SHILOH: The Greatest Battle Yet Fought On The Continent

Once the Southern states had declared their independence from the United States, both the Federal government and the newly formed Confederacy spent nearly a year assembling their resources and armies for the titanic contest that was to come.

In the spring of 1862 the true magnitude of the conflict burst forth at the Battle of Shiloh, the biggest and bloodiest battle yet seen on the North American continent. To be sure, Shiloh would soon be followed by a succession of other battles—growing larger and bloodier over the next three years until the Confederacy was finally forced to succumb—but Shiloh, on April 6–7, 1862, was the first clash that shocked all Americans into realizing how desperate would be the struggle.

Now in its fourth printing, Savas Beatie’s Shiloh and the Western Campaign in 1862 has been re-released in paperback in time for the anniversary. A remarkable book by Edward Cunningham, PhD, originally written in 1966, for decades this work lay dormant as an essential analysis, known only to in-depth historians, park rangers, and battlefield guides. With its unerring finger on Civil War scholarship, however, Savas Beatie Publishers learned about the work, brought in its own team of experts for commentary and annotations on Cunningham’s firsthand research, and thus produced perhaps the best tactical examination of Shiloh ever released.

To be clear, Cunningham’s Shiloh is not for the Civil War novice. But for those who wish to know exactly what Johnston, Sherman, Cleburne, Bragg, Hardee, Grant, Polk, McLernand, Prentice, the Wallaces, Buell’s troops, Beauregard, Forrest, and others were doing in that battle it is essential reading.

Strategically, Shiloh had an impact on the Civil War that is often underestimated. With over 23,000 casualties, it not only shocked both North and South into realizing the size of the war; it also set the stage for the conflict’s future course in the western theater.

Often termed a Confederate defeat—because Grant’s nearly-crushed army was rescued by Buell’s—the greater effect was that the Rebels had put a full stop to the seemingly inexorable Union advance in the west. The Confederates had been misguided in their original defense posture, not realizing the Union’s huge advantage in riverine warfare. But this first great open-field battle in the west  re-established Confederate capability.

In this way, Shiloh can best be compared to the Battle of the Coral Sea, exactly 80 years later, in which the Americans suffered a tactical defeat, but nevertheless halted a winter’s-worth of enemy advances with the violence of their resolve to yield no more.



After Shiloh, the Union forces in the west became timid and the Confederates launched a counteroffensive, marching nearly all the way to the Ohio River.  Just as after the Coral Sea the Japanese halted their headlong advance and it was the Americans who were then able to take the initiative.

Now that the season of campaigning has begun for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, this blog will have a few more comments, as McClellan slowly makes his way down the Peninsula to try to capture Richmond., even as Stonewall works his wizardry in the Shenendoah.

But Shiloh in the west was the first “great” battle of the Civil War, also one in which many famous players on both sides earned (or lost) their reputations. April 6 marks the day when Shiloh began.  Readers can decide for themselves whether it was a Union victory or Confederate defeat, and in either case can be fully informed of the sacrifices on both sides in that battle via Cunningham’s masterful work.

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