Battle of Shiloh: Facts, Summary & Significance

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  • 0:12 April 1862
  • 0:32 The Union Advance
  • 1:43 The Confederate Counterstrike
  • 3:23 The Battle Begins,…
  • 5:32 April 7, 1862 and Beyond
  • 7:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
The Battle of Shiloh was fought on April 6 and 7, 1862, and resulted in a Union victory. With more than 23,000 casualties, Shiloh was the first battle of the Civil War that saw large-scale death and suffering.

April 1862

In April of 1862, the American Civil War was entering its second year. Ironically, this second year was ushered in by the battle in southern Tennessee near a church named Shiloh, which is Hebrew for place of peace. The Battle of Shiloh was, in many ways, the first truly terrible and great battle of the Civil War.

The Union Advance

Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant achieved the first major victories for the Union in the Civil War in February 1862. With the cooperation of ironclad ships navigating rivers, Grant led a force into Tennessee to capture Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. These successes opened up two vital rivers that would serve as avenues of invasion deep into Tennessee. They also led to Grant's promotion to Major General.

Ulysses S. Grant, National Archives

Following the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson, Union forces soon took the city of Nashville on the Cumberland River. Their next target was the crucial rail junction of Corinth in northern Mississippi.

By mid-March, Brigadier General William Tecumseh Sherman had taken a division up the Tennessee River and encamped at Pittsburgh Landing, an area that would later serve as a point of departure for a move against Corinth. By early April, almost 50,000 men were encamped at the landing, not far from the small Shiloh Church meeting house. This force would eventually become known as the Army of the Tennessee (named after the river, not the state).

The Confederate Counterstrike

After the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson, things looked quite bleak for Confederate forces. General Albert Sidney Johnston, one of the highest ranking officers in the Confederacy, was tasked with stopping the advancing Union Army. To do this, he gathered together forces near Corinth in March 1862. His soldiers were inexperienced but determined and ready for a fight. With the help of General P.G.T. Beauregard, his second in command, Johnston organized an army that he believed would be capable of stopping Grant's advance. This force was dubbed the Army of Mississippi (named after the state, not the river).

Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston, Library of Congress

The Confederate plan was to move north and strike at Grant while his army was still in Tennessee before the Union soldiers closed in on Corinth. Making matters more urgent was the news that Union General Don Carlos Buell was moving toward Grant from Nashville with the Army of the Ohio, bringing thousands of additional troops to swell the Union ranks. Johnston and Beauregard wanted to hit Grant before Buell arrived, and they wanted the element of surprise to be in their favor.

On April 3, 1862, approximately 45,000 Confederate soldiers began moving north from Corinth. It was an extremely risky maneuver. Had their advance been discovered, Grant could have launched a counterstrike and possibly destroyed the Confederate force. But if the Confederates went undetected, they had the possibility of destroying an unsuspecting Union army. In the days leading up to the Battle of Shiloh, Union soldiers on the southern outskirts of their camp reported hearing soldiers and seeing Confederates through the trees, but many of these reports went unheeded.

The Battle Begins, April 6, 1862

In the early morning hours of April 6, 1862, Union Colonel Everett Peabody sent a patrol south to investigate some of the sounds that had been filtering into the Union camp. In the early morning darkness, these Union soldiers came across the initial Confederate battle line emerging from the woods. After putting up some resistance, they scurried back to their camps, and the Battle of Shiloh began.

Johnston's plan was to cut Grant's men off from the Tennessee River, preventing them from being reinforced or resupplied; however, the Confederate attacks quickly deviated from this plan. Instead, forces were sent wherever the fighting was heaviest. Much of this can be attributed to the relative lack of experience of the soldiers and the wooded terrain of the battlefield.

Regardless of these problems, on April 6, the first day of fighting, the Confederate attack was very successful. While Union troops mounted a coherent defense after their initial confusion, the momentum of the Confederate attack was too much to stop. Throughout the day, Union forces continued to fall back.

The fiercest Union stand occurred in the center of the battlefield. In what has since become known as the Hornet's Nest, from mid-morning to mid-afternoon on April 6, Union forces stopped numerous Confederate assaults. But wave after wave of Confederates moved toward a Union line along an old wagon road and by mid-afternoon, Confederates were able to encircle the Union troops, capturing many of them.

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