Army Generals in the Civil War usually commandeered the best houses in the area for their Headquarters.
Pittsburg Landing, TN
Pittsburg Landing, TN was a small village on the Tennessee River. Control of that river, which flowed into the Mississippi, was essential – both North and South. The North needed to choke off supplies to the Confederate army. The South needed their supply lines to remain open.
Battlefields are seldom planned, but in this case, the battle was generally expected. General Ulysses S. Grant, the recent hero of Forts Henry and Donelson, was assigned command of a large army of some 40,000 soldiers to wrest complete control of the Tennessee River.
Opposing him was General Albert Sidney Johnston, the best they had, according to Jefferson Davis. (General Robert E. Lee was still riding a desk in Richmond.). He was there to secure the river with his army of nearly 40,000. Scouts had been sent by both sides. They knew what was coming. Grant had already sent for General Don Carlos Buell to come with his 20,000 soldiers.
So the battle, named for a small Dunkers church named “Shiloh,” out in the middle of nowhere, was not a surprise. Everyone knew a battle was inevitable. They even knew the probable location. Both sides were prepared.
What was a surprise, and what always remains a somewhat-controversy, is when it occurred.
Early in the morning of April 6, 1862, Union soldiers were just rising, their campfires lit to fry bacon and heat coffee. There was no cause to expect any fighting that day.
All of a sudden, there was a rustle of branches and trees, and forest critters came running out of the woods and into the camps. This was immediately followed by Southern cavalry yipping their rebel yells! The battle was on.
General Grant was in severe pain. The ground had been soaked by torrential spring rains, and two days earlier, his horse slipped in a muddy crevice and rolled over, trapping his rider’s ankle. It was not broken, but it was badly bruised, and so swollen that his boot had to be cut off. He was still using a crutch.
But as soon as word came that the armies had engaged, Grant mounted his horse and spent the entire day in the saddle, riding for hours from corps to corps, division to division to issue orders, direct strategy when needed, tactics when needed, send reinforcements where needed, and send stretcher bearers and wagons for the wounded – everywhere.
When he arrived at the killing fields of Sherman’s army, he quickly noted that “Cump” was doing exactly the same thing: riding circles within his corps for the same purpose. The two Generals thought alike.
Grant and Sherman
U.S. “Sam” Grant and William Tecumseh “Cump” Sherman had known each other since their West Point days. Sherman, older by two years, was two classes ahead. West Point classes in the pre-Civil War days, were small. A graduating class might only number 40-50 cadets, thus everyone at every level would likely have been acquainted.
Grant and Sherman had met on occasion during the next twenty years, but it was a casual old-school-tie. The mercurial-tempered Sherman was faring much better than the laconic and directionless Grant.
But today, on the fiercest battle by the bloody River, the two became “friends.” They thought alike, and anticipated and understood each other without much discussion. Grant was senior to Sherman in command, but he knew intuitively that his subordinate was in complete control of his corps, and was functioning exactly the way Grant would have done in the same position.
The casualties were horrendous. They would get worse. By the end of the day, the battlefields were such that the phrase about walking for a hundred yards upon corpses without touching the ground was born. It would be used again. And again.
Then the torrential rains began late in the day, and an exhausted Grant, with his throbbing ankle, rode back to the small house he had commandeered as his Headquarters. Only his HQ had been re-commandeered by the Army surgeons for the wounded and dying. They had priority.
A few yards from the cabin-surgery was a large oak tree, perhaps 150 years old. Its spreading branches offered a small bit of protection from the deluge, and Grant, with his crutch, leaned against the huge trunk and tried to rest. The rain and the pain became too much, and he hobbled inside the cabin to find a dry corner where he could stretch out and rest his leg.
But the sights and sounds of men vs. saw blades, of the bloody arms and legs being tossed into barrels, and the smell of torn flesh and blood (reminiscent of his father’s tannery that he hated so much) made it impossible for Grant to rest. So once again, he found shelter under his tree.
Sherman had been wounded four times that day, albeit slightly. Now, having tended to his men, he set out to check on his commander. He found Grant leaning against a huge oak tree, hat pulled low over his brow, trying to sleep in the rain.
The conversation is reported to have been such:
Sherman: Well, Grant, it’s been a devil of a day.
Grant: (nodding) Whup ’em tomorrow, though.
Then the two Generals puffed silently on their cigars in the rain. Grant had heard from Buell. Some 20,000 fresh troops would be there by morning. And it would start all over again.
Flood, Charles B. – Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Saved the Union – Farrar, Straus, 2005
Henig, Gerald S. & Niderost, Eric – Civil War Firsts – Stackpole Books, 2001
Kelly, C. Brian – Best Little Civil War Stories – Cumberland Press, 2010