By the time the American Civil War began, regular citizens had a romantic view of combat. Crowds gathered on hilltops to watch the conflict below. Picnics were enjoyed. Children ran and played. It was only when the blood spatter stained the landscape and severed limbs began to pile up, that the citizenry was repulsed and retired to their parlors. Thankfully, photographer Matthew Brady’s images of the carnage recorded that, indeed, war is hell. Much of the eastern seaboard of the United States was blood-soaked.
At dawn on April 6, 1862, near a church named Shiloh in southwest Tennessee, Union forces met the Confederates at a moment in which the war would pivot. Early Confederate victories turned the Yankee nose red. The North was stunned. General George McClellan, flush with everything but courage on the battlefield, frustrated the long, lanky commander-in-chief. Abraham Lincoln’s patience was about out.
Union General U.S. Grant, who would soon be handed supreme authority over the Army of the Potomac, began to forge an alliance with General William Sherman. The duo would save the Union and cripple the fabled Army of Northern Virginia, led by Robert E. Lee. In fact, only Lee’s innate strategic mind that had kept the Johnny Rebs in it this long.
Shiloh would be a turning point for Grant.
Flush from victory twice, Grant brought six divisions to Shiloh, camped between the church and the Tennessee River. All told, more than 100,000 men from both sides would take part in this battle. It was like a heavyweight boxing match, with two lions hammering each other over two days. Staggered, both armies lost more than 25 percent of their strength. The dead were almost better off than most of the 16,000 wounded; battlefield surgery was a ghastly experience for patients, nurses, and doctors.
The Union’s narrow victory at Shiloh did focus the minds of the strategists. Any thoughts that the Union would make quick work of Lee’s forces went out the window that day (even though the Confederates lost the peerless General Albert Sidney Johnston, a devastating loss that shook President Jefferson Davis).
Grant himself wasn’t exactly feeling his oats. In the lead-up to battle, he sent a letter to Dick Buell, asking where he was: “Feeling a little anxious to learn your whereabouts.”
Indeed, as often happens in military echelons, the two generals were rivals and while Buell’s boss Grant probably saved the day at the conclusion of the first day of battle, Buell himself took credit later for the victory. Tragically, while the two leaders were squabbling among themselves, men were dying on the field. The gruesome conclusion to the Battle of Shiloh proved that the war would be a protracted affair. Still, Grant’s genius for seeing the long game and for injecting his famous perseverance into the matter would steady Union forces going forward.
Shiloh all started on a Sunday, the most bucolic of all environments in the South. With savagery and dare and flash, the Confederates held their ground; by the second and climactic day, they were outnumbered two-to-one.
A frightful scene came to symbolize not only the Battle of Shiloh, but the whole bloody war. A bright blue pond lay in the center of the battlefield. By the end of the second day, when Confederate commander Beauregard grudgingly ordered retreat back to Corinth, the pond was a deep red.
There were the usual complexities and odd moments during the two-day battle. Grant, always itching to fight, had been surprised on Day One by Johnston’s forces; Johnston had ironically gained a reputation for sometimes failing to strike while the iron was hot.
In the end, Grant was so exhausted in every way that he began to contemplate taking himself out of the command center and recharging somewhere else. As usual, it was his old friend Sherman that talked him out of that.
That conversation, in which Sherman told Grant that “some happy accident” would occur to restore him back to “his true place,” was the impetus for the Illinois native to remain in the fight. The next year, during the long siege of Vicksburg, Grant had his happy accident. His victory along the Mississippi, at the same exact time as Gettysburg turned in the Union favor, turned the tide of the war.
Shiloh’s biblical namesake means “his gift.” Truly, for Ulysses Grant, amid the horror of the casualties, he brought a great gift to the Union on these spring days in Tennessee. The war would never be the same, and, though it would slog on for another three years, the decision there left no doubt that the Confederacy would never find permanent independence.