It is rare for any soldier to attain the rank of general, but Albert Sidney Johnston managed that feat in three armies: rising from private to brigadier general in the army of the Republic of Texas, brevet brigadier general in the United States Army, and full general in the Confederate States Army. On April 3, 1862 he led his newly created Army of Mississippi out of the town of Corinth, Mississippi and began the march which would end in the surprise Confederate attack in the early morning of April 6, 1862, the beginning of the two day mammoth battle known to history as Shiloh.
The battle would result in the death of Johnston, his dying caused probably by his act of mercy in dispatching his personal surgeon to attend a wounded Union officer and none of his remaining staff having the presence of mind to fashion a tourniquet to stanch Johnston’s bleeding after he was wounded, and the fighting would inflict over 23,000 total Union and Confederate casualties, exceeding in two days all of the battlefield casualties in all of America’s wars prior to the Civil War. Shiloh told the nation, North and South, that this was going to be a very grim war, and that their adversary would fight it with all the strength and will that they could muster. After Shiloh the myth of a quick victorious war died on both sides.
Johnston had shown generalship of a high order in gathering together his force from throughout the western Confederacy, getting them supplied and getting them in position to attack on the 6th. Unfortunately that is about all that can be said in his favor for his generalship in regard to the battle. The attack was a simple frontal assault with no reserves, and with commands quickly intermingled. In defense of Johnston, it must be stated that anything much more complicated than “hey diddle, diddle, straight up the middle” probably would have ended in disaster considering that the officers were largely as green as their men and the army simply did not have an effective command structure.
Sherman, in command in Grant’s temporary absence, was taken completely by surprise, which is hard to comprehend due to the noise the raw Confederate troops made the evening before the attack. Sherman received several reports of enemy units in front of the army and discounted all of them. His response to an Ohio colonel who warned him that an attack was coming: Take your damned regiment back to Ohio! There is no enemy nearer than Corinth!
The Confederate troops performed superbly, considering that they were all green and they were poorly armed with an astounding multiplicity of weapons, launching one of the most ferocious assaults of the war, pursuing Union troops, about half of whom were green, as many of them began to stampede to the rear from the initial attack. Sherman was caught off guard, but he responded well, leading his troops in his division in a stubborn resistance and a fighting retreat. The hero of the first day for the Union was Brigadier General Benjamin Prentiss. Leading troops from his division and WHL Wallace’s division he held a salient that would be known thereafter as the Hornet’s Nest from 9:00 AM – 4:00 PM, until he and his heavily outnumbered troops surrendered, buying Grant just enough time to prepare a final defensive line before Pittsburg Landing which held as the sun set.
Reinforced by the Army of the Ohio under Don Carlos Buell over night, on April 7 some 45,000 Union troops confronted 20,000 Confederates. The Confederates resisted valiantly, but after a day of a grinding Union offensive, General Beauregard, who had assumed command, knew that he had to retreat. On April 8th, Beauregard made good his retreat, with the day notable for a skirmish at Fallen Timbers in which Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest began creating his legend, by capturing 100 Union troops and almost capturing Sherman, personally killing several Union troops in combat, and riding away with a Union musket ball lodged next to his spine.
In the aftermath of Shiloh, the North was shocked by the casualty figures and Grant came in for severe criticism for being taken by surprise, some reporters spreading the false rumor that he had been drunk. Lincoln stood by Grant stating simply: I can’t spare this man, he fights. General Halleck took command of the combined Union armies, relegating Grant to second in command, and after a stunningly slow advance of five miles in three weeks, took Corinth on May 30, 1862 following Beauregard’s evacuation.