My God! We Are Attacked! Disorganized Surprise at Shiloh Church

April 6, 1862 (Sunday)

Shiloh Church as the battle started.

The Confederate Army of Mississippi was exhausted. After three treacherous days of marching through cold mud and rain, all 40,000 of them lay quiet, flat against the soaked ground waiting for dawn and the call to attack. As the dawn cast its first light slivers across the eastern horizon, Generals Albert Sidney Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard, first and second in command of the army, listened to the incipient tenors of battle developing cautiously in their front. Johnston sent word for a general advance and rode to lead his men. Beauregard remained to organize the corps as they filed into the attack.

The commander of the Union Army of the Tennessee, General Ulysses S. Grant, was ten miles north and across the river in Savannah. He was unaware that the Rebels had marched twenty-five miles to give him battle, as he rose and read his mail. He was unaware that General Buell of the Union Army of the Ohio had arrived from Nashville, as he sat down for breakfast. His second in command, General William Tecumseh Sherman, was on the field, within site of the prostrated Confederates, but was no more aware of them than Grant until the first guns were sounded in the dark light of dawn.

The armies themselves were oddly arranged for a battle. The 36,000 men of the Union army lay clumped about in dislocated camps. No attempts or plans to fortify or even defend the ground had been discussed. Scarce infantry outposts were its only protection. The Rebels, having days to prepare for an assault, seemed to do little to prepare. Johnston wanted to first turn Sherman’s left flank, cutting off access to the Tennessee River, but did little to discover where the flank in question rested. The Confederate corps were stacked up, one on top of the other, to be fed into the slaughter.

General Sherman, now alerted that something was amiss, had roused his men and was riding the lines, stopping here and there to peer through his field glass at the thick woods to his front. Halting near an Ohio regiment, he scanned the woods again – “General, look to your right!” exclaimed an Ohio officer. To Sherman’s right, a terrible enemy battle line emerged from the woods, stopped, aimed and fired. “My God!” yelled Sherman, throwing up his arms as if to swat away the lead, “we are attacked!”

They came, screaming with wails and bawling, roaring through cracked lips and voices shrieking till hoarse. These Rebels filled the daybreak, their fusillade shattering the natural silence with its wretched, rolling thunder.

Unable to find the Union left, which actually overlapped his right, General Johnston’s flank attack became an all out frontal assault. As the Rebels poured in, the single battle of Shiloh divided into scores of smaller battles, each effecting the next and nearby.

The structure of the Confederate command did little to aid their cause. Johnston played the role of a brigade commander, microscopically placing regiments here and there. Beauregard was only slightly more helpful, ordering two corps, nearly half the army, to advance towards the sound of the heaviest fighting. Up and down the line, the corps and division commanders echoed the orders.

Though separate, the smaller battles first pushed in Sherman’s left, and then his right. His entire division was driven from its position, the men from their camps near Shiloh Church. The cost, however, was staggering. One Rebel division lost fifty percent of its men when it tangled with Union artillery on Sherman’s right. A Mississippi regiment lost 300 of its 425 men.

As Sherman’s men retreated, Johnston ordered a corps to reinforce the battered, but victorious left flank. Beauregard did as ordered, but soon countermanded Johnston, sending most of the corps, plus additional troops to the right to assault the Union left, the original objective, seemingly forgotten.

In the center, one Union division, under General Prentiss, fell back only to give stiff, suicidal resistance. The entire Rebel advance was stalled in what would soon be forever known as the Hornet’s Nest. Eleven times, the Confederates charged, but through several hours of blood and carnage, Prentiss’ frantic and dying men could not be moved.

These hours saved the battle by giving General Grant time to arrive, order reinforcements and visit each of his division commanders. It allowed Grant to take command of his army.

As the balls flew like hornets, General Johnson wrested himself command of the corps attacking in this small, but savage, battle. While hastening his men forward, he was struck in the leg. At first, he believed it of little concern, but soon, as he reeled in the saddle, as blood flowed from his boot, he was laid upon the ground. The ball had severed an artery and the commander of the Army of Mississippi was dead.

After a bit of delay, General Beauregard assumed command and ordered a general assault on the Hornets Nest, surrounding Prentiss’ division, which surrendered its remaining 2,200 men. The Union resistance gone, the thoroughly exhausted Rebels finally turned their attention to Pittsburg Landing and the Tennessee River.

But aside from a few assaults on the new Union position, the fight was over. General Grant had established a strong defensive line, dappled with artillery and aided by gunboats, that could not be broken. Beauregard called an end to the attacks.

The Union army held. They had been pushed from their camps, but still safely clung to the west shore of the Tennessee. Though Grant had but one fresh division, General Buell’s Army of the Ohio was arriving, giving him as many as 25,000 additional troops. He was in fine shape and planned a counter attack at dawn.

The Confederates staggered back to the Union camps, victorious, but ragged and nearly crippled. They were disorganized, demoralized and exhausted. The commanders found it impossible to gain control of their own men. There was no attempt to defend their new, variously scattered positions. All through the night, the Union gunboats kept up a continuous fire, while the heavens let loose lightening and rain.

Still, General Beauregard was confident that a renewed attack the next morning would push Grant into the Tennessee.1

Grant's final stand.


The Plan to Steal the General

That night, 200 miles east of Shiloh and its bloodletting, the division of Ormsby Mitchel was sleeping in its camps near Shelbyville, Tennessee. A scout (some would say “spy”) by the name of James Andrews entered the camp. Andrews was well known in the Army of the Ohio, and so quickly gained an audience with General Mitchel.

James Andrews

Andrews had a plan. He wanted to cross through enemy lines and head nearly to Atlanta, where he would steal a train and take it north, burning bridges, cutting telegraph lines and destroying track as he went. But Andrews’ plan did not end there. Upon reaching Chattanooga, he would head west, doing much the same and leaving the door open for the Union forces to capture Memphis.

All Andrews needed was permission, twenty-four men and a hefty salary to pull it off. Mitchel agreed, and they both spent the night combing through the details of the plan. The raiders would meet the following day. By April 11, they would make history.2

  1. As I wrote this, I had several books open and lying around me. They were (in no particular order): Army of the Heartland; The Army of Tennessee 1861-1862 by Thomas Lawrence Connelly, The Army of Tennessee by Stanley F. Horn, Northing But Victory; The Army of the Tennessee 1862-1865 by Steven E. Woodworth, Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862 by O. Edward Cunningham, Grant Rises in the West; The First Year, 1861-1862 by Kenneth P. Williams. []
  2. Stealing the General by Russell S. Bonds. []
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4 thoughts on “My God! We Are Attacked! Disorganized Surprise at Shiloh Church

  1. A gripping account of the first day of Shiloh. I would only add that Johnston had become the second highest ranking Confederate general as commander of the Western Department, and I believe he was therefore the highest-ranking officer to be killed in action in the entire Civil War.

  2. General A.S. Johnston’s rank of full “General” is equivalent to a modern 4-star. The CSA ultimately had Brigadier Generals, Major Generals and later Lieutenant Generals. Johnston was the highest ranking officer ever to be killed in American history.

  3. Thanks Kenneth and David,

    Question – does anyone ever bring up that Johnston couldn’t have been the highest-ranking officer to be killed in the Civil War (or American history), since he wasn’t technically recognized as a high ranking officer by the United States government? I’m not making that argument, really, I’m just curious if anyone ever brings that up.

  4. I am not sure about the equivalency of rank, but Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr was killed by artillery fire on Okinawa in WW2. He was posthumously promoted to full general. He had in excess of 180,000 men under his command, so from a force standpoint his army was much larger than Johnston’s. As an aside, his father, Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, was a POW in the north at the time of Shiloh–after surrendering Ft. Donelson to Grant.

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