Written by Ned Lodwick, U.S. Grant Homestead Association
Major General U.S. Grant shortly after the Battle of Shiloh
A week after the surrender of Ft. Donelson General Buell’s Union forces captured Nashville, Tennessee and then planned to join forces with Grant and move south to capture the railroad center at Corinth, Mississippi. The two armies would combine at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee then drive south together. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee moved faster than Buell’s Army of the Ohio so Ulysses planned to take the time to train his ever increasing army. Grant now commanded 38,000 troops but nearly half of that number had never “seen the elephant” (been in battle).
The area south of Pittsburg Landing was perfect for a training camp. There were many woods for firewood and streams for water. The Tennessee River was a highway for the steamboats to bring food and supplies to the troops. There were plenty of flat open fields to drill in. It was perfect except it was a poor defensive position with no natural lines of defense running east and west and the Tennessee River was to their backs on the North. None of the commanders, including Grant, worried about that after the relatively easy victories at Ft. Donelson and Nashville. Everyone knew that the Confederates were some twenty five miles to the south at Corinth and the Federals would have to march there before any fighting would take place.
All that would have been true if Washington, Kentucky’s Albert Sydney Johnston had not been the commander of the Confederate forces defending Corinth. His army contained 44,000 men eager to fight the dreaded Yankees. Johnston’s army outnumbered Grant’s army but when Beull arrived the Union force would be far superior in numbers. Johnston, considered by many the finest officer in the Confederate army, knew he could not just sit in his fortifications and wait. He knew that would lead to only one conclusion – defeat. His only option was to attack and to attack before Buell could arrive.
At dawn on Sunday April 6, 1862 the ‘rebel yell’ filled the air and the Confederate army came out of the thick underbrush of southern Tennessee and the Battle of Shiloh had begun. Some Union regiments ran but most of then stood and fought. Ulysses was not on the field when the battle began. He was at his headquarters at Crump’s Landing having breakfast when he heard the unmistakable sound of cannons. Within minutes Grant and his staff were aboard the riverboat, “Tigress” and heading to the sound of the guns. Once Ulysses arrived at the field he was everywhere. He was in direct command of his troops.
The Union lines fell back slowly, then held, and fell back again. Some parts of the line crumbled, some surrendered, and others fought on. Ulysses and his staff rode to the trouble spots. Some of his staff were wounded and one was killed beside the General but Ulysses insisted he needed to see what was going on if the battle was to be won.
By 10 PM the Union line was pushed back to a small pocket near the Tennessee River. Sherman's part of the line had faired the best but when he met with Grant he wanted to find out how the retreat across the river would be accomplished. He found Ulysses standing alone with cigar clinched in his teeth and rain pouring off his slouch hat under a large oak tree. Sherman said, “Well, Grant, we’ve had the Devils own day, haven’t we?” Grant took a long draw on his cigar and replied, “Yes, Lick ‘em tomorrow though.”
Ulysses used a little psychological warfare during that miserable stormy night. Every fifteen minutes he had the gunboat “Tyler” fire one of her big guns into the Confederate lines. The artillery barrage caused few causalities but accomplished two things. First, it kept the Confederates awake and made them wonder if the Union army was really beaten. Secondly, it raised the spirits of the boys in blue each time a shell flew overhead and by morning their moral was better than it was before the battle began.
Beull’s reinforcements arrived throughout the night and at dawn Grant ordered a general attack. The battle went different on the 7th. Now, the Confederates were on the defensive and both outnumbered and outgunned. The Union forces met strong resistance but they were not to be denied. By evening the Federals had recovered all the land they lost and more. The Confederates were in complete disarray and in total retreat.
At the end of the day the Union had won but at a terrible cost. More Americans were killed on those two days than had been killed in all of the wars America had fought in until that time. Ulysses wrote in his memoirs, “Shiloh was the severest battle fought at the West during the war, and but few in the East equaled it for hard, determined fighting. I saw an open field, in our possession on the second day, over which the Confederates had made repeated charges the day before, so covered with deed that it would have been possible to walk across the clearing, in any direction, stepping on bodies, without a foot touching the ground.”
Gen. Grant had been surprised but he had quickly taken personal command and first stabilized his forces then staid off a likely defeat and turned it into a victory. When the people of Brown County heard the news of the battle, they knew their sons, and brothers, and husbands were there, they rang all the church bells in the county for hours. Ulysses had been with them and had done what he could to protect them.