Group Writing: The Showers of Shiloh


Cannons and a stone plaque at the Shiloh National Military Park, Tennessee.

It was a hard, cold rain that fell on the living and dead the night of April 6-7, 1862, but it was the showers of a few days before that may have determined the course of the Battle of Shiloh.

In February 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant had captured Forts Henry and Donelson, opening up central Tennessee to the Union and making him a national hero with his insistence on “unconditional surrender.” Grant advanced his army along the Tennessee River to an isolated area just north of that state’s borders with Mississippi and Alabama. Another army, commanded by General Don Carlos Buell, had been ordered to join Grant and they would both then advance to capture the key rail junction at Corinth, Mississippi, less than 25 miles to the southwest.

The Confederate commander, Albert Sidney Johnston who at the time was regarded as the new nation’s best general, sought to disrupt the Union plans and regain the initiative for the South. His Army of Mississippi was concentrated around Corinth and he planned a surprise advance and attack on Grant before Buell could join him. Johnston’s scouts had made him aware that Grant, obsessed with advancing, had left his encampment unfortified and vulnerable.

The Confederates set forth from Corinth on April 3, planning to attack on the 4th, well before the arrival of Buell. However, a torrential rain turned the already primitive roads and trails into a morass of mud. During the Civil War, it was difficult in the best of conditions to get an army to its destination on time. Now it proved impossible and took three days for Johnston to advance the 23 miles. The result was that while he succeeded in initially catching Grant by surprise on April 6, Buell was to arrive in time to help launch a Union counterattack the next day.

The initial assault early on the morning of the 6th seemed like it would yield a Confederate victory. A soldier of the 6th Arkansas, Henry Morton Stanley, who ten years later was to “discover” Dr. David Livingstone in Africa, recalled:

Those savage yells, and the sight of thousands of racing figures coming towards them, discomfited the blue-coats; and when we arrived upon the place where they had stood, they had vanished. Then we caught sight of their beautiful array of tents, before which they had made their stand, after being roused from their Sunday-morning sleep, and huddled into line, at hearing their pickets challenge our skirmishers. The half-dressed dead and wounded showed what a surprise our attack had been.

But though some Union units fled, others made a stand, slowing the Confederate advance. The topography of the battlefield also worked against the Rebels, as it both funneled their advance into a narrower front and required them to cross several deep ravines in the face of Union fire, including from gunboats on the river. The Confederates became more disorganized, a confusion compounded by the mortal wounding of General Johnston. The battlefield eventually quieted as darkness fell.

What was it like that night? Here are the recollections of a Union soldier of the 9th Indiana; Ambrose Bierce, author of The Devil’s Dictionary and An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (made into a famous “Twilight Zone” episode), who was to disappear in Mexico in 1913 during its revolution:

The night was now black-dark; as is usual after a battle it had begun to rain. Still we moved, we were being put into position by somebody. Inch by inch we crept along, treading on one another’s heels by way of keeping together . . . When the men had pressed so closely together that they could advance no farther they stood stock-still . . . In this position many fell asleep . . . Very often we struck our feet against the dead; more frequently against those who still had spirit enough to resent it with a moan . . . Some had sense enough to ask in their weak way for water. Absurd! Their clothes were soaken, their hair dank; . . . Besides none of us had any water. There was plenty coming, though, for before midnight a thunderstorm broke upon us with great violence. The rain, which has for hours been a dull drizzle, fell with a copiousness that stifled us; we moved in running water up to our ankles.

Grant may have failed to take precautions to protect his position but once the battle started his customary calmness and imperturbability came into play. He refused to take the advice of some of his officers to withdraw the army, directed the establishment of a new defensive line, and once he knew Buell’s army would be available on the 7th, determined to take the offensive. With daylight, Grant ordered an advance and much of the ground lost by the Union in the first day was recovered and the Confederates withdrew back to Corinth, their goal not attained. Grant received much criticism for leaving his army so exposed to attack but managed to survive, fortunately for the Union. Henry Morton Stanley was captured in the Union counterattack, ending his career as a Confederate soldier, though he was to enlist and briefly serve in the Union Army.

The casualty toll of Shiloh was a shock to both sides. Until then, the bloodiest battle of the war had been Bull Run in July 1861 where the combined dead and wounded amounted to 3,500. For the entire Civil War until April 6 about 10,000 had been killed or wounded. The dead and wounded in the two days of Shiloh totaled just under 20,000. It was a harbinger of worse to come.

You can learn more about the Battle of Shiloh watching this video from the American Battlefield Trust.

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  1. Sisyphus Member

    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo…: In February 1862, General Ulysses S Grant had captured Forts Henry and Donelson, opening up central Tennessee to the Union and making him a national hero with his insistence on “unconditional surrender”.

    My great-great grandfather was on the other side of that particular action and would differ strenuously with the characterization “national hero”. Perhaps rabid cur would be a more suitable sobriquet. Just a suggestion.

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  2. Arthur Beare Member
    Arthur Beare

    Rain is God’s way of putting His finger on the scale without being too obvious about it.  Barbarossa was delayed because of rain.

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  3. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male

    My Great-Grandfather William Becker was in the 12th Michigan Infantry, Company B, fought (and captured) in “The Hornets Nest” at the battle of Shiloh.  Eventually released in a prisoner exchange, served (and survived) the remainder of the war.

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  4. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator

    Reading this gave me the idea that I might have a story to tell of two big battles during the Fox wars, one at the beginning near Detroit and one at the end out on the Illinois prairie, both of which ended with big thunderstorms during which the besieged Fox Indians escaped. I looked them up and, alas, neither of them took place in April. 


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  5. 9thDistrictNeighbor Member

    If you are interested in reading more about the battle, James Lee McDonough’s Shiloh–In Hell Before Night is a great read.

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  6. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown

    April showers bring Union victory?

    There are two major monthly Group Writing projects. One is the Quote of the Day project, now managed by @she. This is the other project, in which Ricochet members claim a day of the month to write on a proposed theme. This is an easy way to expose your writing to a general audience, with a bit of accountability and topical guidance to encourage writing for its own sake.

    Stop by and sign up now for “April Showers Bring . . . .”

    Interested in Group Writing topics that came before? See the handy compendium of monthly themes. Check out links in the Group Writing Group. You can also join the group to get a notification when a new monthly theme is posted.

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  7. MiMac Thatcher

    The night after the 1st day of battle, Sherman approached Grant to recommend withdrawal. They had been surprised by the Confederate attack, suffered serious losses and were backed up against the river. As he walked up to Grant(who was under a tree smoking a cigar) he said he could tell by the look on his face that he wasn’t in any mood to hear of retreat. So he said “we had the devil’s own day”. Grant said “yes”, took a puff off his cigar and then added “but we lick them in the morning”- he ferried over reinforcements and did just that. Johnson had telegrammed Richmond that 1st night proclaiming a great victory and the city was joyous- imagine the consternation the next day when news of the defeat arrived.

    a great book about Sherman & Grant is-

    Grant and Sherman: The Friendship that Won the Civil War.  By Charles Flood

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