During the winter of
1861-62 Federal forces pushing southward from St. Louis, Mo.,
captured Forts Henry and Donelson on the Tennessee and CumberlandRivers. This action forced Gen. A.S. Johnston to abandon southern Kentucky and much of West and Middle Tennessee, including Nashville. After withdrawing further south, he established
a new line covering the Memphis
and Charleston Railroad, the only direct railroad link to Richmond and Memphis. Realizing that he could not wait for another
Federal advance, Johnston began concentrating 44,000 men at Corinth, Miss., whence he hoped to take the offensive and
destroy Gen. U.S. Grant's Union Army of the Tennessee before it could be joined by Gen. D.C. Buell's Army of the Ohio.
The Federals had not
expected the rapid collapse of the Southern defenses; thus there was a delay
before Grant's Army of the Tennessee, 40,000 strong, moved south along the Tennessee River toward Pittsburg Landing, 32 kilometers (22
miles) northeast of Corinth.
Ordered to wait there until Buell's army joined
him, Grant camped his men in the woods and fields
around ShilohChurch. Concerned about the large number of raw recruits in his army, Grant
drilled his men rather than fortify his position.
Johnston's attack on Grant was originally planned for
April 4, but repeated delays postponed it 48 hours. As a result, Gen. P.G.T.
Beauregard, Johnston's second in command, feared that the element of
surprise had been lost and recommended withdrawing to Corinth. But Johnston refused to consider retreat.
When Johnston's Army of Mississippi hit the Federal camps on
the morning of April 6, the Confederates achieved complete surprise. (The
Union division commanders had done little or no patrolling, and the senior
commander on the field, Gen. W.T. Sherman, treated all reports of Confederate
troops in the area with contempt.) Some Northern troops fought doggedly to
hold their line; others fell back and re-formed elsewhere. Many who had never
been in combat before fled for safety to the Tennessee River. The Southern army rolled over one Union position
after another until . Then, along the Sunken Road, the Federals finally established and held a line
that stopped the Southern advance. Confederate soldiers knew they had struck
a "Hornets' Nest", and named it that. Rather than seek a way around
the stronghold, the Southerners charged the position repeatedly.
None of these attacks
succeeded until Confederate Gen. Daniel Ruggles
brought up 62 cannon, the largest artillery concentration until then seen on
a North American battlefield. Under cover of the hammering guns, Confederate
infantry swept forward, surrounded the Union defenders and captured most of
Gen. Benjamin Prentiss' division. That sacrifice bought time for Grant to
establish a final defense line near Pittsburg Landing.
To the right and left of
the Hornet's Nest, Federal forces fell back before the Confederate attack,
and the fighting became a confused slugging match. On both sides, regiments
became disorganized and companies disintegrated. Johnston was killed while trying to push home attacks on
the river side of the battlefield to isolate the Unionists from the landing,
and Beauregard took over the Confederate command.
By late afternoon Grant's
surviving troops were safe in their final line. His chief of artillery, Col
J.D. Webster, had established a line of 53 guns on the heights around
Pittsburg Landing. The Confederates, now as disorganized at the Federals,
tried the flanks of the Federal position. The Union right beat them off easily. The vanguard of Buell's
army crossed the Tennessee and filed into position on Grant's left covering
Pittsburg Landing. Union infantry, artillery, and gunboat fire on that flank
hurled back the Confederate attempt to cross the rugged Dill Creek terrain,
and the fighting sputtered out for the night. While Confederates tried to
reorganize, Northern gunboats sent salvoes crashing into their lines at
15-minute intervals, and the remainder of Buell's
army crossed the river.
By dawn on April 7, the
combined Federal armies numbered 55,000 men. Beauregard, unaware that all of Buell's army had arrived, planned to continue the attack
and drive the Northerners into the river. At about the Confederates went on the offensive and were,
at first, successful. The stronger Union armies, however, soon began to push
the Confederates back. Realizing that he had lost the initiative, Beauregard
tried to break the Union drive by counterattacking at Water Oaks Pond. The
Federal advance was stopped, but their line did not break. Low on ammunition
and food and with 15,000 of his men killed, wounded, or missing, Beauregard
knew he could go no further. He withdrew beyond ShilohChurch and began the weary march back to Corinth. The exhausted Federals did not pursue. The
battle was over.
On April 8, Grant sent Sherman south along the Corinth Road to try to catch the retreating Confederates.
Sixteen kilometers (10 miles) out he ran into the Southern rearguard under
Col. N.B. Forrest. Sherman abandoned the pursuit.
In late April and May the
Federals crept toward Corinth and seized it, while an amphibious force on the
Mississippi was destroying the Confederate River Defense Fleet and capturing
Memphis. From these bases the Federals pushed on down the Mississippi to besiege Vicksburg. After the surrender of Vicksburg and the fall of Port Hudson in the summer of
1863, the Confederacy was cut in half. The war went on, but careful observers
knew that the South must lose.