On the Trail of Grant and Lee - Frederick T. Hill




The Battle of Shiloh

Grant did not waste any time in rejoicing over his success. The capture of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson was an important achievement but it was only one step toward the control of the Mississippi River, which was the main object of the campaign. The next step in that direction was toward Corinth a strategically important point in Mississippi, and he immediately concentrated his attention upon getting the army in position to attack that stronghold. Some of his fellow commanders, however, were extremely cautious and he had to labor for days before he could persuade General Buell, who was stationed at Nashville, Tennessee, with a large army, to advance his troops to a point where they could be of service. But in the midst of this work he was suddenly interrupted by an order which removed him from his command and virtually placed him under arrest on charges of disregarding instructions and of being absent from his department without permission.

These astonishing accusations were caused by his failure to answer dispatches from Headquarters which had never reached him, and by his visit to General Buell which had obliged him to travel beyond the strict limits of his command. The whole matter was soon explained by the discovery that a Confederate had been tampering with the dispatches in the telegraph office, but it was exceedingly annoying to Grant to find himself publicly condemned without a hearing. Nevertheless, it supplied a very fair test of his character, for he neither lost his temper nor displayed any excitement whatsoever. On the contrary, he remained perfectly calm in the face of grave provocation, replying firmly but respectfully to the harsh criticisms of his superiors, and behaving generally with a dignity and composure that won the silent approval of all observers.

Of course, as soon as the facts were known he was restored to his command with an ample apology, but his preparations for the advance against Corinth had been seriously interrupted and it was some time before he again had the work in hand. Nevertheless, within five weeks of the surrender of Fort Donelson, he was headed toward Mississippi with over 30,000 men, having arranged with General Buell to follow and support him with his army of 40,000, the combined forces being amply sufficient to overpower the Confederates who were guarding Corinth. This vast superiority, however, probably served to put Grant off his guard, for on March 16, 1862, his advance under General Sherman reached Pittsburg Landing, not far from Corinth, and encamped there without taking the precaution to intrench. Sherman reported on April 5th that he had no fear of being attacked and Grant, who had been injured the day before by the fall of his horse and was still on crutches, remained some distance in the rear, feeling confident that there would be no serious fighting for several days.

But the Union commander, who had studied his opponents with such good results at Fort Donelson, made a terrible mistake in failing to do so on this occasion, for he knew, or ought to have known, that General Albert Sidney Johnston and General Beauregard, the Confederate commanders were bold and energetic officers who were well advised of the military situation and ready to take advantage of every opportunity. Indeed, their sharp eyes had already noted the gap between Grant's and Buell's armies and at the moment Sherman was penning his dispatch to his superior, informing him that all was well, a force of 40,000 men was preparing to crush his unprotected advance guard before Buell could reach the field.

It was Sunday morning, April 6, 1862, when the ominous sound of firing in the direction of Shiloh Church smote Grant's ears. For a few moments he could not believe that it indicated a serious attack, but the roar of heavy guns soon convinced him that a desperate battle had begun and, directing his orderlies to lift him into the saddle, he dashed to the nearest boat landing and proceeded to the front with all possible speed. Before he reached the ground, however, the Confederates had driven the Union outposts from the field in frightful disorder and were hurling themselves with ferocious energy upon those who still held fast. The surprise had been well-nigh complete and the first rush of the gray infantry carried everything before it, leaving the foremost Union camp in their hands. Indeed, for a time the Federal army was not much more than a disorganized mob, completely bewildered by the shock of battle, and thousands of men blindly sought refuge in the rear, heedless of their officers who, with a few exceptions, strove valiantly to organize an effective defense.

The tumult and confusion were at their worst when Grant reached the field and it seemed almost hopeless to check the panic and prevent the destruction of his entire army. But in the midst of the maddening turmoil and wild scenes of disaster he kept his head and, dashing from one end of the line to the other, ordered regiments into position with a force and energy that compelled obedience. There was no time to formulate any plan of battle. Each officer had to do whatever he thought best to hold back the Confederates in his immediate front, and for hours the fight was conducted practically without orders. But Grant supplied his gallant subordinates with something far more important than orders at that crisis. Undismayed by the chaos about him he remained cool and inspired them with confidence. Not for one instant would he admit the possibility of defeat, and under his strong hand the huddled lines were quickly reformed, the onrush of the Confederates was gradually checked and a desperate conflict begun for every inch of ground.

For a time the victorious gray-coats continued to push their opponents back and another line of tents fell into their hands. But their advance was stubbornly contested and knowing that Buell was at hand, Grant fought hard for delay, using every effort to encourage his men to stand fast and present the boldest possible front to the foe. Meanwhile, however, Sherman was wounded, and when darkness put an end to the furious combat the shattered Union army was on the verge of collapse. So perilous, indeed, was the situation that when Buell arrived on the field his first inquiry was as to what preparations Grant had made to effect a retreat. But the silent commander instantly shook his head and announced, to the intense astonishment of his questioner, that he did not intend to retreat but to attack at daylight the next morning with every man at his disposal, leaving no reserves.

Such was Grant at one of the darkest moments of his career. Behind him lay the battered remnants of regiments, screening a welter of confusion and fear; before him stretched the blood-soaked field of Shiloh held by the confident Confederate host; while at his elbow stood anxious officers, well satisfied to have saved the army from destruction and ready to point out a convenient line of retreat. All his surroundings, in fact, were calculated to discourage him and the intense pain of his injured leg, which allowed him neither rest nor sleep, was a severe strain upon his nerves. Yet he would not yield to weakness of any kind. He was responsible for the position in which the Union army found itself and he determined to retrieve its fortunes. Therefore, all night long while reenforcements were steadily arriving, he developed his plans for assuming the offensive, and at break of day his troops hurled themselves against the opposing lines with dauntless energy.

Meanwhile the Confederates had sustained an irreparable loss, for Albert Sidney Johnston, their brilliant leader, had fallen. Moreover, they had no reserves to meet the Union reenforcements. Nevertheless, they received the vigorous onslaught with splendid courage and another terrible day of carnage followed. Again and again Grant exposed himself with reckless daring, narrowly escaping death from a bullet which carried away the scabbard of his sword as he reconnoitered in advance of his men, but despite his utmost efforts the gray lines held fast, and for hours no apparent advantage was gained. Then, little by little, the heavy Union battalions began to push them back until all the lost ground was recovered, but the Confederates conducted their retreat in good order and finally reached a point of safety, leaving very few prisoners in their pursuers' hands.

Grant had saved his army from destruction and had even driven his adversary from the field, but at a fearful cost, for no less than 10,000 Union soldiers were killed or wounded in the two days' desperate fighting at Shiloh and almost 3,000 had been captured. The Confederates, it is true, had lost nearly 10,000 men, but their army, which should have been crushed by the combined efforts of Grant and Buell, was still in possession of Corinth and had come dangerously near to annihilating half of the Union forces.

The results of the battle were, therefore, received at Washington with surprise and indignation; the country at large, horrified at the frightful slaughter, denounced it as a useless butchery; Halleck hastily assumed charge of all the forces in the field and from that time forward Grant, though nominally the second in command, was deprived of all power and virtually reduced to the role of a mere spectator. Indeed, serious efforts were made to have him dismissed from the service, but Lincoln after carefully considering the charges, refused to act. "I can't spare this man," was his comment. "He FIGHTS."

Lincoln intended to imply by that remark that there were generals in the army who did not fight, and Halleck was certainly one of them, for he took thirty-one days to march the distance that the Confederates had covered in three. Indeed, he displayed such extraordinary caution that with an army of 100,000 at his back he inched his way toward Corinth, erecting intrenchments at every halt, only to find, after a month, that he had been frightened by shadows and dummy guns and that the city had been abandoned by the Confederates. No commander responsible for such a ridiculous performance could retain the confidence of an army in the field, and Sherman assured Grant that Halleck would not long survive the fiasco. This advice was sorely needed, for Grant had grown tired of being constantly humiliated and had already requested Halleck to relieve him from duty when Sherman persuaded him to remain and wait for something to happen.

Something happened sooner then either man expected, for Halleck was suddenly "kicked up stairs" by his appointment to the chief command with headquarters in Washington, and on July 11, 1862, about three months after the battle of Shiloh, Grant found himself again at the head of a powerful army.