by Doug Smock
On Wednesday, May 12, I escaped my 15-month pandemic-imposed confinement in Weymouth, Massachusetts, and arrived in Tennessee for an introductory evening talk by Greg Mertz, a recently retired National Park Service historian. He distributed three-ring binders full of battle information, including maps, mostly made by Civil War cartographer Hal Jespersen, who was on the tour. There were three BGES board members in the 11-person cohort, including Dr. Bill McKinnon. Everyone was vaccinated, but our temperatures were taken each morning out of an abundance of caution.
Greg set the stage. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant resumes command in mid-March 1862 of an army split into three groups, with the main force at Pittsburg Landing, a steamboat stop at the bottom of an 80-foot bluff on the Tennessee River. The Confederates are concentrated at a critical rail junction in Corinth, Mississippi, 22 miles to the southwest and led by Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston.
Shiloh is special. For one, the field is in a rural area of southwestern Tennessee. There are no Dairy Queens or encroaching subdivisions. It’s also a study in how large armed masses of men react to chaos. Both sides are mostly green. Most will “see the elephant” for the first time. The Northerners are surprised. They are not in battle formation and have to re-form several times. The Southern battle plan evaporates almost from the first bugle blow. Lost units are told to move toward the sound of battle. Officers are soon commanding total strangers.
The battle is fought in two days, but we spent three on our tour. The massive field requires two days to visit key engagements of April 6, 1862.
We spent the night at the comfortable lodge at Pickwick Landing State Park, just upriver from Pittsburg Landing.
Day One: May 13, 2021
After morning stops at the National Park Service Shiloh Museum, the national cemetery, and Pittsburg Landing, we headed south. Greg established the Confederate attack formation: corps on-line in column 2 miles deep on the Corinth Road. The Confederates enjoy a (roughly) 45,000 to 40,000 (on-field) advantage as the battle unfolds. Despite a rain-slowed march, the Confederates amazingly achieve a surprise attack, overrunning Northern skirmishers. But Gen. William T. Sherman quickly forms a line, while rapidly advancing Confederate troops become disorganized. Fratricide becomes a significant problem.
It’s easy to say today that Sherman should have entrenched, but he did position his troops on defensible ground and compensates with toughness that would become his hallmark. His first major stand is a ridgeline near the Shiloh Church. Confederate troops are impeded by difficult terrain. Sherman’s next line is near the crossroads of the Corinth Road with the Hamburg-Purdy Road, about one-quarter mile to the rear of the ridgeline. The field, of course, is different today. There are many more trees. Critical streams described in the battle reports remain.
Greg Mertz squarely blamed the second in command for the Confederate opening chaos. “Beauregard, entrusted with executing Johnston’s plan, either did not understand or ignored Johnston’s desired battle formation,” he said. “The Confederate corps were stacked up one behind the other rather than side by side. Corps commanders found it impossible to command and control their troops, with portions of their corps spread out across the entire battlefront.”
Our first day ended at 5 p.m. There was an area electricity outage when we returned to the hotel, so I headed up to Crump’s Landing to see if anyone had sighted Gen. Lew Wallace (of Ben Hur fame), whose 5,800 troops are MIA due to miscommunications, muddy roads, and poor leadership. But in all truth, they are caught badly out of position because the battle changed so rapidly. Orders were either vaguely written, misunderstood, or not followed. We’ll never know. Grant was highly critical of Wallace in his after-action report, but years later softened, allowing that Wallace was largely a victim of circumstances. I couldn’t find Wallace and headed back.
Day Two: May 14, 2021
We started at “The Crossroads,” where Sherman and Gen. John McClernand mount a counterattack. The action shifts eastward to the Hornets’ Nest, which is iconic to Shiloh. Mertz reported that an estimated 10,000 Southern troops make eight infantry attacks against the Hornets’ Nest, losing about 2,400 soldiers, or 24% of their total losses. Union forces hold until their flanks collapse. Some 2,200 are captured at 5:30 p.m. on April 6 at a site called Hell’s Hollow. It’s as far as the Confederates will advance.
One of the many myths of Shiloh, we were told, is the so-called “sunken road,” where Union troops form a line. That term is not mentioned in any battle reports. A wagon trace did exist (and still does). We could see that the road was a marker of the Union line as we walked the site, but was nothing like the Sunken Road at Antietam or Fredericksburg.
We visited the site of Johnston’s death from a leg wound that could have been staunched easily with a tourniquet. His successor, Beauregard, later is faulted by Lost Cause writers for not pressing the attack harder before Federal reinforcements arrive. The Confederates also fail to accomplish another key goal of Johnston’s: sealing the Federal line from the river to block reinforcements.
The Federals are pushed back to a line of battle extending west from Pittsburg Landing. It’s called “Grant’s Last Line” and sits on heights commanding swollen creeks. Federal firepower includes howitzers and heavy cannon originally intended for the siege of Corinth, as well as two gunboats pounding the plateau from the river. For one artillery unit, it was its sixth position of the day. Confederate units, running low on ammunition, energy, and daylight, attack until about 8 p.m. and are blown back. A few Federals, expecting a night attack, dig modest breastworks. Grant is urged by several staff to regroup on the other side of the Tennessee River. Beauregard telegraphs Richmond of a huge Confederate victory. But Grant is not done. ‘“Not beaten yet by a damn sight,” he famously mutters.
Day Three: May 15, 2021
Books (and some tours) invariably give short shrift to the second day of the battle. The Federals counterattack, the Confederates retreat. Boom. It is over. We were going to study the second day. First of all, Lew Wallace is finally here (5,800), holding the Union right flank. Gen. Don Carlos Buell’s newly arrived men in the Army of the Ohio (about 13,000) file into the left flank, near the river. What’s left of the Federals from Day One (an estimated 20,000) are in between, commanded by Sherman and McClernand. Nothing fancy in Grant’s plan of attack: hammer the Rebels (now at an estimated strength of 28,000) from their left to right. Beauregard had pulled most of his troops back to the original Federal encampments, so the initial Union push is weakly opposed. The battle is fought in reverse. Streams and thickets that impeded the Rebel advance now impede the Yanks. Lew Wallace twice outflanks the Confederate line, forcing backward movement.
We have a great discussion about what Beauregard should have done differently. Attack, but where and when? At a salient? On the far flank before Wallace’s troops take position? All along the line after nightfall? Some in our cohort advocated a strong defensive posture behind Dill Creek; others a complete and immediate retreat. We had the benefit of hindsight and more data than Beauregard had. And we didn’t reach any consensus.
The Pennsylvania monument honors troops who had trained in Allegheny City (now part of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). They were the only Eastern troops in theater. The 77th Regiment had arrived at Pittsburg Landing at 7 a.m. on April 7 and was hurried to the line. The monument is located near the site where they captured a Confederate battery and officer. We ended our tour at Fallen Timbers, where Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s heroics effectively ended the Federal efforts to pursue the defeated, retreating Confederates.
Total reported killed and wounded were almost identical for each side: 9,740 for the Confederates and 10,162 for the Union.
I had planned the trip with reservations about Covid, but felt comfortable with the BGES safety plan. The CDC lifted mask mandates for vaccinated people while we were there and we functioned normally. Then there was a gas shortage in the Southeast, and the local electricity crashed on the second day. But the weather was great, Burford Smith was a gracious host, and Greg Mertz did tremendous preparation and presented with enthusiasm. Sometimes—like Johnston at Shiloh—you just have to follow your gut and jump in.