The Battle of Shiloh, also known as the Battle of Pittsburg Landing, took place from April 6 to April 7, 1862, and was one of the major early engagements of the American Civil War. The battle began when the Confederate Army launched a surprise attack on Union forces under General Ulysses S. Grant in southwestern Tennessee. After initial successes, the Confederates were unable to hold their positions and were forced back, resulting in a Union victory. Both sides suffered heavy losses, with more than 23,000 total casualties, and the level of carnage shocked North and South alike.

Yankee Victories

In the months prior to the Battle of Shiloh, Yankee troops had been working their way up the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. Kentucky was firmly in Union hands, and the U.S. Army controlled much of Tennessee, including the capital at Nashville.

General Ulysses S. Grant scored major victories at Forts Henry and Donelson in February, forcing Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston to gather the scattered Rebel forces at Corinth, Mississippi. Grant brought his army, 42,000 strong, to rendezvous with General Don Carlos Buell and his 20,000 troops.

Grant’s objective was Corinth, a vital rail center near the Tennessee border that, if captured, would give the Union total control of the region. Twenty miles away, Johnston lurked at Corinth with 45,000 soldiers.

Did you know? Union General Lew Wallace, who played a controversial role in the Battle of Shiloh, later went on to write the popular 1880 novel “Ben Hur.”

Johnston, however, did not wait for Grant and Buell to combine their forces. He advanced on April 3, delayed by rains and muddy roads that also slowed Buell.

Battle of Shiloh Begins

In the early dawn of April 6, a Yankee patrol found the Confederates poised for battle just a mile from the main Union army. Johnston attacked, driving the surprised bluecoats back near Shiloh Church in southwestern Tennessee.

Throughout the day, the Confederates battered the Union troops, driving them back towards Pittsburgh Landing and threatening to trap them against the Tennessee River.

Many troops on both sides had no experience in battle. The chances for a complete Confederate victory diminished as troops from General Buell’s army began arriving, and Grant’s command on the battlefield shored up the sagging Union line.

In the middle of the afternoon, Johnston rode forward to direct the Confederate attack and was struck in the leg by a bullet, severing an artery and causing him to quickly bleed to death. He became the highest ranking general on either side killed during the war.

General Pierre G. T. Beauregard assumed control, and he halted the advance at nightfall. The Union army was driven back two miles, but it did not break.

Battle of Shiloh map
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A map of the Battle of Shiloh

Grant Counterattacks

Soon, Grant was joined by the vanguard of the Buell’s army. With an advantage in terms of troop numbers, Grant counterattacked on April 7. The tired Confederates slowly retreated, but they inflicted heavy casualties on the Yankees.

By nightfall, the Union had driven the Confederates back to Shiloh Church, recapturing grisly, blood-soaked reminders of the previous day’s battle such as the Hornet’s Nest, the Peach Orchard and Bloody Pond. The Confederates finally limped back to Corinth, thus giving a major victory to Grant and the Union.

Casualties and Significance

The cost of the victory was high. More than 13,000 of Grant’s and Buell’s approximately 62,000 troops were killed, wounded, captured or missing. Of 45,000 Confederates engaged, there were more than 10,000 casualties.

The more than 23,000 combined casualties were far greater than the casualty figures for the war’s other key battles (First Battle of Bull Run, Wilson’s Creek, Fort Donelson and Pea Ridge) up to that date. It was a sobering reminder to all in the Union and the Confederacy that the war would be long, bloody and costly.

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Shiloh: Pittsburg Landing. American Battlefield Trust.
Battle of Shiloh. National Park Service: Shiloh National Military Park.