Michael Nelson

Michael Nelson is contributing editor and columnist for The Daily Memphian, the political analyst for WMC-TV, and the Fulmer professor of political science at Rhodes College. His latest books are “Trump: The First Two Years” and “The American Presidency: Origins and Development, 1776-2018.”

Nelson: A battle near Memphis 157 years ago changed the face of war

By Published: April 05, 2019 4:28 PM CT

Shiloh National Military Park is about 100 miles due east of Memphis. It’s the best Civil War battlefield in the country to visit. 

Not only is Shiloh historic, like Gettysburg and Antietam, but it’s also so far off the beaten path that it’s almost never hyper-crowded — even on a weekend like April 5-8, when the 157th anniversary of the battle will be marked by a lot of events, all of them free.

<strong>Michael Nelson</strong>

Michael Nelson

The Battle of Shiloh takes its name from the small church around which the most critical first-day fighting pivoted.  The battle changed the face of war — not just the Civil War, but war in general. Nearly as many casualties occurred during its roughly 35 hours of combat as in all of America’s previous wars combined. 

That’s right: by Defense Department estimate, 23,746 men were killed, injured, captured or missing at Shiloh, a number that essentially equals the sum of the American casualties in the Revolutionary War (10,623), the War of 1812 (6,765) and the Mexican-American War (6,885). 

Shiloh was the battle at which it became clear that the weaponry of war had far outstripped the Napoleonic-era tactics taught at West Point, the national military academy where most of the Civil War’s leading generals were trained.

Marching in massed open formation onto the field of battle, then charging the enemy’s fortified position with fixed bayonets made a kind of sense in other recent wars, when guns took time to reload and were scattershot at all but short distances. The coming of rifles with grooved barrels firing Minié balls accurately for several hundred yards changed all that in ways most of the generals just didn’t get.

Anyone visiting Shiloh is bound to wonder: Why did the massed western armies of the Confederacy (about 45,000) and the Union (about 48,000 on April 6, the first day of battle, reinforced by about 18,000 more who arrived in time for the second day) collide here?

The answer traces back two months to February 1862, when forces led by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant won the Union’s first victories of the war, driving the Confederates out of Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. 

Grant then set his sights on Corinth, Mississippi, a major railroad center that offered the Confederacy its best east-west route, the Memphis and Charleston, and its best north-south route, the Mobile and Ohio, for transporting troops and supplies.

Anticipating where Grant was headed, Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston massed the Confederate Army of the Mississippi in Corinth. When Grant’s Army of the Tennessee set up camp 20 miles northeast on the western bank of the Tennessee River near Pittsburg Landing, Johnston saw an opportunity to stop it in its tracks with a preemptive attack.

So offense-minded was Grant that he was taken by surprise in the predawn hours of April 6. Not imagining that he might be the object rather than the initiator of an attack, he failed to order his army to dig defensive entrenchments. 

Johnston’s troops overran Grant’s during much of the first day of battle, but the Confederate commander was killed by a stray bullet, leaving Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard to take charge.

Grant was advised by some of his subordinates to retreat.  He replied, “Retreat? No, I propose to attack at daylight and whip them.” 

Reinforced that night by the belated arrival of the Army of the Ohio led by Gen. Don Carlos Buell, Grant did exactly as promised. By the end of the day on April 7, the Confederate army was the one in full retreat, heading back toward Corinth.

Buell, of course, claimed credit for the victory while Grant argued that he’d have won without him. I’m not getting into the middle of that one.

After the battle ended, Grant’s superior officer in the west, Gen. Henry Halleck, pushed him aside to take command of the Union advance on Corinth. Halleck moved so slowly, however, that Beauregard and his army were able to escape to Tupelo. 

Nevertheless, Grant wrote, with “the Confederates now driven out of West Tennessee, … the National forces took possession of Memphis” — the Confederacy’s fifth largest city and a major center of Union operations for the remainder of the war.

Grant’s popularity suffered after Shiloh. He was justly criticized for being taken by surprise and unjustly criticized for being drunk. Beyond that, people were stunned by the loss of life and limb the battle entailed.

But in contrast to the pathologically cautious Union generals who outranked him — Halleck in the west and George McClellan in the east — Grant had the full support of his commander in chief. Advised to replace Grant, President Abraham Lincoln said, “I can’t spare the man; he fights.”

What Grant and Lincoln both realized was that if the wealthier, better-armed, more populous North took the fight to the Confederates every day on every front, it would win the war. 

In March 1864, with the west mostly secured, Lincoln brought Grant east to execute that strategy in Virginia. The South’s surrender followed 13 months later.

None of this mitigates the horror of the war that the Battle of Shiloh revealed. 

Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, the Union commander who held the line near Shiloh church, wrote to his wife, “The scene on this field would have cured anybody of war. Mangled bodies, dead, dying, in every conceivable shape, without heads, legs; and horses.”

Another observer portrayed the scene in the battlefield hospitals — their very presence a sign of progress — at which wounded soldiers were treated, usually by amputation.  Underneath “the operating tables were great pools of clotted blood, amidst which lay amputated fingers, hands, arms, feet and legs.”

Grant himself described a field “so covered with the dead that it would have been possible to walk across the clearing, in any direction, stepping on dead bodies, without a foot touching the ground.”

The effect of Shiloh on Grant, he later wrote, was that “I gave up all idea of saving the Union except by complete conquest. Up to that time it had been the policy of our army … to protect the property of the citizens whose territory was invaded.” 

After Shiloh, the Civil War became a modern one not just in its weaponry but in its totality. What marks “total war” is that it doesn’t involve just soldiers. 

From Shiloh’s aftermath until the end of the conflict, Grant resolved that the Union army would “consume everything that could be used to support or supply armies.” Civilian lives would be protected, but not civilian property.

What you can expect on an ordinary day at Shiloh is a fine museum and excellent film about the battle at the visitor center, as well as a well-marked, 12.7-mile self-guided driving or biking tour of the battlefield.

Those who remember the old film with its stentorian soundtrack and dime-store fake beards will be happy to know that the center now shows a newer and much better one.

In conjunction with the April 6-7 anniversary, which this year falls as did the actual battle on Saturday and Sunday, there’s a series of ranger-guided hikes outlining important phases of the conflict scheduled to coincide with the time of day when the fighting actually occurred. 

April 6 is filled with cavalry and artillery demonstrations, music concerts and a vintage baseball game played according to the rules soldiers used at the time. Guided hikes also are available on April 5 and 8. Details can be found here.

While you’re at it, drive the 19 miles from Shiloh to Corinth, which was what the battle was all about. 

Corinth has a Civil War interpretive center as well as a contraband camp that housed the many enslaved people who fled area plantations to secure Union protection after the Confederates left the area.

Here’s the irony: Shiloh is a biblical word, mentioned in the Old Testament books of Genesis, Judges and Jeremiah. It means “place of peace.” Yet for two days in 1862 the Shiloh in West Tennessee embodied not only the horror of the American Civil War but of all the wars to come.


Civil War Shiloh

Comment On This Story

Email Editions

Sign up for our morning and evening editions, plus breaking news.