- The Washington Times - Friday, April 14, 2006

The word Shiloh, which in Hebrew means place of peace, instead evokes images and reflections of the violence and slaughter of war.

For two days in April 1862, Union and Confederate armies clashed in fields and wooded areas near a religious meeting-house called Shiloh in southwestern Tennessee. It was the first mass-casualty battle of the Civil War.

More Americans fell at Shiloh than in all previous American wars combined. The Union commander, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, concluded after the battle that the Union could be saved only by the “complete conquest” of the Confederacy.

After the capture by the Union of Tennessee forts Henry and Donelson in February 1862, Confederate forces under the command of Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston concentrated at Corinth, Miss., just below the Tennessee border. Union forces, meanwhile, traveled down the Tennessee River and disembarked on the western bank of the river at Pittsburg Landing.

Union troops under the command of Gen. William T. Sherman camped near Shiloh Chapel, about four miles inland of Pittsburg Landing. Grant planned to attack Confederate forces at Corinth, an important railroad hub, after Union reinforcements under Gen. Don Carlos Buell arrived from the north. Johnston, however, ordered Confederate forces to leave Corinth and attack the Union Army in Tennessee before Buell’s reinforcements could arrive.

The battle began on April 6 at about 5 a.m., when a Union reconnaissance force ran into Confederate skirmishers in a clearing known as Fraley Field. When word of the initial clash reached Johnston, he ordered the Confederate army forward to attack. About an hour later, Sherman’s forces near Shiloh Chapel, caught somewhat off guard, were under heavy assault by Confederate troops.

Union troops gradually gave way under the fierce Confederate charges. Some soldiers, and even whole regiments, panicked and took flight toward Pittsburg Landing. Sherman, attempting to rally his forces, was twice wounded.

Grant arrived on the battlefield at midmorning and observed firsthand the precarious position of his army. Union troops were falling back across a four-mile front. On the left, Gen. Benjamin Prentiss occupied an “eroded wagon trail” later described as a “sunken road,” and Grant ordered him to hold the position “at all hazards.”

This area became the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the battle and of the entire war. Prentiss’ troops held the position for several hours in the face of repeated Confederate assaults. Union firing from the position was so fierce that Confederate soldiers reportedly cried, “It’s a hornet’s nest in there,” thus giving the place its historic name.

Twelve times the Southern forces attacked the Hornet’s Nest, and each time they were repulsed, creating what historian Shelby Foote called “a thickening carpet of dead and wounded.” The Confederates then massed 62 cannons and fired grape and canister across the “sunken road.”

“It was as if,” wrote Mr. Foote, “the Hornet’s Nest exploded, inclosing its defenders in a smoky, flame-cracked din of flying clods, splintered trees, uprooted brush, and whirring metal.” The toll of repeated Confederate assaults combined with the fury of Confederate cannons resulted in Prentiss’ surrender of more than 2,000 troops. But Union resistance in the Hornet’s Nest bought Grant precious time.

All along the front, the Union Army was in retreat. By about 4 p.m., a defensive perimeter had formed near Pittsburg Landing. Grant knew that if he could hold his position for a while, darkness would bring an end to the fighting that day and reinforcements would arrive before morning.

Earlier in the day’s fighting, Confederate commander Albert Sidney Johnston had been killed when a bullet tore through the femoral artery just above his right knee. Had Johnston’s staff physician been present and made aware of the wound, he could have used a tourniquet to stop the flow of blood and save Johnston’s life. Johnston, however, had ordered the physician to attend to Union wounded that he had encountered on the battlefield.

Johnston’s replacement in command, Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard, called off the fighting at dusk despite vehement protests from Confederate cavalry Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. Beauregard wired Richmond that a great and complete victory had been won. Forrest wanted to launch a night attack, and warned: “If the enemy comes on us in the morning, we’ll be whipped like hell.”

There was no night attack. Grant held his tenuous defensive position near Pittsburg Landing. When a Union officer asked Grant if preparations should be made for a retreat, Grant responded: “Retreat? No! I propose to attack at daylight and whip them.” When Grant met with Sherman later that evening, Sherman commented, “We’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” Grant responded, “Yes, lick ‘em tomorrow, though.”

The next morning, after a heavy overnight rainstorm, Grant went on the offensive after receiving about 25,000 reinforcements from Buell and Gen. Lew Wallace (who later gained fame as the author of “Ben Hur”). Slowly, Union forces moved forward, gaining back ground lost the day before, but at a heavy price. There was heavy fighting near a peach orchard and, again, near Shiloh Chapel. By midafternoon, the Confederates were in full retreat toward Corinth. The Battle of Shiloh was over.

The appalling losses plus reports that Union forces were taken by surprise the first day resulted in calls for Grant’s dismissal. President Lincoln, however, was more impressed with Grant’s tenaciousness in overcoming the first day’s defeat and regaining the field on the second day. “I can’t spare this man,” Lincoln said of Grant. “He fights.”

The number of casualties at Shiloh made the previous “big” battles of Manassas and Wilson’s Creek look like minor engagements. Approximately 100,000 soldiers fought at Shiloh, and when it was over more than 24,000 had become casualties (dead, wounded or missing). Shiloh, wrote Shelby Foote, “was the first great modern battle. It was Wilson’s Creek and Manassas rolled together, quadrupled, and compressed into an area smaller than either. From the inside it resembled Armageddon.”

The bloodbath begun at Shiloh would be replicated at the Seven Days Battles, Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Stones River, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Chickamauga, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Petersburg. In the words of historian James McPherson, “Shiloh launched the country onto the floodtide of total war.”

Francis P. Sempa, author of “Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century,” is an assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.

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