Having captured Forts Henry and Donelson in February 1862, Ulysses Grant and his Army of the Tennessee pushed up the river of the same name as spring came.
The plan was for Grant and his 40,000 men to hold a few miles from a small log church called Shiloh Meeting House to link up with the Army of the Ohio.
The combined force would then advance deeper into Confederate territory, capturing rail lines at nearby Corinth, Miss., that were vital to the South.
Meanwhile, Confederate commander Albert Sidney Johnston began organizing his 45,000 troops – many of them as raw as Grant’s recruits – at Corinth. Johnston hoped to strike before those two Union armies merged. “I have put you in motion to offer battle to the invaders,” Johnston told his troops, according to historian Shelby Foote, branding the federals “mercenaries sent to subjugate and despoil you of your liberties, property and honor.”
But bad weather, bad roads and foul-ups among green troops and their commanders turned a planned one-day march by the Confederates into three days.
For its part, the Union army ignored early signs the Confederates were close. Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman was given a warning by his soldiers about a growing Confederate presence, but dismissed their reports as the result of “jumpy” troops, writes Foote. The Confederates hit hard on April 6, and although they were two days behind schedule, they kept the advantage of size and surprise that morning. They drove Grant’s soldiers back toward the Tennessee River throughout the day.
But in an oak thicket remembered by survivors as the Hornet’s Nest, Union troops held off successive waves of Confederate attack. Southern artillery eventually broke the Union hold late in the day, but not before those men bought time for Grant to set up a further defensive line, and not before Johnston was mortally wounded and confusion began to hamper the Confederate thrust.
Earlier delays now proved fatal for the South. Having been reinforced during the night, Grant counterattacked the next morning, and with surprise and size on his side, he drove the Confederates from the field.
When it was all over, nearly 24,000 men from both sides were dead, wounded or missing. Foote quotes a veteran who said he could walk across the battlefield on the dead and wounded and never touch the ground, calling it a “pavement of dead men.” Both sides, reeling from casualty counts, were made to realize the war’s death toll was now being counted in the tens of thousands.
Quick Fact: A Name that Means Peace
Shiloh was a village near the Dead Sea, a sanctuary for the ancient Israelites and the site of a tabernacle where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. It literally means "place of rest," or "place of peace."