With the loss of Forts Henry and Donelson in February, General Johnston withdrew his disheartened Confederate forces into west Tennessee, northern Mississippi and Alabama to reorganize. In early March, General Halleck responded by ordering General Grant to advance his Union Army of West Tennessee on an invasion up the Tennessee River.
Occupying Pittsburg Landing, Grant entertained no thought of a Confederate attack. Halleck's instructions were that following the arrival of General Buell's Army of the Ohio from Nashville, Grant would advance south in a joint offensive to seize the Memphis & Charleston Railroad, the Confederacy's only east-west all weather supply route that linked the lower Mississippi Valley to cities on the Confederacy's east coast.
Assisted by his second-in-command, General Beauregard, Johnston shifted his scattered forces and concentrated almost 55,000 men around Corinth. Strategically located where the Memphis & Charleston crossed the Mobile & Ohio Railroad, Corinth was the western Confederacy's most important rail junction.
On April 3, realizing Buell would soon reinforce Grant, Johnston launched an offensive with his newly christened Army of the Mississippi. Advancing upon Pittsburg Landing with 43,938 men, Johnston planned to surprise Grant, cut his army off from retreat to the Tennessee River, and drive the Federals west into the swamps of Owl Creek.
In the gray light of dawn, April 6, a small Federal reconnaissance discovered Johnston's army deployed for battle astride the Corinth road, just a mile beyond the forward Federal camps. Storming forward, the Confederates found the Federal position unfortified. Johnston had achieved almost total surprise. By mid-morning, the Confederates seemed within easy reach of victory, overrunning one frontline Union division and capturing its camp. However, stiff resistance on the Federal right entangled Johnston's brigades in a savage fight around Shiloh Church. Throughout the day, Johnston's army hammered the Federal right, which gave ground but did not break. Casualties upon this brutal killing ground were immense.
Meanwhile, Johnston's flanking attack stalled in front of Sarah Bell's peach orchard and the dense oak thicket labeled the "hornet's nest" by the Confederates. Grant's left flank withstood Confederate assaults for seven crucial hours before being forced to yield ground in the late afternoon. Despite inflicting heavy casualties and seizing ground, the Confederates only drove Grant towards the river, instead of away from it. The Federal survivors established a solid front before Pittsburg Landing and repulsed the last Confederate charge as dusk ended the first day of fighting.
Shiloh's first day of slaughter also witnessed the death of the Confederate leader, General Johnston, who fell at mid-afternoon, struck down by a stray bullet while directing the action on the Confederate right. At dusk, the advance division of General Buell's Federal Army of the Ohio reached Pittsburg Landing, and crossed the river to file into line on the Union left during the night. Buell's arrival, plus the timely appearance of a reserve division from Grant's army, led by Major General Lewis Wallace, fed over 22,500 reinforcements into the Union lines. On April 7, Grant renewed the fighting with an aggressive counterattack.
Taken by surprise, General Beauregard managed to rally 30,000 of his badly disorganized Confederates, and mounted a tenacious defense. Inflicting heavy casualties on the Federals, Beauregard's troops temporarily halted the determined Union advance. However, strength in numbers provided Grant with a decisive advantage. By midafternoon, as waves of fresh Federal troops swept forward, pressing the exhausted Confederates back to Shiloh Church, Beauregard realized his armies' peril and ordered a retreat. During the night, the Confederates withdrew, greatly disorganized, to their fortified stronghold at Corinth. Possession of the grisly battlefield passed to the victorious Federal's, who were satisfied to simply reclaim Grant's camps and make an exhausted bivouac among the dead.
General Johnston's massive and rapid concentration at Corinth, and surprise attack on Grant at Pittsburg Landing, had presented the Confederacy with an opportunity to reverse the course of the war. The aftermath, however, left the invading Union forces still poised to carry out the capture of the Corinth rail junction. Shiloh's awesome toll of 23,746 men killed, wounded, or missing brought a shocking realization to both sides that the war would not end quickly.
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