Again another terrible battle has occurred in which our arms have been victorious. For the number engaged and the tenacity with which both parties held on for two days, during an incessant fire of musketry and artillery, it has no equal on this continent. The best troops of the rebels were engaged to the number of 162 regiments as stated by a deserter from their camp, and their ablest generals. Beaurigard [Beauregard] commanded in person aided by A.S. Johnson [Johnston], Bragg, Breckinridge and hosts of other generals of less note but possibly of quite as much merit. Gen. Johnson [Johnston] was killed and Bragg wounded. The loss on both sides was heavy probably not less than 20,000 killed and wounded altogether. The greatest loss was sustained by the enemy. They suffered immensely by demoralization also many of their men leaving the field who will not again be of value on the field.
I got through all safe having but one shot which struck my sword but did not touch me.
I am detaining a steamer to carry this and must cut it short.
Give my love to all at home. Kiss the children for me. The same for yourself.
Good night dear Julia.
General U.S. Grant to his wife, Julia Grant, on April 8, 1862
The Battle of Shiloh (A Very Brief Overview)
After the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson by Union forces, Confederate General Albert S. Johnston pulled his forces back, abandoning Kentucky and areas of Tennessee, to secure Corinth, Mississippi, as the new base of operations. The Union army advanced into Tennessee.
In the spring, both armies kept an eye on each other, expecting action. Skirmishing on April 5th hinted at the coming battle, but the Confederates still managed to launch a “surprise” attack on April 6, 1862, against Union forces near Shiloh and Pittsburg Landing. Union troops make a stand along a farmland path (which would later get the impressive sounding name “Sunken Road” even though evidence suggests it wasn’t sunken). The fighting got fiercer, and the soldiers christened the area as the “Hornet’s Nest.” The Confederates continued to push forward and massed their artillery fire; the Union troops fought on and retreated as darkness came, different parts of the battle lines in worse condition than others. In the night, General Ulysses S. Grant arrived at Pittsburg Landing with reinforcements and coordinated a new strategy with his generals for the following day.
Grant’s counter-offensive led to more hard fighting, but eventually pushed the Confederates off the battlefield and into retreat. The Battle of Shiloh was a Union victory, but it was also the most costly battle up to that time; after two days of fighting, 23,000 littered the field. General Grant received blame for the high casualties and, nationally, didn’t receive the expected praise for the victory; newspapers decided he was drunk during the battle.
In the letter to his wife, Grant mentions the death of a Confederate opponent – Albert S. Johnston. Johnston had been appointed to command a western district of the Confederacy; he was a commander with limited battlefield experience, but an impressive military record from pre-Civil War U.S. military service.
While leading some of his troops forward, Johnston was wounded in the right leg. He didn’t seem to notice the injury until he almost fainted. Alarmed, his staff officers got him off the horse and spent valuable moments looking for a body injury and trying to give him liquor as a stimulant. Meanwhile, the general bled to death; likely the projectile had stuck an artery or other major blood vessel.
Some historians wonder what could’ve happened if Johnston had survived. Would the war have gone differently in the western theater? Possibly, but we’ll never know for sure.
What we do know… Grant wouldn’t face Johnston and his strategies on the battlefront again. And Grant did not rejoice over his enemy’s death; likely familiar with the officer’s military record, it was just another reminder of the divisiveness of this Civil War.
General Grant’s letter is matter-of-fact. He tells his Julia about the battle, assures her that he is well, and then closes affectionately. There’s no bragging. No false humility. He sees the war as “terrible” but know the Union has won another victory.
This post-battle letter gives insight into Grant’s character. Plain, thorough, not flamboyant, down-to-earth, get-it-done. While the papers would propagate stories about drunkenness in the coming days, the general would wait for word from the president. Lincoln would decide that a general winning victories had to stay. Yes, the victory had been costly, but Grant wasn’t going to sit around, miscount soldiers, and squabble before trying to win a battle.
He might have been plain in letter-writing, appearance, and command style, but Grant wanted to win. And he would do what it took to put the Union in a stronger position to finish the war, even if that meant costly, costly victories like Shiloh.
P.S. Looking for more than an overview on the Battle of Shiloh? Check out the awesome resources at Civil War Trust for this battle.