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Shiloh - the first major battle in the West, Apr 6th 1862

Written by Alan

Our club Games Day in Nov 2016 saw six of us – Alan, Bill, Ian R, Jim, Kieron, and Martin – participate in a re-enactment of the ACW Battle of Shiloh, which occurred on Apr 6-7th 1862, in west Tennessee.

We used 15mm figures and terrain from a mix of sources, and the regular Fire & Fury rules;  the scenario can be found in the F&F Great Western Battles scenario book, available from most wargaming bookshops – see our website’s Sites of Interest pages.

Background to the Battle

In late March 1862, General Halleck, Union theatre commander, ordered Generals US Grant and Don Carlos Buell to converge on Pittsburgh Landing on the Tennessee river, and  move against a key railroad junction at Corinth Mississippi, 22 miles further south. Grant arrived first, and camped between Pittsburgh Landing and Shiloh church, to wait for Buell. However, Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston, in charge at Corinth and their overall Western commander, decided to attack before Buell could join him.

Johnston’s men attacked early on the 6th, and Union pickets came under fire several miles south of Shiloh church at about 5am. Incredibly, Peabody’s reports were not believed, allowing the Confederates to approach more closely and attack the Union camps en masse at about 8am.

Our battle commenced at this point, with the Confederate surprise attacks along the axes of the Western and Eastern Corinth Roads, on the encampments of the Union 5th and 6th Divns, south and east of Shiloh church.

1 - The crew for the Battle of Shiloh - seated, Kieron and Bill; standing, Martin, Alan, Jim and Ian R

Shiloh is not a diverse battlefield terrain-wise; there are few landmarks and no significant geographical features.  Martin and Alan had visited Shiloh NBP in Sept 2016 as part of their American Civil War tour, and their first-hand experience was useful in setting the scene. They had found the battlefield preserved today much as it was in 1862 – heavily wooded, interlaced with narrow streams and unpaved tracks, with cleared areas surrounding the isolated farms. The terrain is slightly rolling, but there are no significant elevations, and in most places the dense woods reduce visibility to a couple of hundred yards at best.  The ability of commanders to direct troops must have been severely compromised, and battle ranges generally short - this was probably less important than it would have been later in the war, since many troops on both sides were still armed with smoothbore muskets in the Spring of 1862. However, it limited the role of artillery, by effectively confining it to the open areas and along the tracks. Everywhere else, it could only use canister.

One thing to note about our depiction of the battle is that we dispensed with most of the trees, for playability. It wouldn’t be practical to move troops if we had accurately modelled the dense woods, so we designated the entire board as wooded unless specifically marked otherwise – as open fields, tracks, the farms, etc. 

Fighting the Battle

The action opened on the Confederate left, where brigades from the divisions of Hindeman and Ruggles attacked  Sherman’s  Divn  in their camps in the open area south of Shiloh church. The Confederate superiority in numbers soon saw the Federals retreating back past the church, but the Rebels were delayed as their troops paused to loot the encampments, which gave just enough time for Federal reinforcements to arrive in the form of McDowell’s Bgde, which had been encamped just off the western table edge.  For a while, the battle here see-sawed back and forth around Shiloh church, with neither side able to get the upper hand.

2 - Hindeman's and Cheatham's Divns advance up W Corinth Rd to Shiloh church

Wood’s Bgde of Hindeman’s Divn engaged Peabody’s Bgde of the Federal 6th Divn in the centre, while over on the Confederate  right, Withers’ division advanced up the E Corinth Rd, towards Miller’s Bgde.  Martin, who was playing the 6th Divn commander, Prentiss, fully expected to be overwhelmed by sheer force of numbers, and sure enough, Peabody’s Bgde, which historically had put up a stiff fight, quickly retired in confusion across Barnes’ field north of their camps, but then formed a second line of defence near the Hamburg-Purdy Rd, still south of the Peach Orchard and the Hornet’s Nest.  Miller’s Bgde on the left fared better, repeatedly hurling back strong Confederate attacks, before withdrawing in the direction of the Sarah Bell farm.  Once again however, the Confederate advance was delayed while their troops looted the Union camps, and the outnumbered Federals were allowed to retire and regroup.

3 - Millers Bgde of Prentiss' Divn holds off the initial Rebel attacks on the Federal left

The ordeal wasn’t over yet for the Federals though. Sherman and Prentiss’ Divns were outnumbered locally almost 3-to-1, and the Confederates were starting to pile on the pressure again.  On their left, they finally cleared the Federals from south of Shiloh church, and continued to advance north, only to run into the first of the Federal reinforcements, from McClernand’s 1st Divn.
4 - The Rebels drive north past Shiloh church and encounter  McClernand's Divn

In the centre, Peabody’s Bgde of Prentiss’ Divn found cover along a snake-rail fence at the northern end of Barnes’ Field, where they faced a massive Confederate infantry assault from the Rebel brigades of  Hindeman’s Divn, supported on their left by Ruggles.  Supported only by their divisional artillery, Peabody’s Bgde was for a time the only Union force in place to prevent a complete Confederate breakthrough in the centre, to the Hornet’s Nest and beyond.

5 - Peabody's Bgde and its divisional artillery hold the centre alone north of Barnes' field

It was at this point that the difficult terrain of Shiloh came to the Federal’s aid. The Confederate looting of the Federal encampments had in several instances given the Union troops a breathing space, and allowed them to rally and regroup, where the Rebels might have had more success if they could have kept up the pressure. At this point though, the Rebels were also suffering from command and control problems in the close terrain, and it took them a considerable time to line up for their attack in the centre.

6 - The Confederates mass for an attack in the centre

Despite being outnumbered 3-to-1, Peabody’s Bgde gave a good account of itself, and the Confederates took heavy casualties as they crossed Barnes’ field. The 6th Divn artillery fired until it ran low on ammunition, whereupon the Confederates finally succeeded in capturing the snake-rail fence Peabody had been defending.

7 - Peabody's Bgde and supporting artillery are driven back from Barnes' field

Even then though, the Rebels were so weakened by casualties that a Federal counter-attack briefly re-captured it, routing a Confederate brigade in the process.
8 - Peabody's Bgde counter-attacks at Barnes' field

Up to this point, Prentiss’ Divn had been doing all the fighting on the Federal left and centre. Their sacrifice and stubborn defence had not been in vain however, as behind them infantry and artillery from Hurlbut’s Divn started to take up positions in the sunken lane which history would later know as the Hornet’s Nest.

9 - Reinforcements from Hurlbut's 4th Divn take up position in the Hornet's Nest

However, over on the Federal left things still looked precarious.  Stuart’s small brigade from Sherman’s 5th Divn, encamped way over on the Federal left south of the Bell farm, had been immediately outnumbered by a determined Rebel attack with artillery support from Gladden’s Bgde of Withers’ Divn. They fought valiantly and refused to give ground, but inevitably took heavy casualties.

10 - Stuart's Bgde under attack by Gladden on the Federal left

Withers’ other brigades, Chalmer’s and Jackson’s, had meanwhile re-applied pressure to Miller’s Bgde of Prentiss’ 6th Divn, which was defending the Sarah Bell farm. Without artillery support however, and heavily outnumbered, they were unable to withstand the strong Confederate advance, and fell back past the Bell farm and into the Peach Orchard.

11 - Miller's Bgde of 6th Divn is unable to hold off the Rebel attack at the Bell farm

12 - The Confederates surge past the Bell farm and towards the Peach Orchard

The Rebels followed, sweeping forward into the Peach Orchard, where they encountered the fresh Federal troops of Hurlbut’s 4th Divn.  The Confederates would not be easily denied however, and some of the heaviest fighting of our battle occurred around the Peach Orchard as both sides fed in reinforcements. By the time the Confederate attack was halted, it had started to outflank the Hornet’s Nest at its eastern end.

13 – The Confederate advance through the Peach Orchard is finally halted by Hurlbut’s 4th Divn

Meanwhile, the Federal right flank, reinforced by units from McClernand’s Divn, still held on doggedly in the vicinity of Shiloh church.
14 - Sherman and McClernand hold near Shiloh church on the Federal right

Over in the centre, the Confederates were also on the move. Reinforcements from Breckenridge’s Divn had brushed aside the remnants of Peabody’s Bgde and were advancing towards the Hornet’s Nest.  The Confederate leaders had clearly been reading their history books, as behind them the divisional artillery together with the Confederate reserve artillery lined up a Grand Battery facing the Hornet’s Nest.

15 - The Confederate infantry and grand battery facing the Hornet's Nest

Unfortunately, that is where we had to leave it, as we had run out of time. The battle clock was now at 2pm, so fighting had been going on for 6 hours, and the Confederates were less than halfway to Pittsburgh Landing, with only Forrest’s cavalry brigade yet to appear.

The Federals had done well on their right, with Sherman and McClernand stalling the Confederate advance just north of Shiloh church; they had done much better in our re-enactment than in real life.

In the left and centre, the Confederates had done about as well as historically, up to this point. Prentiss  Divn held further south in our re-enactment than historically, so it was Hurlbut occupying the Hornet’s Nest and looking set to be flanked,  but as the picture below shows, W Wallace’s 2nd Divn and the Union reserve artillery have come forward more than they did historically, so a Rebel breakthrough to the river appears unlikely.

16 - Federal defences in depth with 2nd Divn behind the Hornet's Nest


Just as historically, our re-enactment illustrates that the Confederates faced a difficult task in driving the Federals away from Pittsburgh Landing in a single day, indeed, perhaps an impossible one given the nature of the terrain, the poor battle-plan sending in their three corps in lines one behind the other, and the inexperience, poor equipment and supply situation of many of their troops.

Looting the Union camps certainly did not help the poorly equipped Rebels keep pressure on the retreating Federals, but the nature of the terrain and the limits it placed on their command and control system played an important part also. Although the Confederates enjoyed an almost 3-to-1 advantage in numbers initially, they were only rarely able to take advantage of it, whereas the Federals could afford to trade space for time, knowing they had strong reinforcements between themselves and the river, and Buell on the way.

Although the Confederates did not lose Albert Sidney Johnston (played by Jim) in our re-enactment, the battle did take a heavy toll of Confederate commanders, including most notably Patrick Cleburne, killed leading his brigade near Shiloh church.  In real life, Cleburne would be killed at the battle of Franklin in November 1864, but before that he would become known as the “Stonewall of the West”, and widely recognised as the ablest division commander the Rebels had in the western theatre.

As for Shiloh itself, just as we did, the Confederates simply ran out of time on the first day of the battle. Indeed, the F&F scenario book seems ridiculously optimistic to assume that a 22 turn battle can really be fought out in 8-9 hours; we got through just 12 turns in 7 hours, and certainly weren’t dawdling.

Again, as in real life, our battle illustrated that Shiloh church and the Hornet’s Nest were indeed the key locations on the field, something which is not really apparent when looking at a map. Although modern battlefield archaeology has cast doubt on the extent and ferocity of the fighting at the latter, as described in veteran’s accounts, there is no doubting the strength of the position with open fields in front at its eastern and western ends, an impression certainly confirmed for Martin and Alan when they walked the ground there just two months before.

Shiloh’s importance is often overlooked because it did little to change the tactical situation;  the Western theatre after the battle was much as before.  What it did do however, was to completely change the prevailing perspective on the war, North and South, East and West. The scale of the casualties appalled both sides, and forced the realisation that both sides were in deadly earnest, and that this would not be a 90-day war, or settled in one major engagement.

Shiloh had repercussions for the commanders on both sides. Historians generally agree that Grant and Sherman were caught by complete surprise (although they never admitted it), and after the battle, Halleck used that as an excuse to depose Grant, until Lincoln reinstated him.  On the Confederate side, AS Johnston was dead, his deputy Beauregard was in ill health, and consequently the Army of Tennessee would eventually get Braxton Bragg in charge. We can only conjecture how history might have been different had Johnston not been killed. It is unlikely that Johnston could have succeeded in throwing the Union army into the Tennessee river that day, but he could hardly have been a worse commander than Bragg later proved to be.

it may not have been fully appreciated at the time but Shiloh did change the situation in the West strategically, however, because it cemented the Union's hold on W Tennessee after the earlier victories at Forts Henry and Donelson.  I would argue that the failure to secure a victory at Shiloh was the first point at which it is possible with hindsight to say that the Confederacy was doomed to lose the war. If Johnston had indeed soundly defeated the Union army that day, then the Union invasion of W Tennessee that Spring would have become moot, and US Grant might have been just another failed Union general’s name on the long list sacked by Abraham Lincoln. By failing to halt the Union advance at Shiloh however, the Confederate heartland was opened up to further losses later that summer, at Corinth and Iuka and at Perryville, and ultimately it provided Grant with a back door to Vicksburg, the key to the Mississippi valley.

Most historians would agree today that, contrary to the prevailing opinion at the time, the Western theatre of the war was far more important than the East, and ultimately, it was the irretrievable losses in the West which doomed the Confederacy.  And the first of those losses was at Shiloh...