The Hornet's Nest
Battle of Shiloh
April 6 - 7, 1862
Hardin County, Tennessee
In these woods, near a sunken road, outmanned Union soldiers endured a non-stop barrage of infantry and massed artillery fire, holding the Confederates in position for several hours, and allowing a new line of defense to be established at Pittsburg Landing.
The Western Theater of the Civil War included the so-called ‘border states’ Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee, where slavery was legal, but relatively rare. Kentucky and Missouri eventually aligned with the Union and Tennessee joined the Confederacy, but opinion was deeply divided, and guerrilla warfare was not uncommon. The area's strategic value in terms of controlling the Mississippi River ensured a hold on these states would remain tenuous throughout the war.
Following the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson in February of 1862, General Albert Sydney Johnston withdrew his Confederate army to Corinth, Mississippi to regroup, leaving Kentucky and much of western and middle Tennessee to the Federals. The Confederate retreat had come as a welcome surprise for Maj. General Ulysses S. Grant and his Army of the Tennessee. Exhausted and short of supplies, they needed time to prepare for a campaign into Mississippi to finish Johnston. Grant's men made camp at Pittsburgh Landing, on the Tennessee River, where they spent time drilling raw recruits and awaiting reinforcements from Maj. General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio.
Scouts had informed Johnston of Grant's location and strength, and he believed he needed to strike the Northerners at Pittsburg Landing before the two Federal armies could unite. His plan was to attack Grant's left, separate the Union army from its gunboat support and avenue of retreat on the Tennessee River, and drive it west into the swamps of Snake and Owl Creeks, where it could be destroyed. The attack was originally planned for April 4th, but two days of heavy rain caused delays. Johnston’s division commander, General P. G. T. Beauregard, recommended withdrawing the army, fearing that the sounds of marching and the Confederate soldiers test-firing their dampened ammunition, had cost them the element of surprise. Johnston refused, making the decision to attack.
In fact, the Northern command had no idea that Johnston had a major assault force nearby. Grant, confident in his army’s security, was 10 miles downriver in Savannah, Tennessee. And though Maj. General William Tecumseh Sherman, the commander at Pittsburg Landing, had received intelligence suggesting an attack was imminent, he dismissed the reported troop movements as Confederate pickets, not a full army. The Union soldiers were completely unprepared for an attack on their camp.
Around 3 am on the 6th, a patrol of 250 men from the 25th Missouri and the 12th Michigan regiments went out on reconnaissance and met fire from a small group of Confederates, who then fled into the woods. The Northern soldiers followed them, and at 5:15 ran into a Confederate outpost manned by the 3rd Mississippi Battalion. A spirited fight commenced, lasting nearly an hour. Alerted by both the sounds of gunfire and arriving messengers, Union soldiers, just rising from their sleep, formed their battle lines.
At dawn, 40,000 Confederate soldiers poured out of the nearby woods and struck the front line of Union infantry. The overpowering assault was too much for the caught off guard Northerners. Those who were not overrun retreated to the river. Johnston and Beauregard, however, had no unified battle plan, and their confusing alignment of the Confederate troops reduced the effectiveness of the offensive. Grant, who had heard the sound of artillery fire, was back at Pittsburg Landing at 8:30, and by 9 am all of the Union forces were either engaged or moving toward the front line. The Confederates' early success was further dampened by the death of Johnston, who was mortally wounded early in the day. Command of the Confederate force fell to General Beauregard.
By the afternoon, a few stalwart bands of Federals had established a battle line along a sunken road, near the center of the fight. Over the course of several hours, the heavily outmanned Union soldiers withstood massed artillery fire and at least eight distinct infantry assaults at the spot which came to be known as the ‘Hornet’s Nest’. The Northerners were eventually surrounded and forced to surrender, but their efforts allowed Grant to establish a defensive line at Pittsburg Landing, anchored with artillery and augmented by Buell’s men who had begun to arrive.
The following morning the Federal force of around 40,000 outnumbered Beauregard’s army of fewer than 30,000. Beauregard, however, was unaware that Union reinforcements had arrived, and when one of Buell’s divisions launched an assault at 6:00 am, he immediately ordered a counterattack. The Confederates pushed the Northerners back, but Union resistance stiffened and the Southerners were forced to fall back. Beauregard ordered a second counterattack, halting the Federals' advance as the armies fought to a stalemate. Realizing that his army was outnumbered, and having already suffered tremendous casualties, Beauregard pulled his men back to Corinth.
The two-day Battle of Shiloh was the bloodiest in American history up to that point, with over 23,000 killed, wounded, captured or missing.