Monday, March 17, 2008

ON THIS DAY: Monday, March 17, 1862

A Fateful Landscape

Having arrived at Savannah, a dilapidated village of about 800 persons 7 to 9 miles’ march north of Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant establishes his headquarters. Succeeding the ailing Gen. Charles F. Smith in command, he moves into the William H. Cherry mansion, atop a high bluff, and begins issuing orders. He is very glad indeed to have been saved from the purgatory of inaction at Fort Henry and to be back in the hunt for the enemy. (The “mansion,” is pictured above. A prosperous owner of land and slaves, Cherry, strangely, was said to be a strong Unionist.)

This is corn, not cotton country, inhabited mostly by humble white farmers scratching out bare livings from small farms. “The country here is not worth fighting for,” an Ohio soldier wrote. Nonetheless, in the form of the Tennessee River it offers a backdoor avenue into the South and Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, commander of the Department of the Mississippi, is massing his forces to dominate it.

By sunrise this morning, Brig. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman finishes disembarking the 8,500-9,000 men of his Fifth Division. They tramp off the steamboats at Pittsburg Landing and push about two miles inland to establish their camp along a ridge marked by a small log church called Shiloh. During the course of the day, the 6,500 men of Stephen Hurlbut’s Fourth Division also disembark at Pittsburg Landing and move inland about a mile to take up a position to Sherman’s right. Both divisions are composed of Midwestern troops, the majority of them raw recruits. (Nine of Sherman’s twelve infantry regiments are from Ohio, supported by artillery and cavalry units from Illinois. Most of Hurlbut’s infantrymen are from Illinois, joined by one Ohio artillery battery and two battalions of Ohio cavalry.)

While the soldiers file into their campsites, Sherman engages in some reconnaissance of the area. It is a rolling tableland about nine miles square, covered largely by forest interrupted by scattered farm fields. The area is bounded by the river on the east and by creeks on the northwest and south. This leaves a three-mile opening of sorts between the creeks, and it is in this opening that Sherman’s division is positioned.

At Savannah, meanwhile, Grant is dismayed to find his forces are dangerously divided, with only two divisions at Pittsburg Landing, two at Savannah, and one at Crump’s Landing, just north of Savannah. As fast as he can, Grant begins moving the laggard divisions forward to Pittsburg Landing.

Combining the troops makes good sense, but Grant’s decision will have fateful consequences nonetheless. From their position on the east bank of the river at Savannah, soldiers are being moved to the west bank at Pittsburg Landing. And it is on the west side of the river, at Corinth, Mississippi, that Confederate forces are massing at this moment. Corinth is about 22 miles by uninterrupted road from Pittsburg landing—a place history will know as Shiloh.

IT’S COMING SOONER THAN YOU THINK: April 12, 2011—less than 3½ years from now!—will be the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1861, April 12 was the day Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

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