Among the most common blunders in the annals of military history is the failure to follow up a victory. Most historians agree, for example, that—if they had been audacious enough to try it—the victorious Southern troops in the aftermath of the Civil War’s first battle, at Bull Run in Virginia in July 1861, could have captured Washington and ended the war right then and there.
Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was just as convinced he could have concluded the war in February 1862 after his victory at Fort Donelson, during which the Confederate hold on Kentucky was lost and Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi were left open to attack.
Standing in his way were not Confederate troops, Grant thought, but his superior, Maj. Gen. Henry Wager Halleck, commander of the Union’s Army of the Missouri. Halleck’s department encompassed all of Missouri and east to the Tennessee River in Kentucky and Tennessee.
With a long, scholarly career behind him in both the military and the legal profession, Halleck was known among his peers as “Old Brains,” a nickname of respect at the beginning of the war, but meant derisively the longer it lasted. Union Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, who kept a diary during the war years, described Halleck as a man who “originates nothing, anticipates nothing … takes no responsibility, plans nothing, suggests nothing” and “is good for nothing.”
Grant could only have agreed.
Grant had begged Halleck for months for permission to move against Forts Henry and Donelson, which, once received, paved the way for the Union’s most profound success in the war’s first months. Anxious to pursue the enemy—in shock at its defeat and vulnerable to attack as it struggled to regroup—Grant again found himself in the position of begging Halleck for permission to follow up his victory.
The victor of Donelson not only failed to receive it, but Halleck, jealous of Grant’s success, briefly relieved him of his command before President Abraham Lincoln himself acted in Grant’s defense. Grant, the president noted, was virtually his only general accomplishing anything.
Despite the time lost to Halleck’s jealous treachery, Donelson and the Union victory at Pea Ridge, Ark., on March 8, left the Confederates reeling. Hastily abandoning Nashville, rebel commander Albert Sidney Johnston quickly retreated south in search of a defensible position. And Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, whose artillery had begun the war at Fort Sumter, was sent to aid him in organizing the scattered forces.
Union Gen. Don Carlos Buell, commander of the Army of the Ohio, meanwhile, had occupied Nashville and was marching south. And Grant was moving along the Tennessee River from Clarksville, Tenn. Their combined strength was 70,000 men.
Johnston and Beauregard decided to dig in at Corinth, Miss. If there were any hope of retaining Tennessee and regaining Kentucky, they would have to win the next battle.
By April 1, Grant had stopped at a small river town in southwestern Tennessee known as Pittsburg Landing and sent his gunboats 20 miles downriver to scout rebel positions in the vicinity of Corinth.
As Johnston and his 40,000-man army, hampered by heavy rainstorms, strove to attack, Grant’s men set up camp from the landing all the way to a nearby little church called Shiloh—Hebrew for “place of peace”—amid an orchard of blooming peach trees.
On April 6, Buell and his 25,000 men still had not arrived, and Johnston attacked Grant’s force—equal in size to his own—in hopes of defeating it quickly. The surprised federals wavered, but held their ground in fierce fighting around the church that left the dead covered in peach petals.
Johnston, determined to break the Union lines, pressed his attack, personally arriving to spur on his men. Equally determined as other lines wavered, Union Gen. Benjamin M. Prentiss and his 4,000-strong division held its ground at a nondescript but strategic spot near a sunken road that would live in legend as the “Hornet’s Nest.”
Refusing to yield to everything Johnston threw at them, Prentiss’ men repelled 12 successive rebel charges and the combined fire of 62 cannons before being forced to surrender. Prentiss began the day with 4,000 men and ended it with 2,200.
Johnston, his zeal compelling him to participate in the fighting and even lead one of the bayonet charges on horseback, fell wounded and bled to death before a doctor could be summoned.
As night fell amid more rain, Grant’s forces had been thrown back to the landing, but Buell’s reinforcements began arriving.
Newly fortified, Grant attacked with fresh troops the following morning, and Beauregard, now badly outnumbered, led an orderly retreat back to Corinth.
Casualties ran high: 13,000 men for the Union and 10,000 for the Confederates. But Grant had won, and the Union army was on the move.
The South’s ‘Indispensible’ General
Beyond the loss of the Shiloh battle, the death of Albert Sidney Johnston was a severe blow to the Confederacy. Johnston was, at the time of his death, considered to be the South’s best general, possessing the confidence of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Johnston was born on Feb. 2, 1803, in the frontier town of Washington, in Mason County, Ky. After attending private academies, at 15, he entered Transylvania University in Lexington, then considered the pre-eminent college in the West. Transylvania boasted a famous medical department, and the young man intended to follow in his father’s footsteps by becoming a physician.
Abruptly changing his mind, however, Johnston left Transylvania and was admitted to West Point, where he graduated in 1826.
Over the next 30 years, he served as commander of the army and later secretary of war of the Republic of Texas, as a United States army colonel in the Mexican War and brevet brigadier general in the 1858-60 expedition against the Mormons in Utah. Having been appointed commander of the U.S. Army’s Department of the Pacific, he resigned when Texas seceded from the Union in 1861.
Johnston’s river strategy to hold on to Kentucky, and what was then called the Southwest, was a brilliant one. Forced to retreat in the face of Union assaults, Johnston received what he might have considered a rebuke in the form of a letter from Davis.
Instead of waiting for Union forces to attack his entrenched positions at Corinth, Johnston, stung by Davis’ letter, chose to attack Grant at Shiloh with the intent of gaining back all he had lost, including Kentucky. In addition, he foolishly participated in the battle himself, in the process becoming, at that time, the highest-ranking American officer ever killed in battle.
Upon his death, Southern newspapers lamented what was feared to be a mortal loss, and Davis considered it a “turning point of our fate.”
Two months later, however, the Confederacy had a new, indispensable general. His name was Robert E. Lee.