Shiloh: The First Great Battle of the Civil War

Shiloh NBP 1On April 6, 1862, the largest battle, to that point, of the Civil War was raged at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee – the Battle of Shiloh.(i)  Today, the battlefield is one of the most pristine battlefields in North America.  Due to its remote location, it has been spared much of the urban sprawl that many other battlefields have endured.  However, it is still at risk and must be protected from nearby development.  Last year, the Civil War Preservation Trust had a campaign for Shiloh, and Fort Donelson.  I encourage you to support the Civil War Preservation Trust so it can continue to protect our sacred battlefields – battlefields on which our ancestors gave their “last full measure of devotion” to protect the rights of our great country.

I have visited Shiloh several times.  It is my favorite battlefield.  When I walk the fields, and woods, of Shiloh I feel very connected to the soldiers who fought there.  I have been there after the sun has set, and when the sun had not risen enough to burn off the early morning fog.  I have many pictures of this great field of battle, on my web site  I encourage you to visit my site today, its 147th anniversary, and view the pictures I have taken.  Hopefully, through my photos, you can feel a closer connection to the great battlefield: Shiloh.  The following text is the battle summary, I wrote for my site.

Summary of the Battle of Shiloh

Location: Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee (Hardin County)

Dates: April 6–7, 1862

Federal:  Ulysses S. Grant, Major General
Confederate:  Albert Sidney Johnston, General

In February, 1862, Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant would start an offensive against the Confederate Army of the Tennessee.  On February 6, utilizing Admiral Foote’s powerful river gun boats, Grant would receive the the surrender of the troops garrisoned at Fort Henry, on the Tennessee River.  Moving across the finger of land, between the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, Grant would receive the capitulation of the army garrisoned at Fort Donelson, on February 16.  On the evening of February 15, Grant received a note from the Confederate commander, Brigadier General Simon B. Buckner, asking for terms of surrender.  Grant wrote Buckner, “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.  I propose to move immediately upon your works.”  With this quick note, Grant would be launched into celebrity.  The north had been looking for a general who could win, and they found him in Ulysses S. Grant.  Grant was promptly promoted to Major General Volunteers for his win at Fort Donelson.

The victories at Forts Henry and Donelson opened two of the most important waterways, in the south, to Union gun boats – and foot soldiers.  The fall of Fort Henry opened the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson opened the Cumberland River, to Nashville.  Having a line several hundred miles long, to defend, starting at Columbus, Kentucky in the west, going through Bowling Green (Johnston’s headquarters) on to the Cumberland Gap, the fall of these two forts was disastrous for Johnston.  His line was severed and untenable.  Johnston would retreat, with his army, from Bowling Green, to Corinth, MS.  Once there, he would unite with “Bishop” Leonidas Polk’s army, retreating from Columbus, KY and that of Pierre G.T. Beauregard, already in Mississippi.

With the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers opened into the deep south,  U.S. Grant did not sit back on his heels.  He had wired Major General Henry W. Halleck, headquartered in St. Louis, and asked permission to continue on to Nashville, and to send Brigadier General Charles F. Smith to Clarksville.  After not hearing anything from Halleck, Grant put his plans in motion.  Unfortunately for Grant a Confederate sympathizer intercepted his dispatches.  Halleck, continued to send repeated telegraphs to Grant, wanting updates on his troop strengths.  Grant was not there to reply.  After returning to his army, from meeting Major General Don Carlos Buell, at Nashville, Grant found he had been removed from command and placed under the command of Brigadier General C.F. Smith.  He was told to wait at Fort Donelson for further orders.  Grant, at the insistence of Lincoln,  was restored to command on March 13, soon after General Charles Smith was injured while getting on a boat in Savannah, TN.

Grant immediately began transporting his army upstream, to Pittsburg Landing, in preparation for an advance on Sidney Johnston’s Confederate Army at Corinth, MS.  His army consisted of the following divisions: First Division commanded by Major General John McClernand, Second Division Shiloh NBP 2commanded by Brigadier General W.H.L. Wallace, Third Division commanded by Major General Lew Wallace, Fourth Division commanded by Brigadier General Stephen Hurlbut, Fifth Division commanded by Brigadier General William T. Sherman and the Sixth Division commanded by Brigadier General Benjamin Prentiss.  All of these division, with the exception of Lew Wallace’s Third Division were deployed in the vicinity of Pittsburg Landing.  McClernand’s First Division, Sherman’s Fifth Division and Prentiss’ Sixth Division were placed furthest from Pittsburg Landing, commanding the approaches Johnston’s Confederate Army would use – if they were to attack.  W.H.L. Wallace and Hurlbut’s Divisions were closer to the landing.  Lew Wallace’s Fourth Division was camped at Crumps Landing, down river (north) from Pittsburg Landing, along a line Grant feared may be attacked if Johnston moved on him.

Grant made headquarters down river, at Savannah, TN, about eight river miles from Pittsburg Landing.  He was instructed by Henry Halleck to not bring on a general engagement until Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of Ohio had arrived, from Nashville.

While U.S. Grant’s troops were camped at Pittsburg Landing, they drilled and marched.  Many troops were “green” and had not “seen the elephant” – a term that meant they had not been battle hardened by direct action. 

Meanwhile, at Corinth, Albert Sidney Johnston was planning to go on the offensive.  General P.G.T. Beauregard was pushing A.S. Johnston to move on Grant’s forces, before Buell’s Army of the Ohio could combine with Grant.  Confederate scouts had located D.C. Buell’s troops and knew they were on the move.  However, there was some confusion about what his destination was.  A.S. Johnston grappled with whether he should begin his offensive immediately or wait for Earl Van Dorn’s Army of the West to arrive from Arkansas.  In late March he determined to attack on April 3.  His army was organized into four corps under the following commanders: Major General Leonidas “Bishop” Polk: First Army Corps; Major General Braxton Bragg: Second Army Corps; Major General William J. Hardee: Third Army Corps and Brigadier General John C. Breckinridge: Reserve Corps.  His battle plan was to turn U.S. Grant’s left flank, getting between him and the Tennessee River and pushing Grant’s army north, into Owl Creek.  The Confederate attack would be in “stacked” order, with Hardee’s Corps going in first, followed by Bragg and Polk.  If necessary, Breckinridge’s Reserve Corps would go in last.

A.S. Johnston’s Army was to have pushed out of Corinth on Thursday, April 3.  They would march the twenty-two miles on April 3 and be ready to attack Grant’s army on Friday, April 4.  The army would primarily use two roads to reach Pittsburg Landing: Ridge Road and Monterey Road.  The army would stop at Mickey’s farmhouse, which is located about 6 miles from the landing.  Due to a mix up on April 3, Leonidas Polk’s Corps were blocking the other corps’ access to Ridge Road.  It took the better part of the morning for the last of the troops to march from Corinth.  The inexperience of the commanders, in moving their Corps, made a Friday attack on Grant impossible.

The armies were in position late Friday afternoon, April 4, so Johnston set Saturday as the day he would attack.  Overnight, on Friday, heavy rains saturated the area.  The troops pushed from camp early on Saturday, but moving an army in these conditions was slow.  It would be close to noon before any of the rebel troops would reach the staging area for the attack on the Federals.  It would be late in the day, on Saturday, before Sidney Johnston would have all of his troops in the deployment area.  Again, an attack was not possible this day.

On the Union side, troops from W.T. Sherman’s Fifth Division and Benjamin Prentiss’s Sixth Division were hearing noises in the distance.  Soldiers on picket duty for both divisions would claim to hear, and see, Confederate troop movements southwest of their camps.  Sherman would discount these reports, out of hand, as being nothing but rebel skirmishers in the woods.  Even after troops under Colonel Buckland fought with advanced rebel troops, Sherman was unconvinced.  He would tell an Ohio lieutenant, reporting to him on Saturday, “Tell Colonel Appler to take his damned regiment to Ohio.  There is no force of the enemy nearer than Corinth.”  Brigadier General Benjamin Prentiss was no less skeptical and later in the day, Grant would wire D.C. Buell that the Confederate Army was still in Corinth.

Missouri Colonel (U.S.) Everett Peabody was not so skeptical.  He believed there was reason to be concerned and had his brigade adjutant order troops to sleep with their rifles and cartridges, at hand.  Peabody detailed companies from the 25th Missouri (Major James Powell) and the 12th Michigan (Colonel Francis Quinn) to early morning patrol.  Just after midnight, scouts from the 25th Missouri while on patrol, identified Confederate troops a couple miles from camp.  Powell returned to report this to Peabody, who decided to send Powell with a large enough detachment to determine the rebel strength, and intentions.  This detachment included four Missouri companies and a small detachment from the 12th Michigan.  They started out at approximately 3:00 AM.  Just as the rays of the sun were coming over the eastern horizon, the advanced troops of Powell ran into a group of Alabama soldiers.  They were advanced cavalry scouts of the Confederate Army.  The Union forces under Powell, hastily organized a line of battle and proceeded to move on the retreating rebel horsemen.  In a short distance they would run into the advancing Confederate line, a battalion of Mississippi infantry.  The Battle of Shiloh had started.  The Confederate army would continue to move forward, for the next couple hours, over-running the 5th and 6th Division camps.

Around 7:15 AM, U.S. Grant was sitting down for breakfast, when he heard the distant rumble of cannon.  He knew the battle had started and dictated a quick message for D.C. Buell to send General William “Bull” Nelson’s division up the east bank of the Tennessee, directly opposite Pittsburg Landing.  There they would meet boats to ferry them across.  Hopping on his river boat, the Tigress, Grant steamed south, stopping at Crump’s Landing where he met Major General Lew Wallace, instructing him to proceed with haste to Pittsburg Landing.  After meeting with Wallace, Grant steamed up river (south) to Pittsburg Landing where he was able to assess the situation.  It was not good.

Hardee’s Corps had attacked Peabody’s 6th Division regiment commanded by Major Powell, pushing it back into the division’s camp.  This had caught the Union army by surprise.  Further west, Hardee’s Corps pushed into Sherman’s 5th Division camps, catching his Corps in the middle of breakfast.  CS Brigadier General Patrick Cleburne, a rising star in the army of the south, would lead many of the mixed rebel troops into the 5th Division’s camps.  US Major General John McClernand would send reinforcements to Sherman, in an effort to contain the punishing rebel assault.  Back along the central portion of the Confederate line, General Prentiss would confront Colonel Peabody, “Colonel Peabody, I will hold you personally responsible for bringing on this engagement.”  Peabody replied that he was responsible for all of his official actions.  Both Peabody, and Major Powell would be killed, early in the action, that Sabbath morning in April 1862.

At this point, confusion ruled on both sides of the battle.  The Union troops had been forced out of their camps during breakfast, many ill prepared for battle.  As the Confederates piled into the Union camps they became disorganized, plundering the tents and eating the still simmering breakfasts.  Slowly, General A.S. Johnston would reorganize his battle lines, with Hardee commanding the left, Polk commanding the center and Bragg’s troops manning the right flank.  General Pierre G.T. Beauregard, second in command to Johnston, pushed the left flank into action, slamming into McClernand and Sherman around 11:00 AM.  For the better part of four hours this western sector of the battlefield would witness some of the most brutal fighting in the Civil War.  U.S. Grant’s shattered right would continue to be pushed by the rebels for the rest of the day.

On the other Confederate flank Johnston ordered CS Brigadier General Jones Withers’ division to move north along the Hamburg Road.  With this action, they pushed US. Colonel David Stuart’s brigade northeast, towards Pittsburg Landing, an area that was supported by Brigadier General Stephen Hurlbut’s Fourth Division. 

Around 10:30 AM Grant pushed W.H.L. Wallace’s Second Division into action.  They had pushed down the Corinth Road to an area just north of the “Crossroads” (junction of the Corinth Road and the Hamburg Purdy Road).

Before noon the Confederates had established a solid line extending from the Crossroads in the west, through a low ridge along the Eastern Corinth Road and into the area held by Prentiss, Hurlbut and W.H.L. Wallace, near the junction of the Hamburg Purdy Road and the Hamburg Road.  The extreme right flank of the Confederate line passed through the Hamburg Road and extended towards the Tennessee River.

Grant had stabilized his lines, with the remnants of Sherman’s Fifth Division holding the right flank, followed by portions of McClernand’s First Division.  Next in line would be W.H.L. Wallace’s Second Division, Prentiss’s battered Sixth Division and Hurlbut’s Fourth Division.  The area held by Wallace and Prentiss would become the scene of some of the most intense fighting at Shiloh.  Directly in front of Wallace, and to the right of Prentiss, was the Duncan field.  Directly north of the field was an old farm road that connected the Corinth Road to the Hamburg Road.  Over many years of use the road had sunken slightly lower than the fields.  This road, like one at Antietam, in the east, would forever be known as the “Sunken Road.”  The area in front of the Sunken Road would be dubbed the “Hornet’s Nest,” by the Confederates.   Wallace had deployed Colonel James Tuttle’s First Brigade and Colonel Thomas Sweeny’s Third Brigade to hold this vital section of the Union line.  Sweeny’s brigade would suffer the highest casualty rate of the entire Union army, at Shiloh.

By 2:00 PM, the Confederate troops commanded by Brigadier General Daniel Ruggles started to cross the Duncan field, only to be pushed back in disarray.  This back and forth action continued for a period of time as Ruggles continued to feed his troops in one brigade at a time.

In an effort to make a coordinated attack on the right side of his lines, Albert Sidney Johnston was working near the front of his lines, near the right flank.  Sitting on his horse, he received a wound to his right leg.  While a staff officer asked him about the wound, Johnston did not fuss about it.  Governor Harris, from Tennessee, was with Sidney Johnston at the time and grabbed him as he reeled in his saddle.  Asking the general if he was wounded, Johnston replied quietly, “Yes, and I fear seriously.”  Leading Johnston’s horse a short distance, into a small ravine, they placed Johnston directly on the ground.  They searched his body and could not find a wound.  He has been hit in a major artery on the back of his right leg.  Johnston had a field tourniquet in his pocket that could have been used to save his life, had treatment been started earlier.  Albert Sidney Johnston would be the highest ranking Confederate officer killed during the war.  Couriers discreetly went to find Beauregard, to let him know he now commanded the entire army.

Shiloh NBP 3By 4:00 PM, very deliberate fighting was occurring in at the middle of the field, at the Hornet’s Nest.  Ruggles had positioned eleven field batteries to sweep the entire opposing line before sending his infantry in.  Meanwhile both Union flanks were collapsing, leaving W.H.L. Wallace and Benjamin Prentiss’s divisions exposed to being attacked on both flanks.  Wallace would be hit in the head by a minie ball, and Prentiss would be captured.  Wallace was left on the field for dead, but ended up being found alive, the next day.  He would die several days later, with his wife at his bedside, in Savannah, TN.  Many Federal troops would be captured at the Hornet’s Nest, but many would return to Pittsburg Landing to help protect Grant’s final defensive position, along the Pittsburg Road.

Grant would use his chief engineer, Colonel Joseph Webster to deploy his final defensive line along Pittsburg Road.  Webster would deploy 50 large cannon and 25,000 troops along this ridge.  Troops would include a division of D.C. Buell’s Army of the Ohio, under the command of Brigadier General William “Bull” Nelson.  Grant’s line would extend from Pittsburg Landing to Shiloh NBP 4the Hamburg-Savannah Road, the route he expected his Fourth Division, commanded by Major General Lew Wallace, to arrive by.  Lew Wallace had been expected by mid-morning but had taken his division down the wrong road.  Grant’s aides, sent for him, caused him to turn around and return the way he came, and come down the Hamburg-Savannah Road.  This took valuable time and his troops would not arrive until 7:00 PM.  Ironically, if Wallace had continued on the first road, he would have hit the Confederate army in the right flank during the afternoon.  This may very well have changed the outcome of the first day’s fighting.

In the day’s final action 6,000 rebel troops stormed up Dill Branch, attempting to overpower the Union left flank, getting between it and the Tennessee (Johnston’s original battle plan).  These troops ran into the big guns Webster had deployed and Nelson’s division.  They would be pushed back before they reached the northern slope of the Dill Branch.

After dark, the Confederates would pull back to the camps around Shiloh Church.  Grant, meanwhile, would continue to fortify his position and deploy the rest of Buell’s arriving Army of the Ohio.  Sherman, meeting Grant offered, “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?”  Grant, confidently replied, “Yes.  Lick ‘em tomorrow, though.”  This was typical Grant.  He operated best when under pressure.  Throughout the night, Grant had his river flotilla pound the Confederate positions with large river guns.  Most of the rebels slept little, although the big guns did not cause a significant amount of casualties.

By 6:00 AM, on Monday, April 7, Grant started his line in motion.  His troops were arrayed, from right to left: Lew Wallace’s Third Division, Sherman’s Fifth Division, and Hurlbut’s Fourth Division, all of the Army of Tennessee.  Next in line were the following Divisions, all of Buell’s Army of the Ohio: Brigadier General Alexander McD. McCook’s Second Division, Brigadier General Thomas Crittenden’s Fifth Division and Nelson’s Fourth Division.  The rebels were caught totally off guard by the well organized advance of close to 30,000 Union troops.  It took P.G.T. Beauregard until 10:00 AM to have his army fully deployed.  The battle all along the line rocked back and forth.  By 12:00 PM they had been pushed out of the ground they had fought so hard for, the day before.  Beauregard continued to hope that Earl Van Dorn would arrive with the Army of the West, however that was not to be.  By 1:00 PM, the Confederate commander had determined he needed to withdraw his army to Corinth.  During this withdrawal John Breckinridge would be in charge of the rear guard.  The battle of Shiloh was over.

Campaign: Shiloh

Outcome: Union victory

Troop Strengths
Union: 65,000
Confederate: 44,700

Casualties (estimated):
Union: 13,047 (killed, wounded or missing/captured)
Confederate: 10,699 (killed, wounded or missing/captured)

Battle Aftermath:
With the northern populace heady over U.S. Grant’s victories at Forts Henry and Donelson, news from Shiloh brought a feeling of gloom over the country.  More troops had been killed in two days of fighting at Shiloh, than had been killed cumulatively in every battle fought in the U.S., to that date.  While the battle was a Union victory, Grant would be highly criticized by the northern press.  There were rumors that he was once again drinking and that the rebels had caught the Army of the Tennessee unprepared.  Congressional leaders would visit Abraham Lincoln demanding that Grant be removed from command.  Lincoln chose to stand loyally by Grant stating, “I can’t spare this man, he fights.”

While Grant was not cashiered for his performance at Shiloh, he was effectively removed from command.  Shortly after the battle, Major General Henry Halleck would arrive at Shiloh to command the next offensive, on Corinth.  Grant was essentially placed second in command, a commander with no army.

The combined armies of the Ohio, and Tennessee, would slowly push into northern Mississippi, building fortifications, and then moving forward a short distance, where they would construct new fortifications.  This would continue all the way to Corinth, where on May 30, the Union troops would find the works, and the city, abandoned.  Shortly after Corinth, on June 10, Grant would be restored to full command.  Halleck would end up being brought to Washington, D.C., as General-In-Chief of all Union Armies, on July 23.

P.G.T. Beauregard’s Army of the Mississippi would be pushed back, from Corinth, south to Tupelo.  Grant’s army would next concentrate on capturing Vicksburg.  This would open the Mississippi to Union craft and would essentially sever the Confederacy in two.  It would, however, take over a year for this to happen.

(i)  The Battle of Shiloh, at, was used to research this article.

About Michael Noirot

I grew up in the Central Illinois farming community, of Dunlap. Growing up, I played sports, tinkered with cars and enjoyed photography. While I did well in school, I did not become passionate about history until my early 30's. I have built a large library, of books on early America, politics and the Civil War. I am an avid reader. Fortunately, I have had plenty of opportunities to travel, over the years, and have been to most of the Civil War battlefields. I work while I travel, so more often than not, I am up, in the middle of the night, to get sunrise pictures, or I will be out until well after dark, exploring Civil War battlefields. I have other hobbies, and passions, that I really enjoy. Number one on the list would be guitar. I play my guitars on a regular basis, and enjoy the Bluegrass, and Contemporary Christian (CCM) genres. I play a style of guitar, called FLATPICKING, where using a flat pick, you play lead solos, similar to the way a fiddle would have been played during the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Laura, my wife, and I also enjoy scuba diving, travel and spending time at our property, in the country. Lastly, we spend as much time with our families, as possible. Thanks for stopping by.
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2 Responses to Shiloh: The First Great Battle of the Civil War

  1. bdispenza says:

    Once again, the Union Navy does not even merit a mention at Shiloh. A reading of memoirs and history books will bear this out, but not going to the actual sources written at the time.
    “about sundown, when the National troops were
    back in their last position, the right of the enemy was near the river and exposed to the fire of the two gunboats, which was delivered with vigor and
    effect.” (General Grant’s Description of the Battle of Shiloh, From his Memoirs, at, August 2003.)

    In his address to his troops following the battle, Beauregard commended his men for driving the enemy “from
    his camps to the shelter of his iron-clad gunboats, which alone saved him from complete disaster.”
    (P.G.T. Beauregard’s Report of the Battle of Shiloh, at, August 2003.)

    Even Northern General Halleck, “in spite of his contempt for the Navy, concluded that only the Union gunboats had kept Grant’s army from being destroyed.”
    (Combined Operations in the Civil War, R. Reed (United States Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 1978), p. 206.)

    “During the night the rain fell in torrents, adding to the discomforts and harassed condition of the men. The enemy, moreover, had broken their rest by a discharge at measured intervals of heavy shells thrown from the
    gunboats; therefore on the following morning the troops under my command were not in condition to cope with an equal force of fresh troops, armed and equipped
    like our adversary, in the immediate possession of his depots and sheltered by such an auxiliary as the enemy’s gunboats.”
    (P.G.T. Beauregard’s Report.)

    Following the battle, Leonard Swett, friend and intimate of Abraham Lincoln, spent three days riding the field. His letter to the president stated: “From all I could learn I believe the gunboats Lexington and Tyler , commanded by Lieutenants Gwin and Shirk, saved our army from defeat. At least it is within bounds to say they rendered us invaluable services.”
    (Official Records–Navies, vol. 22, pp. 766.)
    Swett knew Lincoln from their days on the Illinois circuit court in the 1850s. Alexander McClure observed, “Of all living men, Leonard Swett was the one
    most trusted by Abraham Lincoln” (in Lincoln’s Lost Speech: The Pivot of His Career, Elwell Crissey, Hawthorn Books, New York, 1967, p. 296.)

    The vital contribution of the gunboats was well recognized in the South. On 18 April 1862 the New Orleans Daily Delta hit upon the key to Union victory—and wrote what may pass for the epitaph of the entire Southern war effort:
    “[The battle at Shiloh] has taught us that we have nothing to fear from a land invasion of the enemy if he is unsupported by his naval armaments. It has taught
    us that the right arm of his power in this war is in his gunboats on our seacoast; and that our only assurance of saving the Mississippi from his grasp is to paralyze that arm upon its waters.”
    (Ships vs Shore, D. Page, Rutledge Hill Press, Nashville , 1994, p. 282.)

    As you can see, the Union Navy’s contribution to victory at Shiloh was not insignificant or small. If Grant would have been cut off from the Tennessee River by the efforts of Bragg’s wing late on the first day, Buell could not have reinforced him and Shiloh would have been a Confederate victory. This could easily have resulted in recognition of the Confederacy by European powers. The only thing that stopped this was, by both Union and Confederate admission, the two Union timberclad gunboats sitting at the mouth of Dill Branch ravine. Not the massed Union artillery as stated in some places, but the 6″ and 32-pounder shells fired up the ravine by the gunboats.

    For the sake of the forgotten heroes of the Union Navy, please correct this.

    L. R. Dispenza
    US Naval Landing Party (
    Navy and Marine Living Hsitory Association (

  2. Mr. Dispenza,
    Thank you for your comments on my article, “Shiloh: The First Great Battle of the Civil War.” They are very timely and correct. The Federal gunboats Lexington, and Tyler, served Grant very well at Shiloh. While it was not my intention to forget mentioning the meritorious service of these Naval gunboats, they do deserve a significant portion of the credit for the Federal victory there. In Wiley Sword’s book, “Shiloh Bloody April” and Edward Cunningham’s book, “Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862,” the contributions of these gunboats is emphasized. Neither side could sleep well that night, and many Confederate soldiers heard the shrieking of large naval ordinance very close by. I appreciate you bringing this to my attention, so other readers can learn of the Navy’s significant contributions to the Battle of Shiloh.

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