Battle of Shiloh: Strategies for a Winning Outcome

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The American Civil War

By Gary Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

In early 1862, Union forces triumph at Forts Henry and Donelson and their Confederate opponents retreat into Tennessee. Explore the strategic planning on both sides, and consider the pivotal campaign as they move toward the battle of Shiloh. Who were the key players, and what was at the heart of their campaigns?

Original sketch depicting the battle scene at Shiloh.
Both the Union and Confederates planned a major confrontation at Shiloh in which U.S. Grant was the key in that phase of campaigning. (Image: Internet Archive Book Images/No restrictions/Public domain)

Major Confrontation at Shiloh

Union and Confederate planning set up the major confrontation at Shiloh. Henry Halleck had planned the campaign that moved up the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, resulting in the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson and the loss of Nashville.

Halleck was given supreme command of the United States forces in the Western Theater with Buell under his command. They had been equal in rank and responsibility before this. Henry W. Halleck was the principal Union commander in the west, promoted in terms of position. Ulysses S. Grant was also promoted, as was Don Carlos Buell and others. Success had generated advancement in the Union high command in the west.

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Union Presence in the Western Confederacy

Halleck was not satisfied with what he had accomplished, wanting to do more damage to the rebels, and soon he had Grant press up the Tennessee River into southwestern Tennessee toward the Mississippi border. Buell moved from Nashville overland to join forces with Grant on the Tennessee River. Once those two armies were united, there was a very powerful Union presence deep in the western Confederacy.

Halleck wanted them to push Albert Sidney Johnston into central Mississippi to take control of the crucial city of Corinth, which was a railroad center. Two major railroads crossed at Corinth, the north–south route, and the east–west route, and it would benefit the Union cause enormously to take control of the railroad center. U.S. Grant was the key in that phase of campaigning.

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Disenchanted Ulysses S. Grant

Gen. U.S. Grant, considered the hero of the north who saved the Union.
U.S. Grant fought an aggressive battle at Belmont, Missouri, and Kentucky in November 1861. (Image: The original uploader was The Mystery Man at English Wikipedia/Public domain)

Ulysses S. Grant was the premier military hero of the North during 1865, who saved the Union.

Grant went to West Point where he was average but was distinguished for being the best horseman at the academy. He did not distinguish himself in the classroom, nor graduate anywhere near the top of his class. He went off to the war with Mexico, where he served competently as a junior officer but did not forge a great record there. He did not come to people’s attention as some other men his age did. Stonewall Jackson, for example, did much better in Mexico than Grant.

Grant’s Love for Family

Grant was sent off to the Pacific Coast in the period after the Mexican War by himself without his family. Grant was a family man who depended on them, drawing strength and sustenance from them, and it was very hard for him to be separated from his family when he was sent off to the Pacific Coast. He languished there, trying various means to make a little extra money, which failed. He became lonely, bored, and disenchanted with army life, and began to drink. In the end, he left the army in 1854.

Charges of alcoholism dogged Grant for a large part of his life. But at no point during the entire Civil War did drinking get in his way as a commander on the battlefield.

Experimenting with Various Professions

After leaving the army in 1854, Grant tried a string of professions to make a living but didn’t really succeed. He was not a successful man financially but had some connections. He had a relationship with a congressman from Illinois who helped him get an appointment as a Brigadier General in 1861.

In November 1861, he fought an aggressive little battle at Belmont, Missouri, which was right across the Mississippi River from Columbus, Kentucky. He didn’t win the battle but impressed Abraham Lincoln and others because he’d been aggressive in that battle, and Lincoln made a note to watch Grant.

The First Real Break

Halleck gave Grant his first break with the campaign that ended in the capture of Fort Henry and Donelson, and the fall of Nashville, and then Halleck gave Grant the opportunity to build on that success by continuing his advance deeper into Tennessee. Grant was the principal Union person to watch in the campaign of Shiloh.

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Finding a Way to Restore Confederate fortunes

During the wake of all the news that came in the Western Theater in early 1862, Confederates realized the extent of their defeats. Jefferson Davis was bombarded with complaints, pleas for help, and suggestions that he needed to do something to retrieve Tennessee. He and his generals tried to find a way to restore Confederate fortunes in the Western Theater, to regain part of that valuable Tennessee territory.

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Concentrating Forces

They concentrated forces at Corinth, pulling from many places in the Confederacy to give Albert Sidney Johnston and G. T. Beauregard, who served as second in command to Johnston, an army that was large enough to confront Grant’s army. They used railroads in the interior of the south to effect that concentration.

Picture of Memphis and Charleston Rail Yard after the American Civil War.
Confederates used railroads in the interior of the south and brought several troops from the Gulf of Coast and Charleston. (Image: No author/Public domain)

In addition to uniting major forces under Johnston and Polk, some of the troops who’d retreated from Columbus, Kentucky, and Bowling Green, brought 5,000 men from New Orleans and troops from the Gulf Coast and Charleston, South Carolina.

Use of Railroads

It was an impressive example of using railroads, which were new in war, to bring troops from all across the Confederacy to Corinth, Mississippi to have a major army. Earl Van Dorn’s little army in Arkansas also joined the rest of the Confederates at Corinth. The plan was to move north from Corinth and strike Ulysses S. Grant’s army before it could be reinforced by Don Carlos Buell’s men coming overland from Nashville.

Playing by Strategies

Johnston and Beauregard together had about 40,000 men, not counting Earl Van Dorn’s troops who were not present yet. Grant had 42,000, and Buell had another 20,000, but they had not yet united.

The Confederates wanted to hit Grant before Buell got there and then turn their attention to Buell. They wanted to strike the Federals in detail, and with speed. Beauregard drew up a plan that called for a march from Corinth to Pittsburgh Landing on April 3, 1862. He launched his attack against Grant’s army on the 4th.

Common Questions about the American Civil War

Q: Who fought at the Battle of Shiloh?

Albert Sidney Johnston from the Confederates and Ulysses S. Grant from the Union fought the Battle of Shiloh, considered one of the important wars in terms of the severe violence on either side.

Q: What is Ulysses S. Grant known for?

Ulysses S. Grant is known as the premier military hero of the North during 1865, the man who saved the Union. He was not a successful man financially but had some connections. For example, with a congressman from Illinois who helped him get an appointment as a Brigadier General in 1861.

Q: Was Ulysses S. Grant a good leader?

Ulysses S. Grant was a good leader as he fought an aggressive little battle at Belmont, Missouri, across the Mississippi River from Columbus, Kentucky in November 1861. He didn’t win the battle but impressed Abraham Lincoln and others because he’d been aggressive in that battle, and Lincoln made a note of it.

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