The battle of Shiloh during two April days in 1862 proved to William Tecumseh Sherman that he could be what he always wanted to be – a success.
Sherman had not been successful at very much during his adult life. In fact, he had come to this point in life not only lacking the success and recognition he craved but also having many people think he was “crazy.” Sherman suffered from depression and anxiety, and his previous military postings during the first year of the Civil War had not done him much good.
But when he was given a command under Ulysses S. Grant in February, his life began to turn around. His natural leadership abilities began to emerge. Most of all, he finally was serving under a man who showed real military leadership — a man who did not fear a fight and understood Sherman in all his complexities.
When the Confederate Army attacked Union forces at Shiloh Church on April 6, Sherman’s command received the brunt of the blows. Initially surprised by the attack, Sherman quickly adjusted and throughout the day showed not only leadership but great courage. He was wounded in the hand and lost three horses, shot while he was riding them, and still he pressed on. His units gave ground to the enemy, but they did not break. The next day, Union forces took the initiative and drove the Confederates back toward Corinth, Mississippi, where they had encamped.
Sherman emerged from the two days of fighting as a hero.
His mentor Grant did not fare so well.
Grant, like Sherman, had failed in most of the things that he had tried as an adult. The outbreak of hostilities between the North and the South had given him yet another chance, and he seemed to be making the most of it. He had driven the Confederate Army from Tennessee by capturing Forts Donelson and Henry on the Tennessee River earlier that year. He had moved his army southward in pursuit of the Confederates.
But Grant was not well liked by others in the army, particularly his immediate superior Henry Halleck. Despite Grant’s victories, Halleck treated Grant with professional discourtesy and lack of respect. He seemed to be waiting for Grant to make a mistake.
At Shiloh, Grant obliged.
Grant had no idea that the Confederate Army was as close as it when Union forces landed at Pittsburg Landing and moved toward Shiloh. He had no battle plan, and he had done nothing to prepare for a possible attack. He even discounted reports from his officers that a major Confederate force was close by.
On the morning of the first day of the battle, Grant was seven miles away from his army, staying at the Cherry Mansion in Pittsburg Landing. He moved swiftly toward the battle once he heard that it was on, but there was little he could do at that point to shore up the Federal lines. Grant showed a great deal of personal courage during the day as he braved bullet and shell to help his commanders bring order to their chaotic forces.
And, although the Confederates were retreating by the end of the second day of the battle and Shiloh was counted as a Union victory, Grant was blamed for a fight that many had come to believe never should have happened. Toward the end of the second day, Halleck appeared and took command of the army, effectively demoting Grant.
On that Monday evening when the battle was over, Grant believed that his military career, which seemed to hold great promised 48 hours before, was finished. He decided to quit the army.
This time, it was Sherman who saved Grant.
Sherman heard what had happened to Grant and what he was planning to do. He rushed to the army’s headquarters and found Grant in his tent packing his bags and his papers. Grant told Sherman he was leaving.
Sherman protested vigorously. The battle had given him new life, Sherman said. That opportunity would come for Grant, too, he told his commander. He was sure of it. Grant had to be there when it happened.
Whatever Cump Sherman said to Sam Grant in those few moments after that terrible battle had the desired effect. Grant reconsidered his resignation and decided to stay. Not only afterward, Halleck was recalled, and Grant was back in charge. More than a year later in July 1863, Grant would accept the surrender of the Confederate Army at Vicksburg.
After that, President Lincoln appointed him the commander of all Union forces, and he took charge of the Army of the Potomac, which set out in pursuit of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Meanwhile, Sherman — acting as Grant’s lieutenant — took over the Union army that dove into Georgia and eventually captured Atlanta.
These two men — Sherman and Grant — save the nation, but not before they saved each other.
The major sources for the information above are the excellent biography of Sherman (Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order) by John Marszalek and Winston Groom‘s Shiloh, 1862, an outstanding description of the battle that demonstrated to both sides what the next three years of the Civil War would be like.
Image: A quick sketch of Pittsburg Landing, on the Tennessee River, by Alfred Waud, artist-correspondent for Harper’s Weekly. The Battle of Shiloh, with its 23,000 casualties, far exceeded in death and destruction anything that had ever occurred on American soil. Almost as soon as the battle was joined on that April Sunday, controversies arose on both side about the actions and competence of the commanders of both armies. Albert Sidney Johnston led the Confederate Army and was killed during the battle. Despite his death, many Southern partisans saw him as no hero for having led his men over rough terrain and into a battle they were unlikely to win. Grant was accused of his incompetence and drunkenness; the alcoholism rumors followed Grant for as long as he was well known to his deathbed, and they continued well into the 20th century.
Get a FREE copy of Kill the Quarterback
Get a free digital copy of Jim Stovall's mystery novel, Kill the Quarterback. You will also get Jim's newsletter and advanced notice of publications, free downloads and a variety of information about what he is working on. Jim likes to stay in touch, so sign up today.