Following the fiasco at Bull Run, General George McClellan was given command of the Army of the Potomac. He promptly set about training this army outside Washington, D.C., refusing to mount a campaign in the East until convinced that the army was ready. But in the West, the war was already moving forward.
The war in the West focused on control over the key rivers of the region—the Mississippi, Cumberland, and Tennessee. These rivers were crucial to the South’s ability to shuttle supplies and men to various parts of the Confederacy. And the battle for control over these rivers featured two of the more colorful military figures of the Civil War. It’s hard to imagine more different men than gruff, hard-drinking Union General Ulysses S. Grant and Episcopal bishop-turned Confederate General Leonidas Polk.
Grant enjoyed the greater success in battle. On 6 February he captured Fort Henry, a critical Confederate post on the Tennessee River; ten days later he took Fort Donelson on the Cumberland. With these victories, the Union won control of Tennessee. The Confederate army was forced to retreat to the most southern part of the state near the Mississippi border. There, Grant with about 45,000 men and Union General Don Carlos Buell, with another 25,000, arranged to converge from different angles on the Southern army. With their superior numbers, the Confederacy’s western army would be easily crushed.
But faced with almost certain defeat, Confederate General Albert Sydney Johnson (who replaced Polk early in 1862) decided a on a risky gambit. With Buell’s army still a few days away from Grant’s, he took the initiative and attacked Grant at Shiloh. The first stages of the battle went well for the South. Caught by complete surprise, Grant’s army was forced back toward the Tennessee River. But an inspired resistance among Union troops stationed on the North’s right flank near Shiloh Church, and an equally tough stand on the left at Sarah Bell’s peach orchard bought Grant time—time for advance units from Buell’s army troops to arrive. Bolstered by an additional 20,000 fresh troops, Grant’s forces were able to establish control of the field and force the Confederates to retreat.
Shiloh was by far the most deadly battle on American soil to date. Thirteen-thousand Union and 10,000 Confederate soldiers were either killed or wounded. Grant came under enormous criticism for his failure to anticipate the Confederate attack. Northern papers wrote that the hard-drinking general had been drunk when the shooting started. Only Lincoln’s intervention kept him in the field. Strategically, the South was dealt an almost mortal blow as the North increased its grip on the western theater and its vital waterways.