Exam preparation materials

Chapter 9

The Road to Shiloh, April 1862

In This Chapter

bulletAnalyzing the radically different strategic situation

bulletGetting to Shiloh

bulletUsing mass and surprise: The Confederate plan

bulletWitnessing Grant’s close shave

bulletDiscovering the significance of the battle

T he battle of Shiloh is one of the most important battles of the Civil War. Even though it occurred early in the war, the Confederate failure to win had long-term strategic results. The Confederacy never recovered from this loss in the backwoods of Tennessee. All of the Confederacy’s future problems in this theater of war can be traced to the results of Shiloh. In fact, the beginning of the Confederacy’s path to final defeat can first be traced from that awful field in southern Tennessee.

Union forces, led by a man with a less than stellar reputation, Ulysses S. Grant, had driven the Confederate forces into a very difficult situation with his capture of forts Henry and Donelson. Grant himself displayed both brilliance and overconfidence on the road to Shiloh — and came close to losing his entire army.

Dictating a Strategy in the Western Theater

The South found itself in trouble almost immediately in the Western Theater. The Confederate defensive strategy, as dictated by President Davis, was correct in its concept, but fatally flawed in its execution. Ideally, you want to defend all your territory and be strong everywhere, but you cannot execute such a concept if you do not have the forces available. The size and experience of the Confederate armies at this point in the war should have dictated a more conservative strategy. However, President Davis decided that Confederate forces should defend the entire area from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River — a distance of about 500 miles. The problem in doing this was that to cover everything, you have to divide your forces into small groups.

This was what the Confederate Commanding General in the theater, Albert Sidney Johnston (pay attention — this is a different Johnston than the one at Manassas [see Chapter 8]), ended up doing. Johnston was from Kentucky and a graduate of West Point. Johnston and Jefferson Davis were good friends. When the shots were fired at Sumter, Johnston resigned from the U.S. Army and offered his sword to the Confederacy. Davis, remembering his friend, made him a full General (one of only five in the entire Confederate army) and gave him command of 75,000 men in the Western Theater. Johnston was the overall Confederate commander in this theater, an advantage in overseeing the strategic direction of the war. Johnston also had the advantage of interior lines(the ability to move and concentrate forces rapidly than the enemy can because of shorter distances within your own lines), allowing him to concentrate some forces using rail transportation. The railroad provided his army with a line of supply south into Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama, and a line of communication east to Richmond. Unfortunately, the distribution of his troops across the theater (they were scattered everywhere to defend all the major invasion routes) somewhat negated these advantages. As a famous General (actually Frederick the Great, eighteenth century, Prussia) once said, “He who tries to defend everything ends up defending nothing.”

In trying to defend the most vulnerable areas first, Johnston built Fort Henry on the Cumberland River and Fort Donelson on the Tennessee River to control Union access to the Mississippi River and to prevent Union forces from using these rivers as invasion routes into the center of his defenses.

Struggling with Rank: Union Command

Facing the Confederates were two large Union armies; the one under Brigadier General Don Carlos Buell had 45,000 men, and the other, under Henry W. Halleck, had 91,000 men. Halleck was the department commander who oversaw the Western Theater. His headquarters were in St. Louis. Halleck had no authority over Buell. Unlike the Confederate army, which had one General in charge of a theater, the Union army’s highest rank was Major General. Thus, every Major General in a theater had the same rank, leaving no one in overall control. You can imagine what happened when the Generals all got together. The clash of egos must have been truly Homeric. In fact, this violation of the unity of command principle was nearly the Confederacy’s salvation.

Johnston was certainly hoping that his opponents, struggling as they were with who was first among equals, would somehow make a strategic error and give him an opening to attack and defeat any stray Union forces that happened to move South. Just as in the Eastern Theater, these collections of armed men were called armies. In reality, however, they were raw, untrained, ill-disciplined conglomerations of armed civilians.

The Importance of Kentucky

Strategically speaking, Kentucky was of great importance to both sides. Kentucky announced its neutrality in April 1861, although both sides recruited units there. Loyalties were so divided in Kentucky that control of the state became a major strategic objective. It was clear that Confederate control of Kentucky would put the South in position to control the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, threatening critical lines of supply. Kentucky’s rich farmland would support Confederate armies in the field with meat, grain, horses, and mules. But neither side wanted to be the first to violate Kentucky’s neutrality. Whoever did so would probably drive the state into the enemy’s camp.

When Union forces led by Ulysses Grant moved to Cairo, Illinois, as a not- so-subtle threat to Kentucky’s pro-Southern governor in September 1861, a Confederate force under Leonidas Polk invaded Kentucky and seized Columbus. While a sound military move, the invasion was a bonehead political move. The pro-Union state legislature then invited Union troops to drive out the invaders. Grant promptly moved into Paducah, threatening the newly built Confederate forts Henry and Donelson. Union Brigadier General Buell occupied Louisville. Johnston countered with a movement of 12,000 men to Bowling Green.

Attacking the Forts: Grant Teams with the Navy

In February 1862, General-in Chief Henry Halleck overseeing all Union military operations from Washington, ordered General Grant (see Figure 9-1) to attack and capture Fort Henry. Halleck attached Commodore Andrew H. Foote’s flotilla of gunboats and transports to support the attack. Grant and Foote moved rapidly. Foote’s gunboats smashed the poorly constructed fort and Grant captured it with ease. The loss of Fort Henry caused Johnston to abandon his forward base in Kentucky and retreat to Nashville, Tennessee to reinforce Fort Donelson. Hesitant to commit everything, he only sent about half of his available force to Donelson.

Grant’s army now made an overland march of 11 miles to Fort Donelson, while Foote backed out of the Tennessee River and moved around to bombard Donelson on the Cumberland River. Unlike Henry, Donelson was well built and had powerful cannons that swept Foote’s little flotilla off the river. Grant decided to starve the Confederates out. In making this decision, Grant had placed himself in a tricky position — Donelson had plenty of food and ammunition to withstand a long siege. Besides, if Johnston decided to take action, he could use his army from Nashville to trap Grant’s entire force between the fort and the river.

Figure 9-1:Union General Ulysses S. Grant.

Figure 9-1: Union General Ulysses S. Grant.

” Bettmann/CORBIS

Military misfits at Donelson

Luckily for Grant, his opponents were the equivalent of two of the three stooges in charge at Donelson: John B. Floyd and Gideon J. Pillow. Floyd, both an incompetent and coward, commanded the fort. He had been Secretary of War in James Buchanan’s administration, but was a politician and had absolutely no business wearing a uniform, let alone controlling the most critical piece of terrain in the entire western theater. Pillow, another civilian masquerading as a General and more of an incompetent than a coward, was second in command. Simon Bolivar Buckner, a competent professional soldier, was third in command, but had no say in the decisions being made.

Floyd and Pillow snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by scaring themselves into believing that they were trapped. In a panic, they concocted a plan to break out of the fort and join Johnston in Nashville. Their attack actually succeeded, throwing Grant’s army into turmoil, inflicting 2,800 casualties and opening the road to Nashville. But at the critical moment, Floyd lost his nerve and ordered everyone to retreat back into the fort, where he held a meeting with his officers and decided to surrender. One officer, filled with contempt for Floyd and the other weaklings, refused to surrender his men. He was Nathan Bedford Forrest, a volunteer cavalryman with no military experience. He led his men through icy streams that night to escape to safety and have the chance to fight again.

Grant’s terms: “Unconditional surrender”

Floyd and Pillow, declaring themselves too valuable to be captured, abruptly turned over command to Buckner and abandoned the army, crossing the river to safety in small boats. Buckner was left holding the bag. He contacted Grant and asked for surrender terms. Buckner was shocked by Grant’s reply: “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.”

No one had ever heard of unconditional surrender before — there were always terms or conditions attached. Since the rise of professional armies in the seventeenth century, surrender had been an elaborate ritual, with the victor granting the vanquished some measure of dignity. Buckner must have been nonplussed for another reason — Buckner and Grant were friends; when Grant was down on his luck after resigning from the army, Buckner had loaned him money to get him back on his feet. Now Buckner found himself facing a man who cared not for the formalities of war even when it involved a pal to whom he was beholden. Grant had opened a new chapter in the way of war of the United States. With no other choice, Buckner surrendered about 15,000 men, 65 cannons, 20,000 rifles, and about 4,000 horses. All of these were vital resources, most of them irreplaceable. The surrender was a disastrous blow to the Confederacy.


Grant had given the Union its first substantial victory. When word got out about his unique surrender demand, some clever newspaperman attached “Unconditional Surrender” to the initials of Grant’s name. Instead of Ulysses S. Grant, he was now known as “Unconditional Surrender” Grant, and he became the first Union hero of the war. Soon afterward he was promoted to Major General.

The Shiloh Campaign

The fall of forts Henry and Donelson caused an immediate strategic realignment for the Confederacy. Johnston’s army in Nashville was now exposed to attack from two directions. He rapidly moved south, initially to Murfreesboro, Tennessee and then to Corinth, Mississippi, to protect his lines of communication and supply. Buell’s Union army quickly occupied Nashville. A Confederate army would not return to the city until late in 1864. Confederate forces left Columbus, Kentucky just over a week later. Thus by the beginning of March 1862, Johnston, in one fell swoop, had lost western Kentucky and central Tennessee (including Nashville, a critical manufacturing center), along with the control of the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. The Union armies had unmolested access to the upper Mississippi and an open route into the Deep South. Johnston was heavily criticized in the Southern press, and some people loudly demanded his resignation. This was not Johnston’s best day.

Fortunately for Johnston and the Confederacy, Union Brigadier General Henry Halleck was given command of all Union forces in the Western Theater. The 47-year-old Halleck was known as “Old Brains,” because he had written a book on strategy and translated several other similar works. As a commander, Halleck violated every principle he had outlined in the book. A slow, cautious bureaucrat more worried about Washington in his rear than the enemy to his front, he hesitated over and over again to take decisive action and launch an offensive to destroy Johnston’s weak and scattered forces.

Halleck finally decided to concentrate his forces and capture Memphis. He sent Grant’s reinforced army of 42,000 men down the Tennessee River to an area near the Tennessee–Mississippi state line. There he was to wait for Buell’s army of 51,000 men to move 135 miles overland. After they combined, they would move due west to Memphis. Halleck had forgotten what he had written in his strategy book — the objective of a campaign is not a city, but the enemy’s army.

Halleck sent Grant and Buell on an expedition to the backwoods of Tennessee, ignoring entirely the fact that Johnston had a steadily growing army assembling in Corinth, Mississippi, defending a critical rail junction only about 20 miles distant from the place Grant had encamped. It was a convenient spot on the river to tie a boat called Pittsburg Landing, just 2 miles from a little crossroads church called Shiloh.

Grant’s army was heavily laden with new recruits, so a great deal of time was spent on drill and inspections. Security was lax, and no one thought of employing the cavalry to screen and collect information. Worst of all, no defensive works had been constructed--no trenches dug, not even trees or fence rails piled up to provide cover in case of attack To the discerning eye, the terrain around Pittsburg Landing was not favorable to the army if attacked. Grant had placed five divisions in the area; the other division of his army was located 6 miles away. Creeks bounded the camp on the left and right, and a large, deep river bounded its rear. An attacker could trap the army and slaughter it on the riverbanks. Just as he did at Donelson, Grant had put himself in a tricky situation. He was lucky the first time — Johnston did not move against him. This time, Grant’s luck ran out. Johnston was on the way to destroy Grant’s army before Buell could arrive.

Taking the initiative: Johnston’s plan

Polk’s army of 10,000 that had evacuated Columbus reinforced Johnston’s 15,000-man army. General Beauregard, who had arrived from the Eastern Theater, helped to assemble another 15,000 men moved by rail from as far away as Florida. The railroad again served the Confederacy well. By the end of March, Johnston had 40,000 men in Corinth. On April 3, Johnston began his march. Like McDowell’s march to Bull Run, discipline broke down immediately for the Confederates, assisted greatly by a heavy rain that turned the narrow, rutted trails into thick muck. Units got lost in the woods, traffic jams caused long delays, and, to top it off, nervous recruits started shooting at noises in the woods, thinking the Yankees were attacking. It took Johnston three days to move 23 miles.

After arriving at the point of attack, about 2 miles from Shiloh church, Johnston took a day to organize his forces and calm the fears of his subordinates who urged retreat, arguing that the Yankees had to know they were there. To a group of professional soldiers, their fears appeared justified. The unwitting Confederate volunteers had roaring campfires, were making bugle calls and drum rolls, and generally conducting business as if there was not the slightest danger in the world. Yet, even more surprising, the mostly untried Union troops, lulled into a stupor by weeks of camp boredom, and equally ignorant of any possible danger, paid absolutely no attention to what was going on to their front. William T. Sherman, the commander on the scene, bears a great share of blame for this unprepared state — scouts had warned him that the Rebel forces were coming, and Sherman not only didn’t believe them, but scoffed that they were just being frightened by noises in the woods. He still issued no orders for defenses to be built. Johnston won the debate with his subordinates and the order went out to attack at dawn the next day.

On April 6, Johnston’s army began a highly complicated attack. He divided his army into three corps and lined them up one behind the other, creating one giant column. Each corps had its divisions spread out side by side to cover the battlefront. On an open field with trained, disciplined troops where the commanders could see every unit properly arrayed, this plan would have worked great. Unfortunately for the Confederacy, the Shiloh battlefield was a mess of ravines, small farmer’s fields, and thick stands of timber where you often couldn’t see more than 75 yards. On top of the difficult terrain, the Southern soldiers were soldiers in name only.

The plan’s weaknesses and advantages

Two problems arise almost immediately in putting this plan into action: No one can command a 2-to 3-mile-wide battle line. The division and corps commanders essentially lose control after the first shot is fired. Second, the terrain breaks up the neat linear formations quickly. The result: Units get lost or separated easily, and leaders cannot issue orders because they can’t find their troops. All this contributes to one thing: the momentum of the attack is stopped. Other units pushing from behind get caught in the mess and add to the confusion. Now consider what happens in such a situation when the troops have had only the slightest amount of training. The battle of Shiloh, like Manassas, quickly became two armed mobs in the woods and fields fighting desperately for survival.

The Confederates had one advantage that initially, at least, offset this poor plan of battle. They had surprise. An attacker who surprises an enemy force multiplies his combat power tremendously. Union troops awoke that Sunday with nothing to do but look forward to breakfast. Grant was sleeping late, across the river waiting for Buell to arrive. There had been some firing early that morning, but few took much notice. Quite unexpectedly, they found tens of thousands of men with guns crashing through the woods seeking to kill them.

Hardball army politics

Just after Grant’s victory, Halleck waged his own energetic campaign — against his subordinate. He ordered Grant removed from command with a vague charge of disobeying orders. In justifying his actions, Halleck also hinted broadly to Washington that Grant had resumed his old drinking habits again. Halleck’s ultimate reasons are unclear, but it may have been that Halleck believed a ne’er-do-well like Grant didn’t deserve such attention after his victories at forts Henry and Donelson. About a week went by before President Lincoln got wind of this injustice. He ordered Halleck to provide details of the charges against Grant. Halleck suddenly found that the whole situation was just a misunderstanding, and that there really were no charges. Halleck promptly restored Grant to his command and began to cover his own rear with a flurry of paper. Halleck had learned the prime directive of politics: You can only stab in the back those who do not have a powerful patron. Halleck did not realize that Lincoln had taken notice of the tough, resolute fighter.

The Fighting Begins: The Battle of Shiloh

By 6 a.m., the Confederates had charged into the front Union camps. Soon the entire Confederate line was engaged and, by 7:30 a.m., all Confederate forces had been committed, piling by the thousands into the woods and fields. Popular legend has it that they were shooting Yankees as they emerged from their tents in their camps. In actuality, even without orders from above, lower officers could literally hear the Rebels coming and had tried to get men organized to resist Discipline and control broke down quickly on both sides; some Confederates could not resist plundering the Union campsites. Most of the Union troops vanished from their units, fleeing as quickly as they could to the rear and the perceived safety of Pittsburg Landing. Those who stayed and fought were overrun. Both right and left flanks of the shocked Union army collapsed under the onslaught and fell back toward Pittsburg Landing. See Figure 9-2.

Figure 9-2: Map of the battlefield of Shiloh.

Figure 9-2: Map of the battlefield of Shiloh.

Key decisions and events

On both sides, individual leadership played a significant role. Groups of lost and scared soldiers suddenly found a General in their midst, giving orders and restoring their courage. Lacking any ability to coordinate their attacks or support units that had achieved success, Confederate Generals had to lead from the front. Some, such as Patrick Cleburne, became legends; others, such as Braxton Bragg, who petulantly ordered a thousand men to their deaths in ineffective piecemeal attacks, should never have been near troops. In the confusion and terror that seized much of the Union army initially, a small number of generals such as William T. Sherman set a personal example of courage and determination that caused men to stop running and turn and fight. In doing so, the Union army had a chance to save itself.

Grant, arriving on the battlefield and assessing the situation, demonstrated extraordinary personal courage, observing the fight and assessing the situation where the bullets were flying thickest. At the same time, he laboriously formed a new defensive line of badly frightened troops supported by artillery. He also made several critical decisions. He called for reinforcements from his last division located 6 miles away and ordered the advance units of Buell’s army to come with all haste to Pittsburg Landing. The situation was desperate. It was a race against time. Who would arrive at the Landing first — Johnston or Buell?

Johnston’s last battle

Johnston himself realized that he had Grant in a trap. He had only to close it shut. But his forces were scattered, he had no contact with his corps commanders, and the Union defense was stiffening. If he could drive a wedge between the Yankees and the river, he would have a clear shot to Pittsburg Landing. Johnston took personal command of some scattered Confederate units and led an attack on the Union left flank. The attack broke down, and Johnston was wounded, a bullet severing an artery behind his knee. Johnston ignored the wound and continued to rally his troops for another attack. He soon lost consciousness and slumped forward on his saddle. The officers with him were helpless and sadly stood by while he died. Doubtless today anyone with a basic knowledge of first aid could probably have saved Johnston, but given the status of medical knowledge in the nineteenth century, nothing could be done. So one of the highest-ranking officers in the Confederacy and the commander of western forces died on the battlefield.

Critical action at the Hornet’s Nest

General P.G.T. Beauregard took command and pushed forces away from the flank that was now wide open and moved them toward an area where the fighting was heaviest, a heavily wooded area by a sunken road where Union forces stubbornly refused to retreat (called forever after “the Hornet’s Nest”). The Hornet’s Nest was a natural defensive position, and a place where retreating Union troops tended to gather. All in all, about 11,000 men and 38 artillery pieces congregated there, forming a horseshoe. It earned its name from the heavy fire that these Union soldiers were enduring from at attacking Confederate troops. To the Confederates, the noise sounded like swarms of angry hornets. For nearly six hours Union forces endured seven separate infantry assaults and the combined fire of 62 guns — the largest concentration of artillery in North America up to that time. Attacked on three sides and no longer able to retreat, the Yankees surrendered at about 5 p.m. The victory was an empty and costly one. The courage of the Union troops and their commander, General Benjamin Prentiss, defending this critical piece of terrain bought time for Grant to organize his defense. The Hornet’s Nest had fallen, but time, the most crucial and precious element of battle for the Confederates, had been lost.

The Confederates finally focused their efforts on cutting off the Union left flank, nearly four hours after Johnston had last made the attempt. As the assault began in the waning hours of daylight, the long-awaited General Don Carlos Buell’s troops began offloading from steamboats just several hundred yards from the weak Union defensive line.

The Confederates, sensing ultimate victory, made a brave assault, but were thrown back. Just as another, stronger Confederate assault was being organized, orders came from Beauregard to halt the attack and withdraw for the night. Beauregard, miles behind the front, and completely ignorant of the current situation, decided that the army had had enough. Believing he had effectively destroyed Grant’s army, he wanted to reorganize his forces for the final push the next morning. It was the last, and perhaps worst, leadership decision made in a day characterized by bad decisions.

Throughout the night Grant collected his last division, lost in the backwoods for several hours, and did what he could to reconstitute his army. Meanwhile, Buell brought about 15,000 fresh troops to Pittsburg Landing. It rained heavily that night, adding to the misery of the survivors. On top of that, two Union gunboats fired their cannons throughout the night in the general direction of the Confederate army. They did little damage, but succeeded in keeping everyone awake.

Battle Captain’s Report: The Battle of Shiloh (Pittsburg Landing), April 6-7, 1862 Union Victory

bulletCommanders: Union: Major General U.S. Grant, Army of the Tennessee, 40,000 men; Don Carlos Buell, Army of the Ohio, 23,000 men. Confederate: General Albert Sidney Johnston/P.G.T. Beauregard, 40,000 men.

bulletPhase I: Johnston gains surprise and attacks unprepared Union troops in camp around Shiloh church and Pittsburg Land-ing. Massing his forces, he attempts to push the Union army back to the Tennessee River and destroy it. The Union army is shattered, leaving 7,000–10,000 panicked and demoralized soldiers huddled in the rear. As the Union army’s flanks collapse, the center holds at the Hornet’s Nest against repeated attacks. Valuable time is lost reducing this strongpoint. Command and control on both sides fall apart. Johnston, attempting to lead a major attack on the Union left, is wounded and dies on the field about 2:30 p.m.

bulletPhase II: Grant organizes a defensive perimeter around the Landing. At the end of the day, he fights off a final attack by the Confederates with the timely arrival of Buell’s troops. Beauregard, taking command for Johnston, orders a withdrawal, believing Grant is finished. Overnight, Grant’s last division of 7,000 men, commanded by Lew Wallace, arrives; Buell continues to deploy his army on the battlefield. The following day, Grant and Buell attack with fresh forces and retake most of the battlefield after a long day of difficult fighting. Beauregard eventually recognizes he is not facing a beaten army and orders a retreat about 3:30 p.m.

bulletCasualties: Union 13,000, Confederate 10,700.

The second day of Shiloh

The morning of April 7 would find the Confederate army the victim of surprise. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry had discovered that Buell was now on the battlefield. The reports never reached Beauregard, who told no one where he could be found. During the night and early morning, the Confederate army was essentially leaderless. A slow, deliberate Union attack beginning early in the morning appeared to be nothing more than small patrols. But the attack built up momentum, and by the early afternoon, the Confederates discovered they were in a fight as desperate as the day before. Under heavy Union pressure, they were driven back across the fields and woods that they had taken from the Union the day before. By now, the Confederates had had enough. Out of ammunition and exhausted, men began leaving the field on their own. Eventually Beauregard realized what was happening and ordered a retreat. The armies of the North and the South literally stumbled apart from each other — one too tired to run, the other too tired to chase.

Aftermath of the Battle

Both sides declared Shiloh a victory. But no one was celebrating. The battle of Shiloh affected Americans North and South as no event ever had before. A total of 24,000 men — one quarter of the forces involved — had been killed or wounded in less than 48 hours. The losses at the battle of Bull Run, which had shocked most people, now seemed inconsequential in comparison. Shiloh was the bloodiest battle fought in America up to that time. The dead lay so thick on the ground in some places that walking without stepping on bodies was impossible. Besides the Hornet’s Nest, Shiloh also coined names of nondescript places that still reverberate with the shock of battle: Bloody Pond — a place where so many men were killed and wounded that the water turned red; the Peach Orchard — not very descriptive, but a place where the firing was so heavy that the peach blossoms in the orchard were all shot off the trees, as though a fierce wind had passed through. Indeed, it had.

Immediate effects

Concerning the immediate effects, the Union army underwent a quick change of command. Halleck took charge of the united armies, a total of about 120,000 men, and put Grant in his place as second in command. Grant took a heavy bashing for his decisions that led to the battle, because many claimed that he should have entrenched his army. The goal of the army, as Halleck had originally planned, remained Memphis, with capture of Corinth, the important rail center an intermediate objective. After Shiloh, the entire Southwest portion of the Western Theater was open to his army; Beauregard, though reinforced, could not oppose Halleck’s massive force. Halleck’s moment of glory had come. Yet ever the wise bureaucrat, Halleck put his reputation ahead of strategic priorities He moved the army toward Corinth at a glacial pace, entrenching the army at the end of every day’s short march. No one would accuse him of being unprepared as they did Grant. By the time he crept into Corinth, Beauregard was gone. An undefended Memphis would fall shortly thereafter.


The Confederate defeat at Shiloh indirectly allowed Union army and navy forces under John Pope to isolate and capture the last Confederate fort on the upper Mississippi, at a place called Island Number 10. His victory effectively placed all of western Tennessee in Union hands. Shiloh left the Confederates significantly weaker and facing a combined Union army. The vital Kentucky–Tennessee frontier had been lost, and the three strategic waterways into the heart of the Confederacy — the Mississippi, the Tennessee, and the Cumberland — were under Union control.

The long-term effects: The war becomes real

The long-term effects are harder to measure. Perhaps the most important effect was the realization among the people engaged in the war that nobody was giving up easily. Largely untrained and untested in battle, two armies fought continuously (and mostly on their own) for nearly two days. Shiloh revealed the almost superhuman courage and determination of the U.S. and Confederate fighting men that would manifest itself on numerous other battlefields of this war. Nevertheless, Shiloh marked the last opportunity of the Confederacy to hold Tennessee or control western Kentucky. More importantly, the Mississippi Valley was all but lost to confederate control.

Heroes and Goats

The early part of the war was a testing period for many leaders. Most had little practical experience; others had seen combat as junior officers in the Mexican War. Some will rise to the challenges of war, others will not. We see here some rapid winnowing out of those who have the determination and skill to continue in the profession of arms.


Heroes can be real or imaginary. Sometimes soldiers become heroes by accident or by misfortune, their symbolic role as hero more important than their actual deeds. Others are true heroes, marked by deeds that stand out for all time. We see below an interesting mix of these two types of heroes.

bulletAlbert Sidney Johnston: His undeniable courage on the battlefield and tragic death made him the South’s first martyr. The question remains: Was he really as great a commander as everyone in the South initially believed?

bulletPatrick Cleburne: This Irish immigrant who had served as a Corporal in the British army demonstrated extraordinary command presence and inspired great loyalty among his men. His courage at Shiloh propelled him toward higher command.

bulletWilliam T. Sherman: During the first year of the war, Sherman suffered a nervous breakdown when assigned to administrative work and had been relieved of command. Recovering from this setback, Sherman displayed both a gift for strategy and a determination to win that impressed Grant. From this point on, Grant and Sherman became the dynamos of Union victory.

bulletJohn Pope: Bold and brash, he makes the most out of a small opportunity from his capture of a Confederate river fort. Looks like a fighter, makes noises like a hero, and attracts the attention of politicians who promote his name around Washington. He will soon get the chance he is seeking — command of an army.


With expectations of victory so unrealistically high in the early stages of the war, those who failed on the battlefield often came under sharp criticism. For the two officers below, criticism is blunted by presidential intervention. In the North’s case, saving Grant later proved essential to victory. In the case of Bragg, the Confederacy was ill served with his ascension to high command.

bulletBraxton Bragg: Bragg bungles his first attempt at high command, ordering a series of futile frontal attacks against the Union strongpoint at the Hornet’s Nest. In spite of his acerbic personality and tactical ineptitude, Bragg came away from Shiloh as an officer worthy of higher command in the eyes of Jefferson Davis, especially with the death of Johnston. He would soon play a pivotal role in the disasters that would befall the Confederate army in the Western Theater.

bulletUlysses S. Grant: Ravaged in the press, criticized as a drunkard and incompetent, he almost quit the army, but endured humiliation in silence as Halleck enjoyed a bit of revenge by taking his command. Nevertheless, he still had a man in his corner who made all the difference. Lincoln refused to relieve Grant saying, “I can’t spare this man, he fights!”

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