Bloody Shiloh: ‘Lick’em tomorrow though!’

By Sherman Fleek USMA Historian

February 28th, 2019 | News, News and Features
 A picture from the Battle of Shiloh. Courtesy Photo
 The Shiloh Meeting House and the battle from April 6-7, 1862.   Courtesy Photo

In pouring down rain at Pittsburgh Landing on the Tennessee River, Brig. Gen. William T. Sherman, U.S. Military Academy Class of 1840, rode to where he thought the headquarters of the Army of the Tennessee was located. There was no official headquarters site or building, it was where its commander happened to be. Sherman moved on through the rain and spied a man standing under a lone tree with rain running off his felt hat and slicker.
Sherman dismounted and approached his commander, Maj. Gen. U. S. Grant, who had a cigar in his mouth. Called “Cum” from his cadet days for his middle name Tecumseh, Sherman had rehearsed in his mind what he would say to Grant his superior: that the Union army was exhausted and unorganized and in a state of chaos and defeated. Sherman had been slightly wounded twice and had three horses killed from under him.
The Confederates had surprised them and won the day, pushing the federals back two miles to Pittsburgh Landing. It was insanity to stay on the west side of the river and face the Rebels again. The only way to save the army was to cross over by riverboats at night in this miserable rain or disaster would come tomorrow, April 7, 1862. Only a madman would stay and fight.
Sherman reached Grant and said to him, “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?”
Grant looked up. “Yes,” he said, “Lick ‘em tomorrow, though.”
That was it. That was all that needed to be said. Sherman looked at Grant and walked off to his horse. In only a few words, Sherman understood completely what Grant intended to do: Attack.
If there is one battle and one element of that battle that demonstrates Gen. Grant’s genius, tenacity and decisiveness in war, it was that moment in the rain under a tree. Grant knew the Confederate commanders would never expect the Union to attack after having been nearly routed on Sunday, April 6.
Any other Northern commander would have retreated across the river to save his army for another fight and another day. But not Grant. What all the other commanders on both sides did not understand was that Grant was a visionary; he could see the end results through the fog and chaos of battle and see what needed to be done.
He knew his army had been surprised and routed, but he also knew his men made a determined stand and were gaining confidence by the end of the day. Grant knew that if he was confident and held firm, so would his men.
As Gen. Sherman was determined to retreat, he was changed in an instant with Grant’s four words and absolute confidence and determination.
The federal army did attack the next morning and by noon, the Confederates, the victors of the first day of Shiloh, were losing ground and were soon vanquished. Grant knew war and soldiering.
After the great victory at Forts Henry and Donelson, Grant became a hero and the North celebrated his twin victories. Uncomfortable with the fame and new name, “Unconditional Surrender Grant,” he continued his movement south taking advantage of the enemy’s uncertainty.
He sent a brigade from the Army of the Ohio (not under Grant’s command) to Nashville, which the Rebels had abandoned. He then focused on Corinth, Mississippi a vital railroad junction for southern Tennessee, northern Alabama and Mississippi. Grant had six divisions of some 63,000 troops in the Army of the Tennessee.
Gen. Albert Sydney Johnston, USMA Class 1826, the senior Southern officer and department commander was in a state of anxiety and withdrew his separate forces south. Johnston’s intention was to reorganize his army and march north to strike the hated Yankees.
The hope was to defeat Grant before Maj. Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio could unite with Grant at Pittsburgh Landing near a small church named Shiloh.
By the first of April, Johnston, whom Confederate President Jefferson Davis, USMA Class of 1828, considered his greatest general, had reorganized several small armies into the Army of Mississippi of some 43,000 men, many of whom had no combat experience.
His logistics and supplies were inadequate, and he knew time was critical for a major offensive. Johnston allowed Gen. Pierre Gustave Toussaint Beauregard, USMA Class 1838, to develop the battle plan to attack the Federals at Shiloh. A complex deployment of four corps in attack column instead of on line, proved difficult to manage in the dense brush and forests. The element of surprise was essential for the plan.
Early in the morning of April 6, after a difficult march from Corinth in rain and muddy roads, Confederate skirmishers approached the Union camps in the pre-dawn darkness. For several days there were indications of the enemy nearby, but Union commanders refused to believe the evidence, especially Sherman.
However, Col. Everette Peabody commanding an Illinois brigade was very concerned and ordered a patrol to advance that morning due to activity in the last two days to his south. Brig. Gen. Benjamin Prentiss, also from Illinois, chastised Peabody after an intense firefight erupted, saying, that he would hold Peabody “personally responsible for bringing on this engagement.” Peabody was proved right—dead right; he was later killed that morning.
Thus, the bloody battle of Shiloh began. The Confederates struck violently and overran two Union divisions and their camps. But by noon, five divisions had driven back a mile and were  able to dig-in and hold firm. (The other division commanded by Lew Wallace was miles away at Crump’s Landing).
Names on the battlefield are now hallmarks for death and courage: the Sunken Road, the Peach Orchard, Bloody Pond and the most famous, the Hornet’s Nest. Assault after assault failed to dislodge the Union troops in the Sunken Road, a farm lane sunken down about two feet below the fields. Then at a patch of trees called the Hornet’s Nest, Prentiss made a determined stand for hours, which saved the rest of Grant’s army from destruction.
When the noise of battle sounded up river where Grant was having breakfast aboard his riverboat headquarters, he lost no time in reaching the front, instilling confidence and making adjustments. He inspired all who saw him.
Confederate Gen. Johnston was reconnoitering on the far east side of his line when he realized that the overall attack was misplaced.
Due to poor maps, the main attack was two miles to the west from the river, thus not pushing the Federals away from the river and reinforcements.
As Johnston did so, a Minnie ball entered his leg, and he was bleeding to death before any of his men knew it. He died by mid-afternoon. The Confederates had lost their best hope in leadership and tactically.
Grant rallied the situation and retreated to more defensive ground near the Landing. With a rain coming on, the Army was saved. The next morning with reinforcements from Buell’s Army of the Ohio, and Gen. Wallace’s lost division, Grant attacked carried the day.
The Confederates withdrew by late afternoon shattered and defeated. Some 3,500 dead lay upon the ground. The saying goes, “After Shiloh, the South never smiled again.”
(Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series on Ulysses Grant until his statue dedication at West Point on April 25.)