Chapter XIV. The Battle of Shiloh

Grant did not waste any time in rejoicing over his success. The capture of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson was an important achievement but it was only one step toward the control of the Mississippi River, which was the main object of the campaign. The next step in that direction was toward Corinth a strategically important point in Mississippi, and he immediately concentrated his attention upon getting the army in position to attack that stronghold. Some of his fellow commanders, however, were extremely cautious and he had to labor for days before he could persuade General Buell, who was stationed at Nashville, Tennessee, with a large army, to advance his troops to a point where they could be of service. But in the midst of this work he was suddenly interrupted by an order which removed him from his command and virtually placed him under arrest on charges of disregarding instructions and of being absent from his department without permission.

These astonishing accusations were caused by his failure to answer dispatches from Headquarters which had never reached him, and by his visit to General Buell which had obliged him to travel beyond the strict limits of his command. The whole matter was soon explained by the discovery that a Confederate had been tampering with the dispatches in the telegraph office, but it was exceedingly annoying to Grant to find himself publicly condemned without a hearing. Nevertheless, it supplied a very fair test of his character, for he neither lost his temper nor displayed any excitement whatsoever. On the contrary, he remained perfectly calm in the face of grave provocation, replying firmly but respectfully to the harsh criticisms of his superiors, and behaving generally with a dignity and composure that won the silent approval of all observers.

Of course, as soon as the facts were known he was restored to his command with an ample apology, but his preparations for the advance against Corinth had been seriously interrupted and it was some time before he again had the work in hand. Nevertheless, within five weeks of the surrender of Fort Donelson, he was headed toward Mississippi with over 30,000 men, having arranged with General Buell to follow and support him with his army of 40,000, the combined forces being amply sufficient to overpower the Confederates who were guarding Corinth. This vast superiority, however, probably served to put Grant off his guard, for on March 16, 1862, his advance under General Sherman reached Pittsburg Landing, not far from Corinth, and encamped there without taking the precaution to intrench. Sherman reported on April 5th that he had no fear of being attacked and Grant, who had been injured the day before by the fall of his horse and was still on crutches, remained some distance in the rear, feeling confident that there would be no serious fighting for several days.

But the Union commander, who had studied his opponents with such good results at Fort Donelson, made a terrible mistake in failing to do so on this occasion, for he knew, or ought to have known, that General Albert Sidney Johnston and General Beauregard, the Confederate commanders were bold and energetic officers who were well advised of the military situation and ready to take advantage of every opportunity. Indeed, their sharp eyes had already noted the gap between Grant's and Buell's armies and at the moment Sherman was penning his dispatch to his superior, informing him that all was well, a force of 40,000 men was preparing to crush his unprotected advance guard before Buell could reach the field.

It was Sunday morning, April 6, 1862, when the ominous sound of firing in the direction of Shiloh Church smote Grant's ears. For a few moments he could not believe that it indicated a serious attack, but the roar of heavy guns soon convinced him that a desperate battle had begun and, directing his orderlies to lift him into the saddle, he dashed to the nearest boat landing and proceeded to the front with all possible speed. Before he reached the ground, however, the Confederates had driven the Union outposts from the field in frightful disorder and were hurling themselves with ferocious energy upon those who still held fast. The surprise had been well-nigh complete and the first rush of the gray infantry carried everything before it, leaving the foremost Union camp in their hands. Indeed, for a time the Federal army was not much more than a disorganized mob, completely bewildered by the shock of battle, and thousands of men blindly sought refuge in the rear, heedless of their officers who, with a few exceptions, strove valiantly to organize an effective defense.

The tumult and confusion were at their worst when Grant reached the field and it seemed almost hopeless to check the panic and prevent the destruction of his entire army. But in the midst of the maddening turmoil and wild scenes of disaster he kept his head and, dashing from one end of the line to the other, ordered regiments into position with a force and energy that compelled obedience. There was no time to formulate any plan of battle. Each officer had to do whatever he thought best to hold back the Confederates in his immediate front, and for hours the fight was conducted practically without orders. But Grant supplied his gallant subordinates with something far more important than orders at that crisis. Undismayed by the chaos about him he remained cool and inspired them with confidence. Not for one instant would he admit the possibility of defeat, and under his strong hand the huddled lines were quickly reformed, the onrush of the Confederates was gradually checked and a desperate conflict begun for every inch of ground.