Battle of Shiloh; Fall of New Orleans; Siege of Yorktown, VA: April 1862

150 Years Ago in the Civil War

There was significant action on several fronts as the Civil War passed its first anniversary. Union forces achieved success in the west and along the Atlantic coast, while Major General George B. McClellan finally brought the Army of the Potomac into action on the Virginia peninsula.

Battle of Shiloh

General Albert Sidney Johnston, the Confederate commander in the west, had been handed several defeats in his department in the first months of 1862. The losses at Logan’s Crossroads in Kentucky in January, and Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee in February had cost the south much of the territory in those two states. In late March and early April, Johnston gathered 40,000 troops at Corinth, Mississippi and prepared to attack Union forces under the command of Major General Ulysses S. Grant who were assembling at Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River in Tennessee. Grant’s troops were to be joined by the Army of the Ohio under Major General Don Carlos Buell.

Early in the morning on April 6th, Johnston attacked from the southwest and caught the Federals by surprise. The large Union force had not entrenched or constructed defensive works and the Confederates surged forward, driving the northerners back towards the Tennessee River. Grant was about ten miles away recovering from an injury suffered from a fall from a horse, but hurried to the scene.

Meanwhile, Brigadier General William T. Sherman organized a defense that kept the battle from being a rout. Federal units fell back, reformed, and fought back. Reinforcements from the rest of the large encampment rushed into action.  Grant arrived and prepared a possible final defensive line of artillery and infantry (many of whom were stragglers from the action) at the landing.

As the fighting continued, Johnston personally rode into the fighting to rally his men. He was killed after being shot in the leg, bleeding to death from a severed artery. General P.G.T. Beauregard assumed command.

About 9 A.M. Brigadier General Benjamin Prentiss formed a line along a road with 4500 men, and Grant ordered him to hold his position “at all hazards”. The Confederates, with some 18,000 men, repeatedly assaulted this position, but the Union men held, even when their right and left flanks had been pushed back. Finally, massed Confederate artillery blasted Prentiss’ position, and he finally surrendered about 5:30 P.M. But by holding his position along the road, a place nicknamed “The Hornet’s Nest”, Prentiss had bought time for the Federals to establish a formidable defensive line near the landing. Union gunboats on the Tennessee River also provided covering fire. Beauregard ended the attack as night fell, confident of final victory the next day.

Reinforcements from Buell’s army arrived overnight, and Grant attacked on the morning of April 7th. There were attacks and counterattacks back and forth, but Grant’s larger force was able to push the Confederates back. Late in the day, with ammunition and supplies nearly exhausted, Beauregard organized a retreat from the field.

The Battle of Shiloh, named for a church on the battlefield called Shiloh Church, was over. The casualty figures were staggering. Confederate total casualties (killed, wounded, missing) numbered about 10,700 including 1720 dead; Union dead numbered 1754 out of a total of just over 13,000 casualties. It was by far the bloodiest battle to date in the war, and people north and south were shocked at the number of casualties.  By comparison, the entire two year Mexican War had 1733 battle deaths.

Siege of Yorktown Begins

As the month began, McClellan started to slowly drive his army up the peninsula in Virginia towards  Yorktown. Troops continued to arrive, and McClellan had the defenders in front of him greatly outnumbered as it was, but he advanced cautiously and did not attack. Poor intelligence had led McClellan to believe that Confederate strength at Yorktown was more than what it actually was, and he decided to entrench and begin a siege on April 5th.

McClellan installed 15 batteries with over 70 heavy cannon, and 41 mortars ranging in size from eight inch up to the big 13 inch seacoast mortars. Establishing the siege gave the Confederates time to bring in reinforcements. Although McClellan undertook some probing actions, most of the month was spent in setting up the siege lines.

Capture of Fort Pulaski,  Georgia and Fort Macon, North Carolina

On April 10th, Brigadier General Quincy Gilmore began an artillery bombardment of Fort Pulaski, near the entrance to Savannah Harbor at Savannah, Georgia. Gilmore had placed his artillery on Tybee Island, extending from the east to the southeast of the fort.  The fort itself was armed with 48 guns, and an artillery duel between the two sides continued into April 11th. Gilmore used rifled cannon rather than smoothbores against the masonry fort. This was a new tactic that proved effective as the walls were breached by this type of fire. Fort Pulaski’s defenders surrendered on April 11th.

On April 26th, Fort Macon near Beaufort,  North Carolina surrendered after a combined Army-Navy siege of about a month’s duration. The surrender of these two coastal forts aided the Federal blockade effort.

Fall of New Orleans

On April 16th, a squadron of 21 schooners under the command of Commander David D. Porter and each armed with a 13 inch mortar began bombarding Forts Jackson and St. Phillip on the Mississippi River below New Orleans. These two forts were vital parts of the defense of the city, and they were supplemented by several Confederate navy ships on the river just above the forts. With the reduction of the forts, Flag Officer David Farragut’s fleet of ocean going vessels would steam up the Mississippi River and capture New Orleans.

The mortar bombardment inflicted some damage, but the forts’ defenses remained intact. Farragut decided to try and run his fleet past the forts and fight his way past the Confederate ships.  At 3 A.M on April 24th, Farragut began his run up river.  The ships and forts exchanged cannon fire with neither inflicting much damage. The Confederates set fire to rafts in the river, and the Rebel navy ships attacked, but only one Federal  ship was lost.  The other 15 ships in Farragut’s fleet sank most of the Confederate gunboats  and successfully reached New Orleans the next day. The largest city in the Confederacy had almost no other defenses, and surrendered on April 28th. The same day, Forts Jackson and St. Phillip surrendered as well. It was a huge victory for the north, and New Orleans remained in Federal hands for the rest of the war.

Farther north on the Mississippi River near New Madrid, Missouri, another joint effort by land forces and gunboats produced a victory for the north, as had been done at Forts Henry and Donelson in February. This time, Major General John Pope’s Army of the Mississippi and the Western Gunboat Flotilla under Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote forced the surrender of the garrison at Island Number 10, as well as supporting units on shore at Tiptonville, Tennessee, on April 8th after a three week siege. More of the Mississippi River was opened to Federal traffic.

April 1862 had been a successful month for Union forces, especially in the west. In May, most of the action would be centered in Virginia, both on the peninsula and in the Shenandoah Valley.

 

 

 

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