Close this search box.
Close this search box.

Why did the Confederates lose the battle of Shiloh?

Why did the Confederates lose the battle of Shiloh?

US Civil War

The Battle of Shiloh (April 6–7, 1862) was almost the end of the careers of Generals Grant and Sherman. General PGT Beauregard planned a surprise advance and attack at Pittsburg Landing, on the west bank of the Tennessee River. On the first day, the Confederate Army routed the Union Army and only tenacious defense saved the day. On the second day, Union reinforcements and Rebel confusion led to a complete reversal of the fortunes of day 1.

Planning and Strategy

Exactly how involved Albert Sidney Johnston was in the planning is controversial; it has been suggested that he was totally out of his depth, and that Beauregard both planned and led the attack.  The broad concept was to attack Grant before Buell joined him.

However, Beauregard underestimated the length of time necessary to march from their camps outside of Corinth to the area of Pittsburg Landing.  

How Did Ironclads Affect The Civil War?

This resulted in many of their troops not having enough rations. One consequence was that after their initially successful assault, the Confederate troops halted in order to feast at the Union campsites. Another error was that the rains had slowed travel from their base in Corinth.  Had they arrived a day sooner General Buell might not have gotten there in time for day 2

General Charles Ferguson Smith was at the time commander of the army, as Halleck tried to dump Grant behind the scenes. Sherman went upstream with his division to raid the Memphis & Charleston RR. But on the way noted Pittsburg Landing and sent a recommendation to Smith that he occupy it. Smith sent Hurlbut, who occupied the landing.  

Hurlbut’s Division defending the peach orchard

Upon Sherman’s return from his unsuccessful raid, he landed there. Furthermore, decided the ground was good, and took charge of the forces around the landing and occupied Shiloh Church. Grant probably made an error in setting up camp on the side of the river closest to the known position of the Confederate Army. Grant’s back was to the river, and he could have been entirely destroyed.

The Battle – Day 1

The nature of the surprise was exaggerated by the northern newspapers at the time; the Union did not entrench, but General Sherman had been forewarned and elements of the Union army found the southern lines quite soon after their arrival. Despite being routed early, Sherman showed tenacity and skill despite adversity on the first day, proving to himself and to others that he had the emotional and cognitive skills necessary to lead an army.

The death of Albert Sidney Johnston of course was a major event in the war; the Confederate western theater never really found its general. Johnston was shot while leading a charge.

Map of the Battle of Shiloh, morning of April 6, 1862

Why the commanding general was doing this has been speculated about ever since. His losses at Fort Donelson and Henry, and the criticism following his abandoning Nashville certainly occupied his mind. Johnston was killed by a bullet to the back of his knee, where the popliteal artery is located.

Unfortunately, the wound went unnoticed until too late because Johnston had received a wound to that leg in the Mexican War, decreasing his sensation. Meanwhile, the bleeding became severe and filled his boot with blood. Essentially he exsanguinated on the field from what ought to have been a non-fatal wound. This wound should not have resulted In death; a simple tourniquet would have been lifesaving..

Sherman’s March To The Sea

A casualty of a different kind was the Union general Lew Wallace. Wallace took a road that was correct if the lines were where they had been at the start of the day but by the time he arrived, those lines were pushed back and so Wallace was behind enemy lines.

Thus, he had to countermarch. He never did arrive on day 1 but he was very effective on day 2. Grant never really forgave him; only in his autobiography, after Wallace died, did Grant recognize that he had misinterpreted the situation. Wallace spent years trying to make up for the supposed error, a theme he used in his famous novel Ben Hur.

Another General Wallace was killed in action in the toughest part of the battle on day 1. Charles Ferguson Smith was division commander but developed a leg infection just prior to the battle. In fact, he died of it a couple of weeks later. General William HL Wallace took command, yes, there were two General Wallace’s in the same army in this battle. Wallace ended up defending the Hornet’s Nest for 6 hours, eventually being killed there.

Grant’s back was to the river; he could have been entirely destroyed. His defense at Pittsburg Landing in the afternoon of day 1 saved his army. 

The Battle – Day 2

The night of the first day, Sherman mentioned to Grant it had been a tough day: “We’ve had the Devil’s own day.”  Grant’s famous response shows his tough character: “Lick em tomorrow though”.

The fortunes of Day 2 went the opposite way. Beauregard’s men were entangled and exhausted. Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio arrived. But so did Lew Wallace’s division. 

The Union counterattacked the morning of day 2. The Confederate lines had become confused the day before and now they were outnumbered. The Union now had the advantage and pushed the lines back completely beyond where the battle lines had been before the fighting began.

The Union had 63,000 men engaged, with 13,000 casualties (1754 killed, 8400 wounded, 2900 captured vs. the Confederates with 40,000 men with 10,700 casualties (1728 killed, 8000 wounded, 1000 captured). The union on a percentage basis therefore had a slightly lower rate of casualties.

The battle remains famous for the brutal fighting, the high casualties on both sides, and the evidence that the war was going to be a long one. At that time, this battle had more American casualties than every prior war combined! Yet by the end of the war, this battle barely made the top ten list.


Sketch of the battle’s aftermath by Adolph G. Metzner, a Union officer in the 32nd Indiana Regiment

The perception of Grant as a drunkard was utilized to explain the horrific losses suffered at the Battle of Shiloh by officers jealous of Grant’s rapid rise. Newspaper reports critical of Grant’s command were intended to increase sales, if not influence the political debate, after the shocking casualties of that bloody battle.

Shocked by the casualties of what up to that point was the war’s bloodiest battle, newspaper reporters wrote articles critical of Grant’s command.

These criticisms fed the rumors that Grant, who many believed had been forced out of the pre-war Army because of alcohol consumption, had been caught drunk and off guard by Confederate General Albert Sydney Johnston’s surprise attack. The losses suffered by both sides at Shiloh had more to do with the nature of nineteenth-century warfare than the nature of Grant’s relationship with liquor, but rumors of his affection for spirits now became generally accepted.

Whitelaw Reid, Cincinnati Gazette, reported the events of the battle incorrectly, stating that Grant had been taken by surprise at Shiloh and that soldiers had been bayoneted in their tents. This myth persists to this day.  The high casualty rate at Shiloh was related to the intensity of the battle, not the nature of Grant’s problems with liquor, but rumors of his drinking increased. Halleck assumed command, relegating Grant to his subordinate.

Why did the Confederates lose the battle of Shiloh? Written by Lloyd W Klein

Dr. Lloyd W. Klein is Clinical Professor of Medicine in the Cardiology Division of the University of California, San Francisco. In addition, Dr. Klein is an accomplished consultant, author, lecturer and investigator. In addition, with over thirty-five years’ experience and expertise in managing myocardial infarction and tailoring coronary revascularization strategies. 

Moreover, Dr. Klein is a nationally recognized expert in individualizing coronary revascularization strategies. He has published extensively on analyzing operator quality and decision making.

Dr. Klein is also an amateur historian who has read extensively on the Civil War with a particular interest in political and military leadership and their economic ramifications. Furthermore, Dr. Klein has published numerous articles on the Civil War. Moreover, with a special concentration in why decisions were made and the people who made them. Lastly, using his professional experience in appraising leadership, he is especially insightful in evaluating the internal and external motivations which influenced decisions in battle and in the political hall.

Please see Dr. Klein’s Works:

Siege of Vicksburg

The Battle of Shiloh

The Hampton Roads Conference

Sherman’s March To The Sea

Why Did the North Win the Civil War (and, Alternatively, Why Did the South Lose?)

The Atlanta Campaign : The Conundrum of General Joseph E Johnston

The “Lost Order” Of General Lee

What caused the South to start the Civil War?

Was the Reconstruction of the Civil War successful?

Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Greatest Victory

Further Reading:

Daniel, Larry J. (1997). Shiloh: The Battle That Changed the Civil War. New York City: Simon & Schuster.

James M McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom. Oxford University Press, 1988.

Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative. Volumes 1-3. Random House, 1963.

Ulysses S Grant, The Autobiography of General Ulysses S Grant: Memoirs of the Civil War. Accessed at: 

William T Sherman, Memoirs of General William T Sherman. Accessed at:

Why did the Confederates lose the battle of Shiloh?