By the end of March 1862, Major General Ulysses S. Grant, Charles Ferguson Smith and Brigadier General William Tecumseh Sherman were certain that the Confederate army in the western theater were defeated. All that remained was a Federal advance to Corinth, Miss., and a final victory.
Before the Federals could advance, Major General Henry Halleck wanted Grant’s Army of Tennessee and Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of Ohio to unite for one massive push on General Albert Sidney Johnston at Corinth.
After spending some time in Halleck’s doghouse, Grant relieved an injured Smith to resume command of the Army of the Tennessee. Grant made the William Cherry Mansion in Savannah, Tenn., as his headquarters. The home, on the Tennessee River, also served as the deathbed for Smith who cut his leg jumping from one Union transport to another. The cut became infected and Smith was slowly dying.
Nine miles south of Savannah, Sherman’s forces were gathering at Pittsburg Landing which was a lone log cabin sitting on a bluff overlooking the Tennessee River. The road coming from Pittsburg Landing led directly to Corinth so the area was a good staging point for the Union advance into Mississippi.
Sherman was glad to be at Pittsburg Landing and away from the growing army at Savannah. The influx of Union soldiers had overwhelmed Savannah and there was little room to camp or find nourishment. With thousands of soldiers using the waters of the Tennessee River as their bathroom and kitchen, the men were getting sick with dysentery.
Away from the waste and stench that was choking Savannah, Sherman’s division camped on farmland surrounding Pittsburg Landing. Thanks to an early spring, Sarah Bell’s peach trees already had pink blooms. Union soldiers enjoyed the beauty of the area.
About a mile inland from Pittsburg Landing, Sherman selected an area close to a crude log church called the Shiloh Meeting House as his headquarters. The church, which had been constructed in 1853, served the Southern Methodist Episcopal Church.
Given the overconfidence of Sherman, the Union camp looked more like a relaxed bivouac. The soldiers failed to fortify their position. Despite warnings from some of his subordinates, Sherman insisted that the Confederate army was 22 miles away in Corinth.
Grant shared Sherman’s assessment of the Confederate army. For the past month, the Confederates were beaten at Forts Henry and Donelson. The Confederate retreat gave the Federals possession of Nashville without a fight. From his headquarters in Savannah, Grant sent a telegram to Halleck, stating, “I have scarcely the faintest idea of an attack being made upon us, but will be prepared should such a thing take place.”
What Grant and Sherman failed to realize was that Johnston decided on Apr. 2, 1862 to attack Grant before his forces united with Buell’s. The Confederate Army of Mississippi was marching from Corinth toward Shiloh. On Apr. 5, the Confederates were camped near Frayley field just one mile west of Shiloh church.
Johnston had an informal council of war with General P. G. T. Beauregard, Major Generals Braxton Bragg and Leonidas Polk. Beauregard, who had favored the Confederate offensive, now wanted to withdraw to Corinth. Beauregard thought the element of surprise had been lost. Johnston disagreed with Beauregard, telling his generals, “Gentlemen, we shall attack at daylight tomorrow. I would fight them if they were a million.”
On the same day that Johnston was deciding to make the attack, Sherman was dealing with Colonel Jesse Appler of the 53rd Ohio. For days, Appler was convinced that Confederates were nearby, often calling for alerts that turned out to be false alarms.
On Apr. 5, Appler was especially rattled, claiming he saw Confederates on the southern edge of Rhea field. Appler called for the “long roll,” the drum cadence that called men to battle. Sherman had enough of Appler and yelled in a booming voice, “Take your damn regiment back to Ohio. There is no enemy nearer than Corinth.”
On Apr. 6, 1862, Johnston launched his attack, advancing first through Fraley field and then toward Rhea Spring. Appler met retreating Federals informing him to get his regiment ready cause the Confederates were coming.
Appler sent word to Sherman and concluded his position wasn’t tenable, withdrawing back to the Federals camps. Sherman arrived expecting this to be another of Appler’s false alarms. Sitting on his horse, Sherman raised his field glasses to survey the field. Behind him pandemonium was taking over the green Federals soldiers. For many this was the first time to “see the elephant” or to experience battle the first time.
As Sherman was looking through his glasses, a soldier cried, “General, look to your right!” Lowering his field glasses, Sherman glanced to his right just as Confederate soldiers emerged from the wood just 75 yards away, firing a volley in his direction.
The Confederate volley hit Private Thomas Holliday in the head as well as Sherman’s right hand. The startled Sherman exclaimed, “My God, we are attacked!”
The battle of Shiloh had begun.