Of the myriad blunders that needed to be excused or covered up concerning the Battle of Shiloh, one of the most notorious was Ulysses S. Grant’s absence from his army. Maintaining headquarters from approximately March 17th to the start of the battle on April 6th in a mansion at Savannah, Tennessee—ten miles downriver and on the opposite bank from his army at Pittsburg Landing—General Grant took a steamboat up to the landing most days, but returned at night.
There was absolutely no reason for Grant to have remained at William Cherry’s Savannah residence for more than two weeks, once his divisions had all departed for Pittsburg Landing (Lew Wallace’s division was already camped at and around Crump’s Landing, roughly midway in between). Grant had even mandated that “encampments will conform as near as possible to Army Regulations,” but then flouted these regulations himself, as they called for generals to reside in the center of the camp on the line of communication.
Halleck sent a message on March 20th, scout Carson returned on the 25th, and Buell’s letter arrived by the 26th, all with news that the Army of the Ohio lingered behind Duck River at Columbia, some eighty miles away, where it slowly replaced a burned bridge. This totally undercut Grant’s rationalization for remaining at Savannah in order to meet Buell. He could have camped with his army and traveled downriver to meet Buell at any time or just let Buell steam up to Pittsburg upon arrival. Making his Savannah headquarters even more superfluous, Grant sent his only scouts up the road to meet Buell and was constructing a telegraph line that extended in the same direction. Either of these methods should have given Grant sufficient advance warning of Buell’s approach to set up a meeting. Topping off General Grant’s misdeeds in this matter, when Buell informed Grant that he would be in Savannah on April 5th, Grant replied that he couldn’t meet with Buell until the next day.
Making matters even worse, the promotion of John A. McClernand and Charles F. Smith to major-general in the volunteer army—and both thus ranked brigadier-general William T. Sherman—forced Grant to react. McClernand’s name was higher on the list and, besides, Smith was incapacitated after barking his shin, which had become infected. Not wanting McClernand to take command of the camp, Grant kept Sherman in de facto charge through the ruse of pretending to move his own headquarters to Pittsburg Landing. He didn’t. When the surprise attack hit the almost completely unprepared Union army, there was no designated federal commander to make decisions for the five divisions.
The second act of this tragicomedy has Grant’s defenders leaping into the breach to cover up this incident. Usually, they merely comment on how Grant was waiting for Buell to arrive, without bothering to mention the utter ridiculousness of Grant’s claim.
A few writers indicate that the supposed necessity of remaining at Savannah was also due to boats from downstream, with regiments on board needing orders. But any boats arriving while Grant was visiting Pittsburg Landing would have been forced to lay idly by until his return. And all boats would have had to endure an otherwise avoidable delay, because their final destination—once Savannah’s garrison of three regiments had landed—was further upriver.
There is no telling how many Union soldiers might have been saved from death, wounding, or capture, if Grant had been with his army the entire time. This is especially so for the period from 5:00 A.M. on April 6th, when Colonel Everett Peabody’s patrol located the advancing enemy and prevented a total surprise, and 9:00 A.M., when Grant finally arrived on the battlefield to provide some semblance of coordination.