Before leaving Corinth, Miss., and advancing on Union forces at Shiloh, General Albert Sidney Johnston ordered local woodworkers to begin work on 500 coffins for soldiers who would be killed in battle. By the time the fighting at Shiloh was over, Johnston and a combined 3,502 Union and Confederate soldiers gave their lives in this epic struggle.
On Apr. 6, 1862, Johnston was determined to take the attack to Major General Ulysses S. Grant. Johnston planned to attack Grant before his forces could unite with the approaching army of Major General Don Carlos Buell.
Before sunrise, Colonel Everett Peabody sent out a patrol to investigate reports of Confederate activity nearby. A patrol of 300 soldiers from the 25th Missouri Infantry clashed with the entire Army of the Mississippi at Fraley Field, bringing about the battle of Shiloh.
Johnston and General P. G. T. Beauregard arrived at Fraley field as the fighting ensued. Johnston decided to lead from the front, leaving Beauregard in the rear to ferry troops forward as he saw fit. As he rode toward the front, Johnston told his officers, “Tonight we will water our horses in the Tennessee River.”
The Confederate attack caught many of the Union leadership by surprise. Brigadier General William T. Sherman, who had openly berated Colonel Jesse Appler days before for his insistence that the Confederates were close, busied himself with rallying his troops.
Some Union officers and enlisted men panicked, dropping their arms and racing toward safety at the Tennessee River. For many soldiers on both sides, Shiloh was the first time they had experienced combat or “saw the Elephant.”
Many of Johnston’s soldiers stopped in the abandoned Union camps to grab food cooking on campfires. The Confederates also discarded their old muskets for more modern rifles dropped by fleeing Union soldiers.
While some Federals fled, others made a stand. Brigadier Generals W. H. L. Wallace and Benjamin Prentiss rallied their divisions near a weathered farming path. For the next several hours, Confederates made repeated frontal assaults on this position but was repelled each time with great losses of life.
One Confederate soldier claimed the bullets were flying like a nest of angry hornets; therefore this defensive position became known as the Hornet’s Nest. It was only after Brigadier General Daniel Ruggles aligned more than 50 cannon to pound the Hornet’s Nest that the Confederates were able to advance and surround the position. Prentiss surrendered and Wallace was mortally wounded and left on the field.
Johnston personally led an attack against the Union line near Sarah Bell’s peach orchard. Johnston was wounded near his right knee. Tennessee Gov. Isham Harris, after returning from relaying orders from Johnston, saw the pale Johnston reel in his saddle. Harris asked the general if he was wounded, Johnston replied “Yes, and I fear seriously.”
Taken to a place of safety behind a hill, Johnston died on the battlefield. The bullet had hit an artery causing Johnston to bleed to death. If a tourniquet had been applied, Johnston could have lived but he had dispatched his surgeon to care for Union soldiers. Command of the Confederate army fell to Beauregard.
By the end of the first day, Grant and his Army of the Tennessee were precariously holding a line near the Tennessee River. Throughout the night, Union gunboats pounded Confederate positions during a drenching rain. The miserable night was made even worse as Confederate soldiers witnessed hogs from local farms rooting around wounded soldiers on the battlefield.
Grant sat in the rain under a tree whittling a piece of wood. Sherman approached his friend, saying, “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” Grant looked up and replied, “Yes, lick ‘em tomorrow though.”
During the night, Brigadier General Lew Wallace’s lost division, as well as, Buell’s Army of the Ohio arrived at Shiloh. Wallace joined Grant’s defensive line and Buell’s forces were ferried across the Tennessee River. The following day, Grant had a larger army with fresh troops to face the exhausted Confederates.
On Apr. 7, 1862, Grant’s forces began the attack, pushing back the stubborn Confederate defenders and gradually retaking ground lost the day before. Although the Confederates made a gallant stand, it was evident to Beauregard and the foot soldiers that they could not repeat the effort of the previous day.
In the afternoon, Beauregard called for a retreat and the Army of the Mississippi returned to Corinth. The fallen Johnston’s body would fill one of the coffins he ordered built days before.
Up to that time, the battle of Shiloh was the most horrific battle of the Civil War. Sadly, the number of dead, wounded and missing at Shiloh would easily be surpassed at the future battles of Antietam, Gettysburg and Chickamauga.