- 05 Apr 2020 15:05
April 6, Sunday
After the heavy rains over Shiloh Church and Pittsburg Landing which have proven so disastrous to the Confederate plan of attack, the day of battle dawns bright and clear. Colonel Everett Peabody, commanding a brigade in General Prentiss’ division, has been warned by Major James E. Powell, one of his regimental commanders, that there is a great sprawl of Confederate campfires beyond the Federal picket lines. At 3 am he sent out Powell with 300 men for a reconnaissance. Now as dawn arrives they are a half mile from camp on the edge of a broad farm field where they run into the advance guard of Wood’s brigade, Hardee’s corps. The Confederate skirmishers fire and fall back. The Federals answer with a volley and move forward until they see a long line of Confederate troops kneeling on bushy high ground just ahead. Powell settles down to fight, and the battle is joined. Hearing heavy firing, Peabody sends up reinforcements. By the time they reach the front the whole Confederate line is moving, thousands upon thousands of men, and the Federals are falling back, sounding the alarm. The long drum roll thunders in Peabody’s camp, calling the men to grab their weapons and form a line of battle.
As the sound of the firing reaches General Sidney Johnston’s temporary headquarters on the Pittsburg-Corinth Road behind the Confederate lines, General Beauregard is again arguing for abandoning the battle. Johnston cocks an ear to the guns and says, “The battle has opened, gentlemen; it is too late to change our dispositions now.” He tells Beauregard to stay in the rear and direct men and supplies as needed, while he rides to the front to lead the men in the battlefield. In doing so, Johnston relinquishes control of the battle to Beauregard. It is a confusing move, made more so by the fact that the two have no unified battle plan. Johnston had telegraphed President Davis with a plan of a thrust on the right to prevent the Federal army from reaching the Tennessee River to escape by water, then wheeling west to pin the enemy against Owl Creek and forcing a surrender there. But Beauregard simply wants to attack in three waves—first Hardee’s corps, then Bragg’s, then Polk’s, with Breckinridge’s in reserve—and push the Federal army straight eastward into the Tennessee. And Johnston has never pressed his subordinate to do otherwise.
As the battle erupts at dawn, Colonel Appler, who the previous day had sent the report of shots fired to General Sherman only to be blown off, listens, full of uncertainty. The pickets come in, certain that the Confederates are advancing. Then a soldier with a bloody arm comes by bawling for everyone to get into line. Appler deploys his men and sends word to Sherman. This time the messenger returns and whispers Sherman’s response: “You must be badly scared over there.” Then hundreds of Confederates appear, moving on Appler’s right flank. Appler leads a wild retreat through his camp up to a ridge beyond, where they sprawl down on the brush-covered crest. Just then Sherman rides up with his orderly. He thinks the enemy advance is only a reconnaissance in force, but he has to admit that it’s real. At that moment Confederate skirmishers pop out of the brush only fifty yards away and open fire. Sherman’s orderly is killed instantly, and buckshot hits Sherman’s hand. He shouts for Appler to hold his position, that Sherman will support him, then gallops off. The attacking Confederates are led by Brigadier General Patrick Cleburne, an Irish immigrant who had served as a British soldier. On their approach they had encountered a sharp ravine, a swampy morass of mud, tangled vines, saplings, and dense undergrowth, and lost four regiments; but the remaining two regiments charge only to be blown back down the hill and one regiment breaks. The other reforms its battle line and charges again and is destroyed, only 60 men of the original 360 able to form up to continue the battle. But they rout the 53 Ohio—Colonel Appler’s nerve snaps and he runs for the rear with most of his men following. Still, the hastily organized Federal line refuses to collapse completely, with Sherman on the right and Prentiss on the left managing to cling desperately to their ground as behind them Union forces form battle lines to stem the Rebel tide. By 8 am it is clear to the Confederates that Hardee’s line will not break through as expected, and Bragg begins to move the second Confederate wave forward to press the attack.
Grant is at breakfast in his headquarters at Savannah when he first hears the sound of distant cannon. He limps onto the porch to listen (he sprained his ankle the previous day, when his horse fell in the mud) then immediately heads for his headquarters steamboat. As the vessel gets up steam, he dispatched two brief notes calling for reinforcements, one to Buell and the other to the commander of the first of Buell’s divisions that had arrived at Savannah yesterday. On the way to his main camp, Grant pauses at Crump’s Landing to tell Lew Wallace to get his men ready to move. At about 9 am, Grant gets his horse ashore and rides toward the front. As he reaches the battle, Prentiss’ line is on the verge of collapse. His men have been pushed back to their camp, where they hold briefly before breaking and scattering. Fresh Federal troops moving up encounter the panicked troops clogging the road and officers try to rally them, to no avail. Nothing can stop the flight to Pittsburg Landing; the number of men hiding at the river’s edge will grow all day, rising into the thousands. Meanwhile Sherman’s regiments are still giving ground. Sherman, watching the battle and sending orders up and down his line, seems to get calmer as the day progresses even though four horses are killed under him. He asks Grant for any men that can be spared, but if there aren’t any he will do the best he can. He does receive several brigades, McClernand plugging the gap between Sherman and Prentiss, but the Confederates continue their assault and finally, near 10 am, his left wing gone and both flanks being turned, Sherman gives the order to fall back.
As Prentiss’ front dissolved, the Confederates took a break. Some of the soldiers hadn’t eaten in 24 hours and they stopped to wolf down the breakfasts left on the fires in Prentiss’ camp. Other soldiers began looting. Johnston rides into camp and gets them moving again, but the interlude proves a blessing for Prentiss, giving him time to regroup and reform on an old wagon road about a mile behind his original position. The road is sunken slightly from use, and is on high ground, fringed with concealing brush and a split-rail fence, commanding a huge open field on which attacking troops will be fully exposed. More brigades fall in on Prentiss’ right and left, linking him with Sherman. At 10:30 the Federal line is formed again.
Beauregard has moved his headquarters up to Shiloh Church and is using Sherman’s tent. He has staff officers roving the battlefield and reporting back on where reinforcements are needed. His adjutant circulates about the field, giving orders in the name of Beauregard or Johnston. He found troops repeatedly halted for lack of orders, and usually sent them off toward the heaviest fighting, a military axiom much favored by Beauregard. The three Confederate assault lines are now spread across the whole battlefield and inextricably intermingled on Shiloh’s rough and broken ground. The crushing avalanche that Beauregard had envisioned is deteriorating into raging little fights, with men lost and often finding themselves fighting in strange units under commanders they don’t know.
Time is wasting for the Confederates. The Federal line along the Sunken Road is growing stronger by the minute. Colonel Marmaduke tested it at 9 am with 500 men and never made it through the open field to its front. General Johnston is ready to launch a mass attack with two brigades when he receives a garbled report of an enemy division poised to strike the Confederate right flank. It isn’t a division, only a single understrength brigade that has been fighting to hold the extreme left all morning, but Johnston diverts his two brigades to deal with the apparent threat and orders up part of Breckinridge’s reserve. This results in an hour’s delay, that both sides use to bring up artillery and blast each other’s battle line. The cannon fire catches the attention of Beauregard’s adjutant, still finding troops to send into battle, and he orders a single small brigade to assault the sunken road. Incredibly, the brigade actually makes it within ten yards of the Union line before the remnants break and run. Stumbling out of that hell, a Confederate soldier gasps, “It’s a hornet’s nest in there.” The name will stick.
All along the line, Confederate troops are being wasted in piecemeal attacks, usually without artillery support. No one bothers to mass troops for attacks along the whole line. Through the afternoon more than 17,000 Confederate troops are thrown against the Hornet’s Nest, but never do more than 3,700 attack at once against anywhere from 4,000 to 5,000 Federal troops manning the position. At the heart of the costly Confederate failure is the lack of an overall commander. Sidney Johnston and his corps commanders are functioning as small-unit commanders. Some units spend more time marching than fighting as one order after another is countermanded by different generals.
Johnston’s attention has focused on a peach orchard just to the right of the Hornet’s Nest, the rear of the orchard on the Sunken Road. He orders a charge into the orchard, but trouble soon develops when an angry Breckinridge reports that an entire brigade refuses to make the charge. Johnston gallops over to the defiant soldiers and rallies them to follow him in a wild charge that sends the Federal troops tumbling back out of the orchard to the safety of the Sunken Road. But during the charge Johnston takes a leg wound. The wound appears minor, but the bullet actually has nicked an artery. This isn’t necessarily a fatal wound—Johnston even has a field tourniquet in his pocket, but no one on his staff knows how to use it and don’t believe that the leg wound is the trouble anyway though they can’t find another wound. So General Sidney Johnston, the most respected general in the Confederacy and President Davis’s trusted friend, is soon dead.
Beauregard wastes no time mourning Johnston’s death, immediately assuming command and orders that Johnston’s body be shrouded for secrecy and that the bad news be suppressed to avoid demoralizing the troops. Unfortunately, he makes the mistake of turning his full attention to the troublesome Hornet’s Nest. On both sides of the Hornet’s Nest, the Federal line is sagging back toward the Tennessee River. Beauregard might have hurled the bulk of his forces against those crumbling flanks and driven on the Pittsburg Landing, meanwhile containing the Hornet’s Nest for later reduction. Instead, he seems to be obsessed by the idea of smashing the Federal center. Brigadier General Daniel Ruggles, the white-bearded commander of Bragg’s first division, has seen eleven or twelve full-scale assaults, all of them bloody failures, and now he begins calling in cannon. Within an hour he has 62 guns facing the Sunken Road, and the largest concentration of artillery yet assembled in an American war opens up at about 4 pm. The cannonading goes on for half an hour, and the Federals welcome the start of a new infantry charge because it signals the end of the bombardment.
But now they face the enemy alone. The Federals’ situation is even worse elsewhere on the field. On their right, Sherman and McClernand are fighting a desperate withdrawal toward Pittsburg Landing. And on their left, there are no troops at all; the Confederate forces have a clear path all the way to the Tennessee River and the vulnerable Federal rear. There Sidney Johnston’s plan of attack comes within an ace of succeeding, though more by accident than design. General John Breckinridge, whose reserve corps has taken the peach orchard while Johnston lies dying, has joined an attack on his extreme right against Colonel David Stuart’s isolated and understrength brigade. By mid-afternoon Stuart’s men have used up all the cartridges they can strip from the dead and wounded and have to fall back. They plunge into a steep gorge 100 feet deep, and at the bottom are caught in a crossfire from the mouth of the gorge and the cliff. Stuart leads his men out of the crossfire in the gorge and forms a new line around Pittsburg Landing. His two regiments are ruined, and those men still on their feet have an average of only two cartridges each. Stuart himself is wounded and leaves the field seeking medical help. The Federal left lies wide open for the Confederate drive that Johnston had envisioned. But it doesn’t come. The Confederates, exhausted and disorganized, take the time to regroup then move to the left, toward the Hornet’s Nest where the sound of firing is heaviest.
The end is coming for the defenders in the Hornet’s Nest. The Federal withdrawal on the left and right has exposed their flanks, and Confederate attacks coming from both sides now as well as the front hammers their flanks backward until their battle line has the shape of a horseshoe. Regiments in the Hornet’s Nest are breaking up and pulling out of the open end behind them. Finally, withdrawing troops find their way blocked—Confederate troops have entirely surrounded the position. One brigade attempts to break out, but only two of the four regiments manage it to form a new line blocking the Confederate attack. Left behind are only 2,200 men, and General Prentiss finally raises the white flag. Even then, there are men in his ranks that refuse to surrender with some Federals smashing their rifles against trees to deny them to the enemy before being shot down by infuriated Confederates. The last of the defenders are captured by 6 pm.
Through the long, dismal afternoon, while the defenders of the Hornet’s Nest hold the Confederate army at bay, the rest of Grant’s army have been falling back on Pittsburg Landing. Some units withdraw slowly and in order, defending themselves stubbornly and making the Confederates pay for pressing them. Some of Grant’s units crumple, break, and retreat in incoherent streams, although Grant will be able to report, “With the single exception of a few minutes after the capture of Prentiss, a continuous and unbroken line was maintained all day.” He organizes a straggler net in an effort to stop fugitives and assign them to regiments that are still intact. With all the units he can muster, Grant slowly builds a new defense line. The line runs inland at a right angle from the river above Pittsburg Landing northwestward toward Owl Creek, about three miles long and very strong. Cannon are grouped at the left of the line, where the weight of the Confederate attack is expected. On the right, Grant posts the remnants of Sherman’s and McClernand’s divisions to protect a road that runs northward parallel to the Tennessee River; Lew Wallace’s division is expected to come marching down it, 6,000 men fresh and ready to save the day. But Grant waits for hours with mounting impatience and concern. Wallace is delayed by a mix-up over orders and a long march down the wrong road. His division doesn’t finally march onto the battlefield and take position at the far right of the new line until 7 pm.
By then the first of Buell’s brigades has arrived on a march by way of Nashville and Savannah, Tennessee and now crosses the river, makes its way through the thousands of half-crazed soldiers that have evaded Grant’s straggler net, and up the 100-foot bluff to further reinforce Grant’s line. One Kentucky brigade passes General Sherman as they move up. They know Sherman well and have no love for him, having suffered under his rigid discipline while he was having his nervous breakdown as commander at Louisville. But this is a different Sherman, his face blackened with gunpowder, his hat brim ripped away by shrapnel, a bloody bandage on his wounded hand, and the Kentuckians raise their hats on their bayonets and give him a lusty cheer. It is the first public display of approval that Sherman has received in a year, and he is deeply touched.
By dusk, it is clear to every man on Grant’s new line that reinforcements have arrived and cheer after cheer resound down the line. The exhausted soldiers, who expect a final crushing Confederate attack at any moment, see their salvation in the arrival of Buell’s men. But the tide has already turned in their favor. The Confederates are not pressing the attack, and the longer they wait the stronger Grant’s line becomes. There are several reasons the Confederates have slacked off. After the Hornet’s Nest collapses about an hour is spent rounding up the prisoners and herding them to the rear; word of the capture spreads and many believe that the prisoners are the bulk of the Federal army and thousands leave their positions to see the ‘captured Yanks’. As well, Confederate soldiers have been fighting for nearly twelve hours on empty stomachs—indeed, most of them haven’t eaten since early yesterday—and now thousands settle down at cook fires or go rummaging through Federal tents. Most of all, the Confederates are exhausted. They feel they have won a resounding victory, and the feverish excitement that has brought them this far evaporates and leaves them drained.
Sensing that victory might be slipping out of their grasp, the Confederate commanders rouse their troops and prod them to make a last drive to capture Pittsburg Landing in the hour or so of daylight left. Fresh troops at this juncture might have made all the difference for the Confederates—but Sidney Johnston committed Breckinridge’s reserve corps in bits and pieces well before noon. There are no fresh troops available. Slowly the exhausted Confederate units flog themselves back into the battle. On their left they peck away at Sherman’s and McClernand’s remnants with almost no effect. On their right Bragg manages to muster two weakened brigades to face the massed Federal cannon across a marshy tributary flooded with backwater from the river. As well, two Federal gunboats are lobbing heavy shells far inland; most of the rounds pass by overhead, but the shattering explosions in the rear intimidate many of the Confederates. Bragg exhorts his two brigades to a last great effort and they plunge into Dill’s Branch, wade the cold water and clamber up the steep ravine on the fare side. There the steady, accurate fire of the Federal artillery cuts them to pieces, and they shelter themselves against the precipitous sides of the ravine. Then Beauregard’s aide gallops up to Bragg with an order to retire: “The general directs that the pursuit be stopped; the victory is sufficiently complete; it is needless to expose our men to the fire of the gunboats.” Later it will be said that the Confederates are on the verge of total victory when the withdrawal order ruins their chances. In fact, the offensive has already ground to a halt before Beauregard orders the withdrawal, and the Confederates stand no chance of cracking a compressed Federal line powerfully reinforced by thousands upon thousands of Buell’s fresh troops.
Now darkness falls and a terrible night begins. The Federal troops have left their wounded behind with their dead on the ground they lost, and neither army has any organized system of litter-bearers or medical teams to seek out and treat wounded men. So most of the wounded lie there, alone and unable to move, burning with the awful thirst that follows gunshot trauma. Then about 10 pm a cold drizzle begins and by midnight it is a downpour, whipped by a hard, cold wind from the north. Lightning flashes illuminate the ghastly field. Some of the wounded men summon the strength to move. One hobbles into the line leaning on a broken artillery ramrod as a crutch. Many other wounded crawl close to one another for comfort or warmth and die together, their huddled bodies to be found in the morning. Scores of wounded men drag themselves to a pond near the Sunken Road to drink and bathe their faces. As more and more men come and collapse by the pond, their blood turns the water red. When they are found the place is named the Bloody Pond. Shiloh Church becomes a Confederate hospital. Federal surgeons take over a log cabin that Grant was using as a headquarters and erect a few tents outside, but most of the wounded men brought there lie in the rain as the bone saws rasp all night. Paddle-wheelers have been running all day and now run all night carrying wounded men downstream to Savannah. Most of the wounded have to be laid down on the decks in the driving rain.
When Beauregard withdraws his troops this evening, he sends a telegraph to President Davis announcing A COMPLETE VICTORY. Most Confederate soldiers assume that the battle is over, that the Federals will flee across the river in the dark rather than be driven into the river in the morning. Not one officer in ten, Bragg will later say, bothers to replenish his unit’s ammunition. The army is hopelessly scattered. Few units have made any attempt to reform and though some troops stay close to the Federal line, Polk withdraws his division a full three miles. Bragg spends the night in Beauregard’s tent instead of with his men. Beauregard orders no reconnaissance of the enemy (perhaps because of a report that Buell’s army has marched off in a different direction and so cannot be supporting Grant), but Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Tennessee cavalryman, is not so confident. He dresses some of his troopers in captured Federal overcoats and sends them on a scouting mission behind the Federal lines, where they see unit after unit of Buell’s army crossing over the river. Forrest awakens General Hardee, who tells him to take the news to Beauregard. But Forrest can’t find Beauregard and returns angry and frustrated to his camp.
Grant has never lost confidence. Sherman finds him after dark standing under a tree sheltering from the rain. Sherman thinks of discussing the possibility of retreat but then changes his mind. “Well, Grant,” he says, “we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” Grant replies, “Yes—lick ‘em tomorrow, though.”
Over on the Mississippi John Pope is preparing his assault on Island No. 10 and on the Confederate troops guarding the river on the Tennessee side near Tiptonville.
In the mountains a Federal expedition operates April 6-11 from Greeneville, Tennessee, into Laurel Valley of North Carolina.
Washington expectantly awaits word from McClellan on the Peninsula that the Confederate line has been broken and the enemy brushed aside at Yorktown. Not hearing such, President Lincoln wires General McClellan, “I think you better break the enemies’ line from York-town to Warwick River, at once. They will probably use time, as advantageously as you can.” And the President is correct; Magruder is desperately holding his weak line while Joseph E. Johnston hurries his army from the Rappahannock.
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