April 6, 1862
The battle of Pittsburg Landing began as a complete surprise to the Federal Army encamped around the Shiloh church. Despite a Confederate force of nearly 40,000 men, concealed less than two miles to their front, no one in the Union force seemed aware of the danger. However, young inexperienced Southern troops yelled, blew their bugles, beat their drums, and even fired their damp weapons to see if the powder was dry.
The Confederate Army had been arranged in three battle lines. The Third Corps under General William J. Hardee would constitute the front line. The second line would be led by General Braxton Bragg, and follow the first line by several hundred yards. At a similar distance behind Bragg would follow General Leonidas Polk's First Corps, and the reserves would consist of three brigades under General John C. Breckinridge.
The suddenness and ferocity of the attack forced the Federals out of their camps. Federal officers began to regroup their brigades and rally their men, and soon determined defenses were in place to oppose the attack. Slowly falling back, the Federals fought for every yard, as the Confederate advance continued.
Some of the fiercest fighting would occur after midday on the Confederate right, at what would become known as the "Hornet's Nest." Wave after wave of courageous Southern charges were cut down by General Benjamin Prentiss's men, who were prone behind a fence. The turning point of the fight for the Hornet's Nest would take place through the beautiful blossoms of a peach orchard located there. General John C. Breckinridge was brought forward with his reserves in a last-ditch effort to break the bottleneck. For an hour, Breckinridge led his brigades in attacks on the Hornet's Nest, with little success. Breckinridge decided to make one final desperate charge with the help of General Johnston.
The sheet of flame burst from the Hornet's Nest as the Confederate line charged through the peach orchard. The Hornet's Nest had fallen.
As the Federal soldiers fell back they continued to fire in the direction of the southerners. A shot cut an artery in Johnston's leg; the blood flowing into his boot was not at first apparent. The general's horse was led under cover and the general was lifted to the ground. Having dispatched his personal doctor to care for some Federal soldiers, no one present would apply a tourniquet. Cradled in the arms of his brother-in-law, General Albert Sidney Johnston gave a faint smile and slipped away.
The command of the Confederate Army now fell to General Beauregard. Grant's men had been pushed back to the Tennessee River. Thousands of Federal Soldiers hid behind the bluffs. Prentiss' stand at the Hornets' Nest had slowed the Confederate advance long enough for evening to come. Beauregard wired Jefferson Davis that he would finish Grant up the next morning. But Federal Major General Don Carlos Buell and his 20,000 men would arrive that night.