Beauregard Lost Shiloh Because of Hesitation
Every student of the Civil War has heard the story about how Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard blew the Southern victory at the Battle of Shiloh. General Albert Sidney Johnston had worked so hard throughout the day to win a desperately needed victory over Federal Major General Ulysses Grant only to have the victory squandered by Beauregard who stopped the action late in the day believing he would finish up the Union army the next morning.
Each time the story of Shiloh is brought up, one must endure this same story repeatedly. Is this story fact or myth? It is true that Grant's army was pushed all the way back to Pittsburg Landing overlooking the Tennessee River. It is true that many of his men had become demoralized and refused to fight. But in order to understand if Beauregard blew the victory that afternoon, we must look at the condition of the troops Grant had left and the condition of the troops Beauregard had to continue the battle. One must also take a look at the terrain Grant was defending and what Beauregard would have to advance through to reach his position.
Once Johnston was killed at Shiloh, many historians believe a lull fell upon the field that gave the Federal's time to regroup at the landing. The lull actually fell on the field as a result of the capture of over two-thousand Union troops. These men were taken, processed (weapons taken away), and then marched to the rear. Once this was completed, the Confederate's had about one hour of daylight remaining to deal with Grant. Brigadier General James R. Chalmers infantry brigade was given a fresh supply of ammunition and ordered forward. Brigadier General John K. Jackson's brigade was almost depleted of ammo, thus they were sent forward with Chalmers and instructed to rely upon the bayonet. Colonel Robert Trabue's brigade was sent forward with their fellow Confederate's. Two of his regiment's had newly captured Enfield rifles abandoned by the fleeing Federal troops.
These three brigades arrived at the ravine that contains Dill Branch about 6 p.m. For anyone who has walked through the terrain and up the steep hill on the north side of Dill Branch (I am one of those who have), it takes no great imagination to see the obstacle these weary men who'd been fighting since daylight were facing. For anyone who has worn Civil War era brogans on steep mossy ground (again I have), it's extra treacherous.
Hill overlooking Dill Branch
This brings us to the next question of what were these men facing once they actually struggled up that hill. At the top of this ridge, Grant's chief of artillery, Colonel Joseph Webster had arrayed fifty artillery pieces there to hold the last line. Chalmer's wrote about the attempt by his brigade to carry Grant's last line, “In attempting to storm the last ridge we were met by a fire from a whole line of batteries protected by infantry and assisted by shells from the gunboats. Our men struggled vainly to ascend the hill, which was very steep, making charge after charge without success.” He went on to report about a battery of Confederate artillery that was brought forward to assist his men, “Gage's battery was brought up...but suffered so severely that it was soon compelled to retire. This was the sixth fight in which we had been engaged during the day, and my men were too much exhausted to storm the batteries on the hill.”
Grant's last line just above Dill Branch Ravine
Historian James Lee McDonough stated, “Those who have criticized Beauregard for ordering the army to fall back about six o'clock have shown little understanding of the condition of the Rebel army or the terrain they had to cross. He has been criticized for not consulting the other commanders before withdrawing the army, but his decision was the right one and was probably based, at least in part, on intelligence of the total situation of his tired and exhausted troops as supplied by his staff officers.”
This was occurring after 6 p.m. What was happening on the Union side at this time? A brigade of Buell's army had arrived across the Tennessee River from Pittsburg Landing at 5 p.m. At 5:40, this brigade under Colonel Jacob Ammen were crossing the river to reinforce Grant. Also, Major General Lew Wallace's tardy division arrived on the field just after dark.
Beauregard wasn't wrong to call off the assault with what he had available to move against Grant's position at this point. The Confederate army was exhausted having fought all day and most units were low on ammunition. Still, much of the Confederate army was seeing battle for the first time and most units were down to half strength or less. The victory had disorganized the Confederate's as badly as it had their Union counterparts.
So we're left with the question of who was actually at fault for the loss of the Battle of Shiloh? Before entering the United States Military Academy at West Point, Beauregard had attended a school taught by two brothers who had served as lieutenants in Napoleon's army. Beauregard who was already of French descent was further enamored by the great French hero Napoleon.
Before departing Corinth for the showdown with the Federal army at Shiloh, Sidney Johnston, Beauregard's superior, wired President Davis in Richmond that his plan of operations was to turn the Federal left flank. In doing this, he would be required to place his strongest corps on the right flank. He told Davis he would place Hardee's large corps on the right, Bragg's corps in the middle, with Polk's weaker corps on the left. The reserve corps under Breckinridge would be placed behind Hardee's corps. What Johnston was attempting to do was push Grant's army away from the river and its route of escape. He wanted Grant's army pushed into the swamps northwest of Pittsburg Landing where they would be forced to surrender.
Beauregard arrived at Corinth recovering from throat surgery. Besides the throat surgery he was suffering from a bronchial infection. Thus he had his chief of staff Thomas Jordan draw up the battle plan. Jordan, understanding Beauregard's love of Napoleon, used the only Napoleonic battle plan he had in hand, the Battle of Waterloo. The plan called for all four corps arrayed in line one behind the other, thus the Confederate army of 40,000 men would strike the Federal army of 40,000 men one corps at a time. Basically, 10,000 men would strike the 40,000 man Union army alone each time.
Beauregard's alignment of the Confederate Army
Sidney Johnston accepted Beauregard's plan without objecting to a single thing. This was a fault that General Hardee had with General Johnston. The man was so easy going that he lacked the ability to override a strong-willed subordinate. Historian James Lee McDonough stated, “Beauregard's...colossal ego...made him fully capable of scrapping a superior's instructions and writing his own.”
The resulting battle plan resulted in confusion and the many ranks jumbled together. Each corps commander had a line almost three miles long and with the terrain and forests at Shiloh, had no way of controlling his entire corps. The result was a mass of men who couldn't be watched over by their own commanders. Most of the Confederate army being green troops with no combat experience made matters even worse.
After the war, President Davis was asked to speak in New Orleans at an unveiling of a monument to Sidney Johnston. With Beauregard in attendance, Davis said, “In the entire Shiloh Campaign, Johnston made only one mistake, he let another officer direct the march to the battlefield.” Davis was only close to being correct. Johnston allowed Beauregard to plan the entire campaign and thus lose that battle. The only difference in history and the myth we've been taught today is the fact that Beauregard lost the Battle of Shiloh before leaving Corinth, not the afternoon of the first day.