Confederate’s Close Encounter with Victory and the Fall of the Hornet’s Nest

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The American Civil War

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

G.T. Beauregard wanted a frontal attack rather than a turning movement against U.S. Grant. With Grant up against the Tennessee River at Pittsburgh Landing, Beauregard knew it would be hard to get around either one of his flanks, as the river guarded them. What was going on in his mind while planning a surprise attack on the Federals?

Map by United States Military Academy depicting the Shiloh Campaign in 1862.
While planning a frontal attack, Beauregard thought to use surprise to overcome the usual problems faced by anyone launching a frontal attack. (Image: United States Military Academy. Department of Military Art and Engineering/Public domain)

Guarding the River

G.T. Beauregard thought that a frontal attack would work because the element of surprise was on the Confederate side. He thought that U.S. Grant would not expect a counteroffensive from the Confederates and that they would be able to use surprise to overcome the usual problems faced by anyone launching a frontal attack. So, the Confederates marched rapidly to the point of attack.

The Problem of Greens

The Confederates moved north with a plan to muster the troops just outside Pittsburgh Landing and to launch an assault against the Union forces. The problem with that plan was that the Confederate troops were absolutely green having had no experience as soldiers. Many of them literally had never fired their muskets or drilled at all. They were thrown into a campaign without being prepared for that kind of campaigning in the field.

There were a lot of green Union troops on the other side as well. It was an instance of a major battle, in which a very large proportion of the men on both sides had no idea what was going on, but who were thrown together in this enormous contest.

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Too Optimistic a Timetable

Portrait of Albert Sidney Johnston wearing Confederate army uniform and stars on his collar.
Albert Sidney Johnston (shown above) turned down G.T. Beauregard’s suggestion to call off the attack on the Union army at Pittsburgh Landing . (Image: New Orleans: James H. Hummel/Public domain)

The next problem was the timetable, which was too optimistic. It took more than a full day longer than they had envisioned. It was late afternoon on April 5 before the Confederates were in place to begin the attack the next day.

Beauregard thought they were too late and suggested they call off the attack, but Albert Sidney Johnston overruled him, insisting they should attack at daylight on April 6.

Supporting Distance of Buell and Grant

The delay in the Confederate advance allowed Buell to come up within easy supporting distance of Grant. Buell hadn’t joined Grant but was very close to him. The Confederate attack on April 6 would not have been a surprise as it was not a quiet advance and there was no way that the Federals would not have known that a major army was approaching.

With many untrained troops, on more than one occasion, large numbers in regiments stopped and fired volleys at deer that had run across the road. Some units practiced their rebel yells on the way to the battlefield. That was not the way a veteran army would have approached something like that.

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Culpability Within Federals

However, the Federals were surprised on the morning of April 6, and there was enough culpability on the Union side. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, who commanded one of the Federal divisions at Shiloh, nearest the approaching Confederates, were culpable. The Federals hadn’t expected the Confederates to come and had not taken proper precautions to protect against any advance from the direction of Corinth.

The Southern attack began at daylight on April 6 and routed a number of Federal units. It was a wild success for the Confederates, catching Union troops totally unaware of the danger approaching in a position where they could not defend themselves. The Confederates drove back a significant part of Grant’s army towards the Tennessee River.

As the attack began, Albert Sidney Johnston turned to his staff and said, “Gentlemen, tonight we water our horses in the Tennessee River.” He meant that they were going to drive the Union army into the river and win a great Confederate success by slicing in between Grant’s army and the river, pushing Grant into the wilderness of that part of Tennessee. They would hold the key ground at Pittsburgh Landing, cutting Grant off from Buell’s approaching army.

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The Hornet’s Nest

Savage fighting quickly developed as wave after wave of Southern soldiers were fed into the assaults against the Federals. Confederates made some progress on their left and right, early on. But soon in the battle, a pocket of very resolute defense formed in the middle of the Union line, in a place that came to be called the Hornet’s Nest.

The Hornet’s Nest was not as important a position at Shiloh as it was before, but soldiers at the time thought it was. That part of the Union line did rally, and, as the day went on, the Confederate focus shifted toward that point of strongest resistance on the Union line. More Confederate units were fed toward the middle, and the most promising avenue of advance languished.

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Hornet’s Nest Focus

The most promising avenue of advance was on the Confederate right flank against the Union left. It was there that the Confederates might have pushed along the banks of the Tennessee River and pushed Grant’s army away from the river into a very rough piece of ground, difficult for them to defend successfully; this would have given the Confederates control of Pittsburgh Landing on the river. It was vital because that would have made it very difficult for Don Carlos Buell to play any role in the battle.

But the Confederates did not push that way. Their attention instead went toward the Hornet’s Nest. Attack after attack by Confederate brigade went against the Hornet’s Nest, and the rest of the battle seemed to be suspended. The Confederates massed artillery and succeeded in carrying the Hornet’s Nest. They captured a couple of thousand Union soldiers, drove the rest out, and then pushed towards a new line that Grant had established closer to Pittsburgh Landing. But it took many hours for the Hornet’s Nest to fall.

Aftereffects of Sidney Johnston’s Death

Albert Sidney Johnston was dead on April 6, hit behind in one of his legs, the bullet cutting an artery, and he bled to death.

Command devolved on Gustave Toutant Beauregard, who was on a different part of the field, and there was a lull on the Confederate side while the new command arrangement kicked in. It was hard for Beauregard to come up to speed as it took a while to get news to him. The Confederate pressure began again, and the Hornet’s Nest fell. Beauregard thought of stopping the attacks, waiting until the morning, and then finishing off the Federals. He thought that Earl Van Dorn would reinforce him before the fighting began the next day and that Don Carlos Buell would not reach Grant in time to take part in the fighting.

Portrait of Ulysses S. Grant on a horse in a battle field with his soldiers around.
Despite most of his army disappearing during the fight on April 6, Grant maintained his composure. (Image: Sartain, William, 1843-1924, engraver Schussele, Christian, 1826?-1879, artist/Public domain)

Unperturbed Grant

The Federal army was in considerable disarray. Thousands of Union soldiers had fled panic-stricken from the zones of fighting. They cowered along the banks of the Tennessee River, hugging the banks of the river for protection against the artillery and musketry.

A good part of Grant’s army disappeared during the fighting on April 6, but his great qualities as a general showed through on the 6th. Due to his great virtues, he at no point panicked. As William Tecumseh Sherman once said, “The enemy didn’t scare Grant.” “They scare me…scare me like hell sometimes, but they don’t scare Grant.”

Common Questions about the American Civil War

Q: What did P. G. T. Beauregard do in the Civil War?

During the Civil War, P. G. T. Beauregard planned a frontal attack rather than a turning movement against Ulysses S. Grant. As he was aware that Grant was up against the Tennessee River at Pittsburgh Landing, his flanks guarded by the river, he would not expect a counteroffensive from the Confederates. So, they marched rapidly to the point of attack.

Q: Who were the two sides in the American Civil War?

The two sides in the American Civil War were the states of Union and the Confederacy states.

Q: Was the Civil War the bloodiest war?

The Civil War was one of the bloodiest wars as Shiloh, New Orleans, Corinth, Mississippi, and Memphis were really massive battles of the war.

Q: Was Grant Union or Confederate?

Ulysses S. Grant was the Union commander who led the army against the Confederates in the American Civil War.

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