The Definitive Battle of the Civil War

The Civil War holds a unique space in the American experience.  We’ve been taught it in high school, entertained with it by Hollywood, and informed on it by documentaries.  The war between North and South was the result of philosophical, economic, and political fissures at our founding that metastasized into violent conflict seventy years later.  The unfinished business and unresolved differences not settled by the pen at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 were settled by the rifle on farmlands turned into battlefields in the 1860s.

All wars have much riding on their outcomes.  But the American Civil War was particularly impactful.  It was not just the sovereignty of a nation, self-determination, or the demarcation of borders that were at stake.  Ultimately, this conflict would be about the inalienable rights of human beings.

Which means the outcome of the Civil War and the North’s victory over the South had implications far beyond preserving the Union.  A unified America’s ascendency on the global stage after the Civil War brought with it global benefits to countless nations and peoples for a hundred years: capitalism’s economic prosperity, republican democracy’s spread, and the defeat of fascism and communism, to name a few.

So understanding the military strategy, tactics, and luck of the Civil War matters.  The decisive moments of the war became decisive moments for humanity.

Conventional wisdom tells us the decisive moments of the Civil War are battles like Gettysburg and its crucial moments of Union General Buford securing the high ground at the start to Confederate General Pickett’s failed charge at the end.  And that the only theater that mattered was in the east where Lee faced off against the Army of the Potomac.  And how the economic might of the Union strangled the life out of the Confederacy.

All were significant in resolving the conflict in the manner it was settled.  But none were as critical to the war’s outcome than the events tied to a two-day battle in a remote corner of Tennessee that garners too little mention in classrooms, Hollywood, or bookshelves.

The most consequential event that impacted the outcome of the Civil War was the Battle of Shiloh.

It was fought in early April 1862 and got its name from a small church in its vicinity.  Ironically, Shiloh in Hebrew translates to ‘heavenly peace’.

The Battle of Shiloh was anything but heavenly.

At its start, Shiloh was the largest engagement of the Civil War to that point.  At its conclusion, Shiloh became the bloodiest battle in American history to that point.[1] The hope of a quick and decisive victory for either side by a single decisive battle died at Shiloh, along with thousands of soldiers.

But Shiloh matters most not for who got the best of who over the two days, tactical considerations, territorial gains, or numeric losses.  No; instead, the Battle of Shiloh matters most because of the impact it had on four leaders, two from each side.  The fates of these four men that were sealed at Shiloh decided the outcome of the Civil War and the preservation of the Union.

Let’s assess the battlefield fates of four disruptively innovative military leaders.

Albert Sidney Johnston

Johnston was a proven Army veteran officer before the Civil War, having served in various conflicts across the western United States.  Johnston was considered by Jefferson Davis to be the best general in the Confederacy until Robert E. Lee emerged (before the Civil War, Lee was under the command of Johnston in the US Army).

Johnston may have been the best officer in the entire nation before the war, and President Lincoln knew it: Johnston, who at war’s outbreak was serving as commander of the US Army Department of the Pacific, was rumored to have been offered the position to lead the Union armies when hostilities ensued.  After Johnston declined the offer, Lincoln then made a similar offer to Lee, who also declined.[2]

General Johnston was tasked with protecting the Western Theater for the Confederacy, including the all-important Mississippi River.  Despite lacking resources and equipment, Johnston was adept at making his forces appear much larger than actual to the Union.

But Confederate leadership dysfunction and the Union’s superiority in men and material led to defeats at Forts Henry and Donelson.  Facing pressure from Richmond, the southern press, and subordinates, Johnston headed into Tennessee looking to take the initiative.

Johnston managed to keep the Union off balance, concentrate his forces at Corinth, and receive reinforcement from coastal regions and cities in the South.  He then proceeded to launch an impressive surprise attack on the Union and Grant at Shiloh.  Johnston viewed the battle he instigated as a “conquer or perish” moment for the Confederacy.

The Union was caught by surprise and a rout ensued for much of the first day at Shiloh.  General Johnston led from the front, and he rallied Confederate troops early in the battle to encourage them forward and not to stop to loot and plunder Union camps that were hastily abandoned by panicked troops.

Leading a charge on horseback in mid-afternoon of the first day, Johnston was struck by a bullet that pierced an artery behind his knee.  Not feeling pain coupled with the profuse bleeding being concealed in his boot, Johnston and his staff were unaware that anything was wrong until he collapsed on his horse from a massive loss of blood.  By then it was too late, and General Johnston bled to death near the infamous Hornet’s Nest on the Shiloh battlefield.

Johnston was the highest-ranking officer on either side killed in action during the Civil War.  The loss devastated the morale of the Confederacy, from President Jefferson Davis down to the common foot soldier.  Davis lamented after Shiloh, “[W]hen Sidney Johnston fell, it was the turning point of our fate; for we had no other hand to take up his work in the West.”  Everyone knew the South lost one of its best leaders.

If Johnston survives the first day of Shiloh, the upsides to the Confederacy are obvious.  Most immediate would be that either the Confederates would have pressed the attack through the evening of the first day to decisively break the Union or that the Union’s recovery and success on the second day of fighting at Shiloh might have been squelched.  These controversial what-ifs are generally referred to as the ‘Lost Opportunity’ for the South at Shiloh, and historians have debated the topic heatedly for 150 years.

But more importantly, the Confederacy would have the benefit of a charismatic, experienced, and able commander for the critical and vast Western Theater of battle.  General Johnston would’ve made the Union and General Grant think twice before taking the initiative subsequent to Shiloh.  Vicksburg and Sherman’s Drive may have turned out differently.  That the military leadership of the Confederacy in the Western Theater under and after Johnston was often inept only makes the able Johnston’s loss more painful.

At a minimum, Johnston continuing to lead the defense of the Western Theater would have bought valuable time for the South.  With the Civil War being one of attrition and will, time offered a path for the Confederacy to victory: via either the Union tiring of the seemingly endless toll of war or with foreign powers coming to the aid of the South if they thought there was a chance for its victory.

Instead, Albert Sidney Johnston was lost that spring day in Tennessee, the Western Theater was where Grant gained confidence and rose in prominence, and Shiloh set the stage for the fall of Vicksburg, the splitting of the Confederacy, and the wrath of Sherman.  The butterfly effect of a single bullet changing the course of history.

General Ulysses Grant

General Grant led early Union success in the Western Theater with his victories at Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee.  These early accomplishments earned Ulysses S. Grant the nickname “Unconditional Surrender” Grant.

Ulysses Simpson Grant / Barr & Young / Albumen silver print, c. 1862 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

But as Grant’s and the Union’s confidence grew in Tennessee, so did the danger.  The Confederate army was less than three miles away from the Union lines on the eve of Shiloh, yet the Union was oblivious to the enemy presence.  Grant was caught completely by surprise at the start of battle, the relaxed army employed minimal defensive measures, his troops were routed and retreated in panic the first day, and the losses were horrific.

But Grant rallied and took control the second day. Like Johnston, he led from the front.  On the second day, Grant came under heavy fire, with a musket ball hitting his sword at his side.

Perhaps the single most important saving grace for Grant and the Union at Shiloh was the weather.  General Johnston wanted to commence the surprise attack two days prior to when it occurred.  But heavy rains slowed the advance of the Confederates and delayed the attack.  Those extra days allowed Grant’s reinforcements that were arriving to his position to creep steadily closer to where they were able to join the fight and decisively swing the momentum on the second day of battle.

Grant was heavily criticized by many in the North immediately after Shiloh, and he was prepared to resign or take a leave from the army.  But President Lincoln understood Grant offered up one characteristic no other Union general early in the war seemed to muster:  proactive aggressiveness.  When a newsman argued to Lincoln that Grant should be removed, the President’s alleged response was: “I can’t spare this man.  He fights.”

Shiloh was a near-death experience for both Grant’s body and career.  But having survived the disastrous first day and rebounding the second day to push back the Confederacy, Grant built upon his earlier Tennessee successes, learned a few valuable lessons that improved the Union’s prosecution of the war, and set Grant up for the success of Vicksburg and ultimate command of the entire Union army.

Shiloh offered Grant a rare combination of wake-up call and confidence builder.  He exited the battlefield more aggressive than ever in taking the war to the enemy but more diligent in preparation.  The fall of the South was set in those muddy woods in early April 1862.

Nathan Bedford Forrest

After the war, Robert E. Lee was asked to name the greatest soldier of the war.  His response: “A man I have never seen, sir.  His name is Forrest.”  Nathan Bedford Forrest, a native Tennessean, was both an impressive force of nature and highly despicable.

Nathan Bedford Forrest, ca. 1862-1865

He was a self-made, successful, and wealthy plantation owner; one of the few soldiers to start the Civil War as an enlisted private and end it as a general; a visionary that revolutionized cavalry tactics despite having no formal military training; and an intimidating adversary who struck fear across all levels of the Union ranks.

Yet Forrest was a slave trader before the war, likely allowed the massacre of hundreds of Union troops after their surrender at Fort Pillow, and served as the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan after the war.

Like Johnston and Grant, Forrest exhibited extraordinary bravery in active combat early and often in the war.

Through the war, he reportedly killed thirty men in hand-to-hand combat and had twenty-nine of his horses shot out from under him in battle.  Prior to Shiloh, in the winter of 1862, he evaded Grant’s siege of Fort Donelson by leading a break-out and escape of 4,000 troops.

Forrest, an unknown colonel at the time of Shiloh, was assigned to guard the flank of the Confederate lines at the start of the battle.  But hearing the battle rage for hours and receiving no new orders, he decided to unilaterally commit his cavalry to the battle.  His men’s charge helped break the Union’s until-then impregnable Hornet’s Nest, and Forrest made it to the bluffs overlooking the Union’s panic on the banks of the Tennessee River that evening.  Forrest and his cavalry staked the high-water mark of the South at Shiloh.

Forrest commanded the rear guard of the Confederate retreat from Shiloh, during which he led a cavalry charge at a Union skirmish line and found himself alone and surrounded by Union soldiers.  He escaped by viscously fighting his way out with pistol and sword, but not before he was shot and nearly killed.[3] He was the last man injured at the Battle of Shiloh.

After Shiloh, Forrest was turned loose to wage a tactically fluid cavalry guerilla war in the Western Theater.  He achieved a major victory at Murfreesboro, wreaked havoc behind Grant’s lines during the siege of Vicksburg, and secured victory after victory in battles across the western half of the Confederacy.

If Forrest dies during the retreat from Shiloh, the Confederacy would likely have suffered a more rapid collapse in the Western Theater.  That could have accelerated the demise of the Confederacy before Appomattox.

That’s because Forrest was exactly the type of leader the outnumbered, outgunned, and outspent South desperately needed.  His tactical genius overcame and nullified the inferiority of numbers.  Despite usually being the smaller force, Forrest applied unconventional tactics to keep his larger foe constantly off balance and loathing what was to come next.

Forrest recruited, trained, and equipped (often with captured Union arms) his men well.  They loved him for it and faithfully performed whatever task he requested.  Legend has it Nathan Bedford Forrest was the only cavalryman Ulysses Grant feared. General William Tecumseh Sherman lamented that, “Forrest is the devil.”

Shelby Foote in Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary states that the Civil War produced two “authentic geniuses”: Abraham Lincoln and Nathan Bedford Forrest.  Interesting how the former epitomized the best of the human condition while the latter left much to be desired.

William Tecumseh Sherman

Sherman was the trusted subordinate of Grant as well as Grant’s polar opposite in demeanor and style.  Sherman was volatile, opinionated, and always in manic motion.  A general once described Sherman as, “a splendid piece of machinery with all the screws a little loose.”

Gen. William T. Sherman, ca. 1860 – 1865

In the early stages of the war prior to Shiloh, Sherman was disgusted with the performance of, and questioned the commitment of, volunteer Union troops.  At the same time, he admired the commitment the Confederacy displayed between citizens and army.  He feared the contrast between North and South could spell trouble, and his experience at Bull Run did little to change his mind.

At the start of Shiloh, Sherman failed to understand the size and proximity of the Confederates to his lines and was caught off guard when the battle commenced.  Yet Sherman saved the first day for the Union.

Constantly on the front lines that first day, he suffered bullet wounds to his hand and shoulder, had three horses shot out from under him, and his coat and hat were riddled with bullet holes.  But he calmly held the vulnerable right flank and prevented Grant’s army from being tossed back into the Tennessee River and destroyed.

Ironically, Sherman persevered and became a northern hero with the help of an inexperienced and volunteer army that struggled at times on the first day but that also fed off his aura.  The very thing Sherman questioned, the ability of a volunteer army of green non-professional soldiers, became the instrument he wielded so effectively.

The bond between Sherman and Grant strengthened after Shiloh and the seesaw battles in the Western Theater, from Vicksburg to Chattanooga, continued with the North slowly grinding with momentum.[4]  When Grant was promoted and headed east to lead the entire army, he placed Sherman in command of the west.

Sherman commenced to apply his version of total war, looking to crush the South’s economy and political will to fight.  He captured Atlanta and burned it to the ground.  That victory helped reelect Lincoln and silence northern proponents of making peace with the rebels.  Sherman then cut a path of economic devastation to the sea.  The South’s will to fight was shattered.

If one of those bullets that found Sherman’s hand, shoulder, coat, hat, or three horses had fatally wounded him, the Union would have suffered an irreplaceable loss.  Sherman saved the Union at Shiloh, bolstered Grant’s confidence, clinched the Western Theater, innovated the concept of total war, secured Lincoln’s reelection, reinforced northern resolve, and crushed southern morale.

Sherman fought at both the first (Bull Run) and last (Bentonville) battles of the Civil War.  Losing Sherman to the fates of war in April 1862 at Shiloh might very well have changed the duration and course of the Civil War.

Shiloh: Forgotten Yet Hotly Debated

George Washington Cable fittingly wrote, “The South never smiled again after Shiloh.”  The battle, which was a must-win for the South that failed to materialize, occupies a unique space in Civil War lore.

Early morning fog over Shiloh National Cemetery

On one hand, it is largely forgotten, ignored, or placed in the shadow of the more famous Eastern Theater battles.

But on the other hand, the debate over Shiloh rages on.  Years of serendipitous winding through an exploration of writings on the battle brought realization of an intense discourse between Civil War historians as to the heroes and villains for each side.  There is little consensus and passionate opposing views about the key moments of Shiloh as well as the performance and what-ifs of Johnston, Grant, Forrest, and Sherman.

Perhaps the most controversial is Albert Sidney Johnston.  There are noted historians that view him similarly to what I suggest: one of the best the Confederacy had to offer and an irreplaceable loss in the Western Theater.  Yet other accomplished historians view Johnston as incompetent and slow to act, and they offer decent rationale for such a view.

Ulysses Grant is also quite the controversial figure among historians, although it feels as if with the passage of time his legacy is better appreciated and placed in a more positive light.

There is much less controversy about the innovative brilliance of Forrest and Sherman.  But these two share criticisms from many regarding their approaches to war and, in the case of Forrest, decisions before, during, and after the war.

Read More

If you wish to head deeper down the historical rabbit hole of the Battle of Shiloh and its main actors, consider the following as both entertaining and enlightening resources:

Shiloh: The Battle that Changed the Civil War by Larry J. Daniel

Ripples of Battle by Victor Davis Hanson

American Ulysses by Ron White


[1] The casualties suffered at Shiloh exceeded the totals of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War, combined!  A shocked North and South were soon to find out things could get much more deadly than Shiloh, as the battles of Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and Cold Harbor loomed in the future.
[2] When Johnston resigned from his federal position in California to join the Confederacy, the Union attempted to capture Johnston during his journey east.  Johnston evaded capture and ultimately made it to Richmond.
[3] Forrest was shot through the pelvis and the musket ball lodged near his spine.  A surgeon removed it a week later, without anesthesia.
[4] Legend has it that Sherman was the one who talked Grant out of resigning from the army or taking a leave of absence immediately after Shiloh.

The Definitive Battle of the Civil War