The two-day Civil War Battle of Shiloh, sometimes referred to as the “Battle of Pittsburgh Landing,” began in the predawn hours of Sunday, April 6, 1862, when Confederate General Albert Sydney Johnston’s army rushed out of the dense woods upon the more or less unsuspecting Union army of General Ulysses S. Grant. Grant’s troops were, for the most part, just rising from their tents when the attack began.
With all due respect to the solemnity and significance of December 7, 1941 at Pearl Harbor and September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington, D.C., I consider the Battle of Shiloh to be the closest that the United States has ever come to being destroyed by a surprise attack.
At the end of the first day of the battle, Grant had rallied his nearly defeated troops to form what is remembered as “Grant’s Last Line,” a long arc of artillery assembled on a bluff over the Tennessee River. There was nowhere left to go but to flee into and across the river, surrender, or fight back. The general bringing up reinforcements, Don Carlos Buell, advised Grant to retreat across the river, and General Sherman tells a wonderful story of intending to tell Grant to consider the very same retreat, only to see the look in Grant’s eye and think better of offering the advice.
Grant did successfully counterattack the next morning, and won an unlikely victory, driving the Confederates back to Corinth, Mississippi without their able commander, General Johnston, who was killed in action on the first day of the battle. Based on Sherman’s story and the behavior of virtually every other Union general over the course of the Civil War, it’s safe to assert that only this commanding general would have chosen to fight back rather than retreat.
There are many reasons to consider this one of Grant’s most significant of his many victories, not the least of which is that, had he lost, he would likely have sunk into oblivion rather than to subsequently capture Vicksburg, rescue Chattanooga, and rise to command all Union Armies two years later.
Shiloh was, by far, the bloodiest battle of the war to that point, with total deaths (for both sides) at about 3,500, and total casualties (killed, wounded, missing, captured) at about 24,000. To that point, neither northern nor southern civilian populations had considered the conflict to be more than a short-lived fight to be sorted out with some bloodshed, but certainly not the carnage that Shiloh foreshadowed.
In his memoirs, Grant noted that it was after Shiloh that he realized the war was to be long, vicious, and deadly, beyond the public’s imagination. Only five months later, at Antietam, MD, Confederate and Union forces would lose approximately the same number of soldiers (about 23,000 total casualties) in only one day, and in July, 1863, at Gettysburg, PA, twice as many would be lost (nearly 50,000 casualties) over three days of fighting.
Over the course of the Civil War (1861-1865), approximately 620,000 Americans died, constituting fully 2 percent of the population at that time (31,000,000). By today’s standards, with about 310 million Americans, that mortality rate would translate to 6,200,000 deaths.
So my reflection for today is that Friday, April 6, 2012 is the 150th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of Shiloh in the American Civil War, and it is also the first day of Passover.
The stories of the Book of Exodus, including the bravery of Moses and the stupidity of Egypt’s Pharaoh in the face of the many “warning plagues” God sent prior to the Angel of Death, are far and away the favorite part of the Bible for both my daughters. And when we read them together, my girls rarely fail to ask me why Pharaoh and his own people wouldn’t let God’s people go free.
I haven’t figured out the precise answer to that very good question, but perhaps it’s the repeated asking of the question that is most important to learning from mistakes throughout history.
Thousands of years ago, a society’s commitment to slavery was paid for with the lives of the first-born males of Egypt. One hundred and fifty years ago, over the course of four years of fratricide, another society’s commitment to slavery cost it fully 2 percent of its population (which I suppose was about 4 percent of its male population).
Let’s let Abraham Lincoln have the last word for this week. From his Second Inaugural Address, in 1865:
The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
And on that note, may everyone have a blessed Passover, Easter, and/or commemoration of Shiloh.
Patrick Teegarden writes about the Civil War. His award-winning columns have been running in The Colorado Statesman since last year, when the 150th anniversary of the Civil War was recognized. He can be reached at: Patrick@coloradostatesman.com.