When readers of the Democratic Banner received their April 15 edition, they read about the stunningly bloody battle at Pittsburg Landing, Tenn., better known today as the Battle of Shiloh.
The initial reports wildly exaggerated the number of casualties, but the real numbers were bad enough: After the fighting of April 6 and 7, total casualties were 23,746, which included 13,047 on the Union side, and 10,699 for the Confederates.
One of those casualties was the Confederate commander, Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston, who bled to death from a leg wound that he didn’t think was that serious. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard took over command.
Johnston had launched the attack with his army of about 44,000 against U.S. Grant’s 45,000, hoping to defeat Grant before he could be reinforced by the 25,000 men under Gen. Don Carlos Buell.
Grant (and Gen. William T. Sherman) were later accused of being surprised at Shiloh, and criticized for not having the army entrenched. Sherman was particularly targeted because he was in command at the camp while Grant was several miles down river at Savannah. But that would come later. Banner readers were greeted with a dispatch written on April 8:
“One of the greatest and bloodiest battles of modern days has just closed, resulting in the complete rout of the enemy, who attacked us at daybreak on Sunday. The battle lasted without intermission during the entire day and was again renewed on Monday morning, and continued until four o’clock in the afternoon, when the enemy commenced their retreat, and are still flying toward Corinth, pursued by a large force of our cavalry.
“The slaughter on both sides is immense — We have lost in killed and wounded and missing from 18,000 to 20,000; that of the enemy is estimated at from 35,000 to 40,000. It is impossible, in the present confused state of affairs, to ascertain any details. I therefore give you the best account possible from observation, having passed through the storm of the action during the two days that it raged.”
Here is a sample of the account, which goes on for most of two columns:
“The fight was brought on by a body of 300 of the 25th Missouri regiment of Gen. Prentiss’ Division, attacking the advance guard of the rebels, which were supposed to be the pickets of the enemy in front of our camp. The rebels immediately advanced on Gen. Prentiss’ Division on the left wing, firing volley after volley of musketry and riddling our camps with grape, canister and shell.
“Our forces soon formed into line and returned their fire vigorously, and by the time we were ready to receive them they had turned their heaviest fire on the left and center of Sherman’s Division and drove our men back from their camp, and bringing up a fresh force, opened fire on our left wing, under Gen. McClernand.
“This fire was returned with terrible effect and determined spirit, by both infantry and artillery, along the whole line, for a distance of six miles.”
The nation was stunned by the news of “Bloody Shiloh.” Those who thought the war would be ended by one big fight were shown how wrong they were, as were those who thought it could be a civilized and relatively bloodless war.
Lecky Harper seemed stunned at the cost of the battle. Here is his editorial reaction:
“The greatest battle that has taken place during this most lamentable war, was fought on Sunday and Monday of last week, at Pittsburg Landing, on the Tennessee River. The battle was begun early on Sunday morning by the whole rebel force attacking our advance, and driving them back. The battle at once became general and desperate; but during the first day the rebels appeared to have been the victors, and had it not been for the gun boats our forces might have been annihilated. During the night and next morning, however, Gen. Buell arrived at the scene of conflict, with large reinforcements, and the tables were soon turned. The defeat of the previous day was at once changed into a brilliant but bloody victory. The rebels scattered in confusion, and were pursued beyond Corinth, Miss.
“The loss of life in this battle is heart-sickening to contemplate. The first dispatches placed the rebel loss at from 35,000 to 40,000, the Federal loss at from 18,000 to 20,000. Later dispatches greatly reduce these figures, and it is impossible to say what the loss really is on either side. But many a hearth-stone will be made desolate by the loss of a husband, father, brother or child. Would to God that this sad war was at an end.”
The entire nation was stunned. Bull Run had produced about 4,800 killed, wounded and missing. Shiloh produced about 24,000 in two days.
It was clearly the big battle so many had predicted, but nothing was settled. The two armies that had fought were still in the field. Armies still faced each other in Virginia. Forces maneuvered and clashed in the Shenandoah Valley, in Arkansas and Missouri, at New Orleans and many other places in between.
There was no end in sight. Nothing was settled. The war would go on.