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Shiloh fought 150 years ago today

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Civil War General Albert Sidney Johnston has the most elaborate grave at the Texas State Cemetery. A white marble statue lay atop of his grave, encased within a gothic style protective cage. The sculpture is an original Elizabet Ney statue and many people visit the State Cemetery to see the statue by itself. It is ironic that Johnston’s statue has become better known than Johnston himself in certain circles. Confederate President Jefferson Davis once said Johnston was the best general officer in the Confederate Army and his death was a big turning point in the war. The statue is a depiction of Johnston on his deathbed at the Battle of Shiloh, which began 150 years ago today. Shiloh began as a brilliant advance and surprise attack by the Confederate Army, but turned into a bloody Union victory on the second day. The cost of the battle was great, twenty-three thousand casualties were reported with about 3,500 men killed in combat. Both sides were shocked at the carnage, but the bloody cost became de rigueur for Civil War battles. It was the costliest battle in American history at the time and led to a temporary demotion for Union commander Ulysses S. Grant and the death of Albert Sidney Johnston.

The casualty numbers were almost equal on both sides, but the Confederates had far less men to lose than the Union Army and the battle resulted in a strategic victory for the federals. The Confederate Army of the Mississippi was on its heels and never regained the initiative that Johnston so badly wanted to seize on April 6, 1862.
Initially, the battle was almost a complete rout. Only a clear-headed Grant and a stiff backed William Tecumseh Sherman prevented an overwhelming Confederate victory and disaster for Union armies in the west. The Confederate attack took Grant and the other Union commanders almost entirely by surprise. Johnston wanted to keep the Union Army of the Ohio from meeting up and joining with the Army of the Tennessee and he left his base at Corinth to do so, something Grant didn’t believe he would do. Grant set up no defenses when he set up camp on the evening of April 5. No stout defenses, no scouts, hardly any sentries left the Union camp completely flat footed when dawn showed the Confederate Army lined up for battle and about to charge. Initially, there were great gains for the Confederates as the Union army hastily dressed and got into lines of battle. Union luck turned in the early afternoon and they stabilized their lines; even repelling a Confederate flanking maneuver. Media gave Sherman credit for a strategic retreat and defense against a flanking maneuver by John C. Breckinridge. It was the turning point in Sherman’s military career. He’d suffered from “melancholia” early in the war and many thought him unfit for a command. Grant gave him a second chance and his repulse of Breckinridge was the upturn in his career.

A vigorous Albert Sidney Johnston was all over the front lines in the afternoon, rallying men, pointing out the enemy, scouting the field. One could almost say what happened next was inevitable. He was shot in the knee, and probably because of an old dueling wound he’d received in Texas, discounted it until he felt light headed and had to dismount from his horse. Johnston initially refused medical help and insisted that his doctors look after wounded Union soldiers. He bled to death sometime in the mid afternoon and the battle was at a standstill in the evening. Without Johnston, P.G.T. Beauregard assumed command and planned an attack that would drive grant into the Tennessee River. He was unaware that Johnston’s fear of the combined Ohio and Tennessee Armies had happened in the night. By the end of the Seventh of April, the Confederates were in full retreat. The aftermath of the battle wasn’t immediately apparent, but from the ashes of Shiloh came the Siege of Vicksburg, Union control of the Mississippi and the long, bloody and terrible road to Appomattox Courthouse and the Confederate surrender.



- Will Erwin