As a lifelong Memphian, I grew up just 100 miles west of one the major battles of the Civil War. The Battle of Shiloh was one I had heard of, seen the battlefield, hiked the hike, and watched the movie in the visitor’s center times without number. When I did research of the New York Times coverage of the Civil War for a college paper, I read Grant’s quote that “it was the hardest-fought battle on this continent!”. Gee, Grant really felt that one, huh! I thought. And he had good reason for that sentiment.
General Albert Sidney Johnson, one of the Confederacy’s bravest leaders decided to take his group of soldiers northeast from a railroad junction at Corinth MS, because he’d heard some Yankees might be up by the Tennessee River. He and General P.G.T. Beauregard led their troops along a railroad track one April morning. This wasn’t an easy stride, it was an 18+ mile, early morning march to meet and confront a gathering of Union troops headed toward Corinth. Grant had to get some generals to bring their soldiers together to make that advance. These were people like General William T Sherman, and General Lew Wallace, among others less well-known.
General Johnston made little effort to keep his troops silent on the march, so a good number of them were shooting their rifles, generating some courage for what they thought lay ahead. But General Johnston was possibly a day late in doing this march, and the noise generated by the gunfire had General Beauregard advising against an assault. Johnston overruled, saying he’d fight them “even if there was a million”. Beauregard had felt they’d lost surprise with all the noise they had made.
Grant had soldiers out in the far reaches, keeping an eye out for what might be coming. These were called pickets. What surprised the pickets was an army so large they were soon overwhelmed, and a good number of them did not make it back to the Union camp in time. As prepared as they were, this was a big surprise to Grant, owing to the number of soldiers and their tenacity. They pushed and pushed the Yanks back into a small area, called the Hornet’s Nest. As the day wore on, the Rebels overwhelmed, but did not wipe out the Northern Army. The fatigue from an 18-mile march, followed by an intense battle had them stopping for the night, with some fighting left to do.
Grant and his generals couldn’t have been more relieved! With fresh troops coming across the river overnight, and cannonballs launching all night long to deprive the Rebels of sleep, Grant pulled together enough firepower and courage to regain the battlefield the next day.
A nearly won battle had been lost for timing and pure foolishness. In the battle Rebel General Johnston had been hit in the knee and bled out and died. Left with inadequate resources to fight and win, General Beauregard ordered a retreat down the path they had approached from.
Grant later pursued along the same path and took over the rail junction at Corinth. He then headed to Memphis. He was on this path when a naval battle in the Mississippi River decided the fate of Memphis in the Civil War.
But when you think of Grant’s description of the battle as the “hardest fought battle on this continent”, you get a sense of the surprise and terror that overtook the Union Camp when the battle began. It took all day to fight that one, any hint of survival coming only when the Rebels quit shooting. You can’t help thinking that if they’d mopped up that day, they might have won. Who could resist the idea of beating General “Unconditional Surrender” Grant? He’d have had to eat that one! But he won. Sherman went on to burn Atlanta, and Wallace to write “Ben Hur”. Grant went on to win the war and become President of the United States.