The western battles of 1862 included three surprise attacks, although only one was planned as such. The opening Confederate attacks at Fort Donelson and Stones River caught the Union forces unprepared. Yet, neither caused a scandal, likely because both battles ended in decisive victories. Shiloh by contrast did lead to controversy because the Union forces had ample opportunity to know what was coming.
Tactically speaking, Shiloh was not a complete surprise. Everett Peabody’s morning scout had already engaged the 3rd Mississippi Battalion, and the Union had a picket line. When the battle began in earnest, the Rebels found fully formed battle lines waiting to receive them. That said, the Union rear forces were out of position and took time to form for battle.
However, Shiloh was clearly a strategic surprise. The day before the battle, Ulysses S. Grant informed Henry Halleck “I have scarcely the faintest idea of an attack (general one) being made upon us.” William Nelson’s division, part of Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio, had arrived and could have been sent over. Nelson even requested it, saying he was surprised the Confederates had not attacked Grant. Regardless of Nelson’s concerns, he would remain at Savannah across the Tennessee River.
In the Union camps, there were those who suspected something was afoot at Pittsburg Landing, but mostly they were regiment commanders and junior officers. Although two division commanders, John McClernand and Stephen Hurlbut, were concerned they were not on the front lines. Instead, William Tecumseh Sherman and Benjamin Prentiss commanded the foremost camps. Both men ignored the warning signs. Sherman told a nervous Jesse Appler, commander of the 53rd Ohio, “Take your damned regiment back to Ohio. There is no enemy closer than Corinth.” Prentiss refused to even speak with junior officers who had seen Rebel cavalry. In contrast to Grant, Sherman, and Prentiss, Private Jacob Fawcett of 16th Wisconsin felt certain a battle would happen on Sunday April. On the night of April 5 his friends gathered and one started to sing “with one accord…the songs of home and bygone days. Our last song was ‘Brave Boys are They.’”
The Confedrate plan was predicated on Grant failing to monitor the approaches to his camp, and the attack was conceived as a surprise. P.G.T. Beauregard advised Albert Sidney Johnston to retreat. Beauregard argued that the army had run out of rations, the attack had been delayed, and the Union had to know they were nearby. Beauregard thought Grant’s men would “be entrenched up to their eyes.” Johnston ended the debate with a flourish: “Gentlemen, we shall attack at daylight tomorrow.” As he left, he told his son, William Preston Johnston, “I would fight them if they were a million.” The battle was fought on April 6. Johnston died that day and Grant, bolstered by Buell’s men, was able to defeat Beauregard on April 7.
William Carroll, a member of Grant’s staff and reporter for the New York Herald, rushed to Fort Henry after the battle and submitted a fantastical report, in which Grant was not surprised and in fact led a heroic charge on April 7 that won the battle. Carroll wrote that Grant “brandished his sword and waved them on to the crowning victory, while cannon balls were falling like hail around him.”
Grant had been shrewd to court Carroll, and he was adept at exploiting the press. However, Whitelaw Reid’s report to the Cincinnati Gazette was more accurate and damning. Rumors of drunkenness soon followed and politicians called for Grant’s head, particular Governor David Tod of Ohio as well as Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio. Tod said Grant and Sherman were guilty of “criminal negligence.”
Grant’s management of the army after Shiloh was poor. Hundreds deserted by stowing on steamers, spreading news of a near disaster. When a rumor spread of another Rebel attack, there was a wave of panic followed by more desertions. As at Fort Donelson, Grant had yet to learn how to manage an army after a battle. Morale was also low, with the soldiers generally blaming Grant for the near debacle at Shiloh.
Grant survived Shiloh for a number of reasons. Abraham Lincoln did not want to remove him, supposedly saying “I cannot spare this man; he fights.” Yet, it is telling that Lincoln wrote him no letter of encouragement, and would not write him anything until after the fall of Vicksburg. After the fall of Corinth, he made the Army of the Tennessee a tertiary supply consideration; most of the new supplies and troops were sent to the Army of the Ohio and the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln toyed with replacing Grant with McClernand, and after the Holly Springs fiasco, he offered Grant’s command to Benjamin Butler. Although Halleck retained Grant, also seeing him as a good fighter, he considered Grant a terrible administrator. To be fair Grant’s staff was poor in 1862, something he even admitted to Simon Buckner after Fort Donelson fell. Halleck made little use of Grant in the siege of Corinth. When he went to Washington he brought John Pope, his favorite general at that time. When Pope failed, Halleck continued to bolster and promote his favorites in the west (Grant, Sherman, Ord, McPherson, Schofield, Sheridan) but no one achieved enough notoriety to be brought east until 1864. In the meantime, Halleck actively undermined McClellan, Burnside, Hooker, and Meade, and therefore the ability of those commanders to deal with Robert E. Lee. Such is the nature of command politics.
Every major battle of the Civil War generated controversy, but none quite like Shiloh. Debates have fluctuated over the years, but two things are clear. The Union army was not surprised in so far as they had battle lines formed. However, given the actions of Grant, Sherman, and Prentiss, the army was out of position and the high command was surprised. They were also lucky. Nelson had arrived on April 5, and on April 7 Buell would provide a total of four divisions of fresh infantry. If the attack had occurred on April 4, as Johnston and Beauregard had planned, the likelihood of a Union victory would have been much diminished with Buell’s men absent and surprise being likely; April 5 is really when Sherman’s and Prentiss’ men became alarmed. Grant, won Shiloh but barely remained in command. Had he lost he would then likely be remembered as a general who got lucky at Paducah, Belmont, and Fort Donelson. Such are the contingencies of history and memory.