Death Dance at Shiloh: April 6-7, 1862
This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World.
It took over 400 vessels to ferry the immense Army of the Potomac, 121,500 strong, from its base near Washington to Fort Monroe. McClellan’s army reached Fort Monroe in mid-March and began its slow advance up the York Peninsula. On April 5, McClellan’s advanced guard reached Yorktown where, some 80 years earlier, Cornwallis had surrendered to Washington.
Joe Johnston’s Confederates lay between the Army of the Potomac and Richmond. At Yorktown itself, John Bankhead Magruder generalled 11,000 men. Magruder, knowing he was vastly outnumbered by union forces, fell back on his flair for the theater. By scattering artillery fire and marching his men across the same clearing several times, Magruder made it seem that he possessed far more than 11,000 men. He fooled McClellan, who believed no fewer than 100,000 men lay across the Confederate lines. It would be foolish, McClellan thought, to challenge such a host, ensconced as it was behind fortifications; so, even though Lincoln urged him to “break the enemy’s line . . . at once,” McClellan decided to dig in and lay siege to Yorktown.
In the West, Ulysses Grant was showing considerable energy. While McClellan was encamped before Yorktown, Grant, with 42,000 Federal troops, was at Pittsburgh Landing on the upper waters of the Tennessee River in southwest Tennessee. He awaited the arrival of 25,000 Federal reinforcements under Don Carlos Buell. Confederate forces under Polk, Daniel Ruggles, Braxton Bragg, and Albert Sidney Johnston had converged on Corinth, some 22 miles away south, across the Mississippi border. Strengthened by Buell’s forces, Grant hoped to advance on Corinth and with superior numbers (67,000 to the Confederates' 40,000) destroy the Confederate western army. Buell, however, had not arrived by April 6, and Grant alone had to contend with the energetic and brave Confederate general, Albert Sidney Johnston, overall commander of the Confederate forces at Corinth.
A.S. Johnston knew his untrained troops could probably not withstand Grant and Buell’s combined force. His only hope was to destroy the Federal army piecemeal; to strike at Grant before Buell arrived. Filled with Napoleonic dreams, Pierre Toutant Beauregard, second in command, drew up the battle plans — which were too complex for raw troops. The movement from Corinth to Pittsburgh Landing was so badly carried out that Beauregard worried the Confederates had lost the element of surprise he had counted on. As it turned out, despite Confederate bumbling on the morning of April 6, the Federals didn’t know that their enemy was encamped only a mile away.
It was a bright, pleasant spring morning — one of those mornings when rest seems to pervade the air. The Federals soldiers were polishing their muskets, cleaning their shoes and uniforms, enjoying a quiet contentment. Then suddenly — gunfire and artillery shattered morning peace. Confederates descended on the unsuspecting Federals, throwing them back into into their ranks, forcing them to retreat. The rebel soldiers only paused long enough to grab some food from the enemy camp — they had not eaten in 24 hours.
William Tecumseh Sherman, who had returned to the Federal army after a winter of melancholy that had sent him home, commanded a brigade of Ohioans on the extreme right of the Federal line. Sherman and his men held a hill near which stood a small Methodist log church called Shiloh (meaning “peace”). The Sixth Mississippi under William Hardee assaulted the hill; 425 men marched, rank upon rank, against Sherman and were cut down by musket and artillery fire. The bullets and canister slaughtered 325 of the rebels, but they pushed on, forcing the green Yankee troops to flee before them. Hardee took the hill of Shiloh and again advanced.
In the middle of the line ran a sunken road where Federal troops from Iowa and Illinois held out against Confederates, advancing under Braxton Bragg. The numerous rebel assaults that broke against the sunken road gave the lie to General Johnston’s boast to Beauregard, “We are sweeping the field and I think we shall press them to the river.” Thousands of Confederates died along this center line, which became known as the “Hornet’s Nest.”
Another bloody battle raged around a peach orchard on the right of the Confederate line. Albert Sidney Johnston himself led the charge that finally broke the Federal line there. But the victorious Johnston was struck by a minie ball behind the knee. Absorbed in fighting, however, he didn’t notice the wound; but the bullet had cut an artery, and his boot filled with blood. Suddenly he fell from his horse — he had lost too much blood. He died that afternoon.
The Confederate command now fell to Beauregard, who continued to press on the Federal center at the Hornet’s Nest. The Yankees held out on the sunken road until half-past five in the evening and then retreated. The evening, however, had advanced too far for Beaureagard to follow up on the victory. As the shadows of night descended on the field, the din of musket and cannon died away. Punctuated only by the fire of gunboats, lobbing missiles on the Confederate lines, the cries of the wounded and dying in the fields filled the air with a dreadful dissonance.
The Confederates had pushed Grant all the way back to Pittsburgh Landing and might have finished him off the next day had not Buell arrived that night with reinforcements. The Confederates now numbered only 30,000; the Federals, 50,000. Beauregard, seeing the odds against him, ordered a retreat to Corinth. The Battle of Pittsburgh Landing, or Shiloh, had been the single, bloodiest day of the war, though bloodier days would follow. Of the roughly 100,000 men who fought at Shiloh, nearly 25,000 were wounded and killed. Thousands of men filled the ranks of the dead.
The lyrics for this song, set to a traditional song, “Willie Riley,” were composed by one M.G. Smith, of Texas, who fought at Shiloh. It evokes the horrors of the battle and, indeed, of the entire conflict between the states.