his hard drinking and somewhat shady land deals, formed his 4,400 men on the southern and western edges of Sarah Bell's old cotton field, located about half a mile north of Prentiss's occupied camps. Col. Jacob Lauman's brigade filed to the right facing west, to form at a right angle with Col. Nelson Williams's brigade on the left, which faced south toward the Hamburg-Purdy road. Three batteries—Myers's 13th Ohio, Mann's 1st Missouri, and Ross's 2nd Michigan—supported the Union line. "Beyond this field for the first time we saw the enemy, with red banners flashing . . . through the abandoned camps of Prentiss," recalled an Iowan.


Captain John Myer's Ohio cannoneers unlimbered their six field guns on the southwestern edge of the Bell field, in front of Lauman's infantry. As they came into position on the north side of Prentiss's camps, Captain Felix Robertson's Alabama Battery, located eight hundred yards to the southwest, zeroed in on Myer's position with their six 12-pounder Napoleon guns. A well-aimed shot struck a Union caisson, resulting in a tremendous explosion. At one impulse Myer's artillery crews abandoned their cannon and fled the field. Wrote a member of the battery: "Well father, I have seen the elephant all over and I do not want to see it again." The company was later disbanded for "disgraceful cowardice."

The Confederates holding Prentiss's camps did not seriously threaten Hurlbut's front. Since two brigades of Brig. Gen. Jones Withers's division had been redirected to the far right, only Col. Daniel Adams's (formerly Gladden's) brigade, weakened by heavy casualties and disorganized by its direct assaults on Prentiss's camps, remained in front of Hurlbut's sector. The Confederates were thus in no position to challenge the Federals and, indeed, suspected they might be attacked. Hurlbut, nonetheless, slightly repositioned his troops, refusing Lauman's left toward the William Manse George cabin located on the northwestern corner of the Bell field, while Col. Isaac Pugh (Colonel Williams had been seriously disabled) retired his brigade north through the Sarah Bell field. Pugh's line now rested in front of a large peach orchard, which was in full bloom on the northern portion of the field. Hurlbut's arrival and temporary stand was significant in plugging a breach in the Union left center. Hurlbut also gave needed time for Prentiss's survivors to regroup to the rear in Hurlbut's camps.


As Grant sat for breakfast at the Cherry home, an orderly reported that artillery fire could be heard upriver. The general suspected that Lew Wallace's division at Crump's Landing might be under attack. The previous afternoon, advance elements of Buell's army, Brig. Gen. William "Bull" Nelson's division, reached Savannah. Grant sent an urgent note to Nelson to move his division upriver along the east bank road to a point opposite Pittsburg Landing, where the few transports available happened to be moored. Nelson was advised that his men would be ferried across the river. After sending word to General Buell of his orders for Nelson to march south, Grant immediately boarded his headquarters steamer the Tigress and proceeded upstream. Reaching Crump's Landing about 8:00, Grant realized the fighting was upriver at Pittsburg Landing and Lew Wallace was not under attack. Grant instructed Wallace to hold his troops in readiness and further orders would be forthcoming once Grant reached Pittsburg Landing and assessed the problem there.

Arriving at Pittsburg Landing sometime between 8:30 and 9:00, Grant found a confused scene. Hundreds of idle soldiers stood huddled in groups around the bluff and landing. To the field officers he found ashore, Grant issued instructions to put the landing area into order. Riding inland a short distance, Grant met with Brig. Gen. William Wallace. Wallace informed Grant the entire encampment was under a full-scale Confederate attack. Grant then sent a messenger by boat for Lew Wallace to bring up his division and wrote additional instructions to General Nelson, advising him to "hurry up your command as fast as possible." Notably calm, Grant also ordered ammunition wagons to head inland before he rode toward the front to oversee his embattled army. Inspecting Sherman's and McClernand's position first, Grant barely escaped serious injury when an artillery fragment deflected off his sword scabbard. Undaunted, he moved on and met with his other division commanders fighting on the Union center and left.



By late morning the initial Confederate drive was beginning to lose momentum. Many Southern soldiers had stopped to plunder captured Federal camps. When General Johnston discovered an officer looting in Prentiss's camps, he chided him: "None of that, sir. We are not here for plunder." Observing that he had shamed the man in front of his men, the general softened his tone and, picking up a tin cup, quipped: "Let this be my share of the spoils today."

Serious tactical problems had also developed for the Confederates. Since the capture of Prentiss's camp, the initial sweeping right flank movement had degenerated into a series of massive frontal assaults. Hundreds of men had been killed and wounded in the opening assaults on Prentiss and Sherman, and attrition was already a serious Confederate problem.

Serious tactical problems had also developed for the Confederates. Since the capture of Prentiss's camp, the initial sweeping right flank movement had degenerated into a series of massive frontal assaults. Hundreds of men had been killed and wounded in the opening assaults on Prentiss and Sherman, and attrition was already a serious Confederate problem. The organization of several brigades had been broken; Patrick Cleburne's and Bushrod Johnson's brigades were shattered in furious disorganized frontal attacks against the Union right defending the main Corinth road.

At this point in the battle, Albert Sidney Johnston directed five of the eight brigades he had moved into Prentiss's camp to advance northwest and attack a second line of Union camps behind Shiloh Church, visible to the left rear of Prentiss's camp. This mass movement was intended to cut off the retreat of thousands of Federal soldiers resisting the advance of the Confederate left on the Corinth road. Johnston may have assumed he had already turned the Union left flank and was now free to begin the task of forcing the Union army back into Owl Creek.

Another urgent problem developed for Johnston on the Confederate right. Capt. Samuel H. Lockett, an engineer on Bragg's staff, sent a message to Johnston that a Federal division camped north of the mouth of Lick Creek threatened to overlap, or turn, the right flank of the Southern line. In response, Johnston instructed both General Chalmers's and Brig. Gen. John K. Jackson's brigades, of Brig. Gen. Jones Withers's division, along with two remaining brigades of General Breckinridge's Reserve Corps, to redeploy to the right and attack the new Union threat. The enemy "division" which Lockett reported was actually only an isolated brigade. By committing the reserve to that vicinity, Johnston now advanced a third of his army directly against the true Union left. His master plan of a right flank sweep might still be achieved.


Before noon, Breckinridge's troops, along with Jackson's brigade, slammed head-on into Hurlbut's division and McArthur's brigade at the Bell farm. This left only Chalmers's Mississippi and Tennessee brigade, along with Col. James Clanton's 1st Alabama Cavalry, to attempt a sweep around the true Federal left flank deployed on a commanding ridge north of the confluence of Locust Grove Branch and Lick Creek.

Commanding the isolated Federal brigade Captain Lockett had earlier observed was forty-six-year-old former Chicago lawyer Col. David Stuart. Assigned to Sherman's division, Stuart's brigade of three regiments had been posted by General Sherman to guard the Hamburg road ford over Lick Creek. The 55th Illinois Infantry, the extreme left of Grant's army, had pitched their tents in Larkin Bell's peach orchard. To Stuart's right, Hurlbut's division deployed slightly northwest at Sarah Bell's farm, several hundred yards away.

About 11:00 Stuart's infantry, unsupported by artillery, received the full brunt of Chalmers's and Jackson's attacks. As a result of the initial Confederate artillery bombardment, Stuart lost all contact with one of his regiments, which retreated several hundred yards northward to a new defensive position behind the camp. Heavily outnumbered, Stuart was forced to retire his remaining men several hundred yards to a prominent wooded ridge located east of his camp. There, under the cover of the trees, he pieced together a stable defense, with his two shorthanded regiments. For two hours this small force of 1,200 men stubbornly contested Chalmers's further advance north.

Finally, having suffered heavy casualties and with their ammunition exhausted, Stuart ordered his hard-pressed soldiers from the line. Moving northwest through several deep ravines, Stuart's men retreated to the River road behind Hurlbut's and McArthur's men, who now assumed full responsibility for holding the Union left. Reaching the road, Stuart marched his survivors to the landing, where he obtained ammunition for their depleted cartridge boxes. Each side produced many heroes that bloody day at Shiloh. Col. David Stuart, fighting a prewar reputation as a scoundrel, would be one of them. With Stuart driven from his position anchoring Grant's left to the river, north of Lick Creek, Clanton's Alabama Cavalry reached the bank of the Tennessee River. There they watered their horses, thus fulfilling General Johnston's morning prophecy.

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Their corps organization lost, Confederate leaders divide the three-mile front into sectors to reestablish lines of authority. On the left, Hardee, Polk, and Bragg hurl a massive assault on Sherman and McClernand, reinforced by Veatch (Hurtbut's division). The Federals retreat (11 A. M.) to Jones field. On the Confederate right, Chalmers and Jackson attack Stuart and McArthur (William Wallace's division). The Federals hold, but Stuart is cut off at noon. Johnston advances Breckinridge (Bowen, Slatham) against Hurlbut and McArthur. The Southern attacks are repulsed. Sherman and McClernand counter-attack at noon. Beauregard reorganizes around his reserve, Trabue, and halts the Union advance at Wool field. In close-quarter fighting, the combatants grapple for McClernand's camps until 2:30, when their ranks depleted—Sherman and McClernand retire across Tilghman Branch. In attacks against Grant's left, Albert Sidney Johnston is mortally wounded. Command passes to Beauregard. Stuart retreats, forcing Hurlbut and McArthur to retire beyond the Bloody Pond. The Confederate right, now under Bragg, continues to press Grant's left. At 4 P.M. Chalmers turns the Union left and Hurlbut retreats to Pittsburg Landing.

Reinforcements under William Wallace and Hurlbut encounter Prentiss's division at 9 A.M. Wallace's brigades (Sweeny, Tuttle) along with two regiments of Lauman (Hurlbut's division) deploy behind an oak thicket along an old wagon trace "sunken road." Prentiss reforms between Wallace and Lauman, and five regiments are held in reserve. From 11 A.M. to 4 P.M., Confederate brigades charge into the dense underbrush. Each assault is shattered by a "murderous storm" of Federal musketry and artillery. Confederate survivors label the position "a hornets' nest." The Federal reserve is detached to Hurlbut (left) and McClernand (right). In the late afternoon, the Confederates concentrate artillery (Ruggles' Battery) against the position. By 4:30, cannon from eleven batteries bombard the thicket, while Southern infantry maneuvers around the Union stronghold.

The rugged terrain across the battlefield, combined with pockets of stiff Federal resistance, continued to stall the Confederate advance. Since the Confederate corps had become badly intermingled, the corps commanders were forced to divide the wide three-mile front into four sections—Hardee held the left; Polk, the left center; and Bragg the right center. Behind them, Beauregard continued to monitor the battle from his field headquarters on the Corinth road south of Shiloh Church. Meanwhile, Breckinridge had moved to the right of the line where Sidney Johnston provided overall leadership.

Since early morning, Johnston's presence on the front had inspired Southern troops, but by attempting to give direction to individual units on this flank, he lost overall coordination and control of his army. Since 10 A.M., over half of the eleven Southern brigades available on the field had been maneuvered into line on the Confederate left, west of the Eastern Corinth road. On that front, the commingled organizations falling under Hardee, Polk, and Bragg, headed a massive frontal assault across the Hamburg-Purdy road north of Shiloh Church, attacking the Union right defended by forces under Sherman and McClernand. From left to right the Confederate attack was formed using the somewhat disorganized brigades of Cleburne, Anderson, Johnson, and Russell on the left, joined by A. P. Stewart, Wood, and Shaver on the right. In support of this attack were the brigades of Pond (occupying McDowell's camp on the far left), Robert Trabue (behind Anderson), Randall Gibson (behind Shaver), and William Stephens (behind Shaver's left). The line extended from Owl Creek on the left to the Eastern Corinth road on the right, a distance of one and a half miles.

Between 11.00 and 11:30, in close-quarter hand-to-hand fighting, the massive assault by the Confederate left overran the Union right, inflicting horrendous Federal casualties . . .

Between 11:00 and 11:30, in close quarter, hand-to-hand fighting, the massive assault by the Confederate left overran the Union right, inflicting horrendous Federal casualties, and capturing seventeen cannon along with most of McClernand's camp. "The enemy were seen approaching in large force and fine style, column after column moving on us with a most terrible precision," stated Col. C. Carroll Marsh, commanding McClernand's center brigade. Marsh added that the Confederates "opened on us with a most terrible and deadly fire, unequaled by any which we were under during the subsequent engagements . . . . During the first five minutes I lost more in killed and wounded than in all other actions." The Union line retreated 1,500 yards north into Jones field, where Generals Sherman and McClernand worked frantically to reform their shattered ranks.

Rallying their ravaged forces in Jones field, McClernand and Sherman managed to secure much needed fresh soldiers. Sherman located McDowell's missing brigade in Sowell field to the west and quickly advanced his Illinois-Iowa-Ohio brigade south against the Confederate left. On Sherman's left, General McClernand's battered division, now reinforced by two Iowa regiments sent forward from the landing by Grant, also advanced. At noon, a united counter-charge by the Union right rolled across the rugged terrain moving south toward Woolf field, where the Federals captured the guns of Cobb's Kentucky Battery. General McClernand stated that his men drove "the enemy . . . for half a mile with great slaughter over the ground occupied by my artillery and a portion of my infantry camps. Within a radius of 200 yards of my headquarters the ground was almost literally covered with dead bodies." Caught off-guard, the Confederates were pressed back to the Hamburg-Purdy road. Alarmed by this new threat, Beauregard located Col. Robert Trabue's brigade, the only fresh brigade left in the army, and advanced it against the Union right to stem further advance. Meanwhile, along with Hardee and Polk, Beauregard worked to reorganize the disorganized and commingled forces on the Confederate left to regain the initiative from the determined Federals.



For nearly two hours the tide of battle rolled back and forth, first one side gaining ground, then losing it back to the enemy. Thousands fell on both sides.

"The combat here was a severe one, remarked Colonel Trabue, "and lasted an hour and a quarter . . . . The enemy appeared to out-number us greatly . . . . I was reluctant to charge . . . as he was in the woods . . . with some advantage of position." Trabue stated that his men killed and wounded 400 to 500 of the enemy but at the price of losing many men and several officers himself. For nearly two hours the tide of battle rolled back and forth, first one side gaining ground, then losing it back to the enemy. Thousands fell on both sides. By 2:30, however, the Federals had once again been pressed back north into Jones field.

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