Volume 27, No. 8 – August 2014
Volume 27, No. 8
The President’s Message
Most Round Tables do not meet in the summer. It is quite a rarity. Several years ago the Board made a decision to meet year round. Some people were skeptical that the chairs could be filled during the summer months. I am pleased to announce that attendance has been excellent this yea, and exceeded expectations. What a pleasure it is to see so many familiar faces as well as new ones. Congratulations to the membership for supporting all our summer programs.
Well done, troops.
August 13, 2014 Program
On August 13, 2014 Janelle Bloodworth will be giving a presentation titled: Three Civil War Human Interest Stories.
July 9, 2014 Program
Steve Seftenberg presented a program entitled: "Debunking Myths About the Battle of Shiloh." Steve said his talk was freely based on a 2006 article in Civil War Magazine by Timothy B. Smith, who was then on the staff of the Shiloh National Military Park. The Battle of Shiloh, April 6 and 7, 1862, was one of the Civil War’s most momentous fights, but also one of the least understood. The "standard" story of this "great and terrible" battle that cost 23,000 casualties, is that Union troops were surprised in their camps at dawn on April 6. Defeat seemed certain, but Union Brig. Gen. Benjamin M. Prentiss saved the day by holding a sunken road some three feet deep (which came to be known as the "Sunken Road") and a wooded area next to it (which came to be known as the "Hornet’s Nest") for a crucial six hours. Prentiss eventually capitulated, leaving Rebel commander General Albert Sidney Johnston in a position to drive on to victory. Tragically for the Southern cause, Johnston was then mortally wounded, blunting Confederate momentum. After a lull of about an hour, General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard replaced him and around 6 P. M. made the fatal decision to halt further Confederate attacks. The next day Union counterattacks dealt Rebel hopes a crushing blow.
This "standard" account of the battle, however, is more myth than fact. After the war Ulysses S. Grant, the Union commander, wrote that Shiloh "has been... more persistently misunderstood than any other engagement... during the entire rebellion." Shiloh authority and historian David W. Reed, the first superintendent of the Shiloh National Battlefield Park, in 1912 chimed in, writing "... occasionally... some one thinks that his unaided memory of the events of 50 years ago is superior to the official reports of officers... made at [the] time of the battle. It seems hard for them to realize that oft-repeated campfire stories, added to and enlarged, become impressed on the memory as real facts."
Unfortunately, such misunderstandings and embellished campfire stories have over the years become for many the "truth" about Shiloh, painting a distorted picture of the momentous battle. Three minor examples of this follow.
First is Johnny Clem, the supposed "Drummer Boy of Shiloh. Clem (1851-1937) was real and died as a major general, but never was at Shiloh. Clem’s 22nd Michigan Infantry was not even organized until after Shiloh. His story really belongs to the later Battle of Chickamauga but a song entitled "The Drummer Boy of Shiloh" had already entered into the Northern public’s psyche.
Second is the so-called "Bloody Pond," today a battlefield landmark. There is no contemporary evidence that the pond became bloodstained, or that in 1862 there was even a pond at the spot you can visit today. The sole account came from a local citizen who years later told of walking by a pond a few days after the battle and seeing it stained with blood.
And third that thousands of hysterical Union stragglers greeted Grant as he arrived at Pittsburg Landing. The front line Federal divisions did not break until after 9 A. M., the latest time that Grant could have arrived at the landing. It is hard to imagine Prentiss’ troops running over two miles in less than 30 seconds. There were some stragglers at the landing who had skedaddled to the rear as soon as the fighting started, but they were under control by the time Grant arrived. Of course, by 6 P. M., there were plenty of panicked stragglers milling around the landing looking for an escape across the river.
Carelessness toward facts produce false history and cynical disbelief in official records. An example Steve calls "cable TV" history: A newspaper columnist criticized Park officials for removing the dying tree under which Johnston supposedly died, saying, "So what if Johnston wasn’t exactly at that exact tree."
Steve then proposed to debunk factually six persistent myths about the Battle of Shiloh.
Myth No. 1: The Confederate attack caught the Federals totally by surprise. Shiloh supposedly started with a surprise attack. One author even called it "the Pearl Harbor of the Civil War." Actually, Shiloh was not that much of a surprise even though contemporary newspaper columns described Union soldiers being bayoneted in their tents as they slept. One of the most widely-read accounts was by Whitelaw Reid, of the Cincinnati Gazette, who was nowhere near Shiloh when the Confederates attacked and based his 15,000-word story on hearsay. The tale that Reid spread is that the Federal Army of the Tennessee had no idea that the enemy was so near. Not so. For days before April 6, skirmishing took place and both sides routinely took prisoners. The Union army knew Confederates were out there -- the problem was that neither the soldiers nor the generals knew their strength or intentions. Two days before the battle, Sherman noted in his report,
"On Saturday the enemy’s cavalry was again very bold, coming well down to our front, yet I did not believe that he designed anything but a strong demonstration." Ordered by "Old Brains," Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, not to bring on an engagement, Grant, was not about to go looking for a fight in early April, at least not until he was reinforced by Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio. Accordingly, Grant sent word to his front line division commanders not to spark a fight. Obedient to orders, Federal skirmishers and pickets continually withdrew as the Confederates probed forward. For days, Union brigade and regimental commanders witnessed Confederates near their camps but their reports were ignored or dismissed. Fortunately for the Union Army, one Union brigade commander took matters into his own hands. Without authorization, Colonel Everett Peabody (a Harvard graduate!) sent out a patrol before dawn on April 6 that bumped into the advance skirmishers of the Southern force less than a mile from the Union front. The Confederates promptly attacked, and the Battle of Shiloh was on! Because of Peabody’s patrol, however, the Confederate attack was unmasked earlier and began farther out from the Union camps than planned and had to be delayed until some tardy troops could join the attack. This delay allowed the Army of the Tennessee to mobilize. Every single Union unit on the field met the Confederate assault south of (that is in advance of) its camp. Peabody’s patrol prevented total tactical surprise at Shiloh.
Myth No. 2: Prentiss was the Union "Hero of Shiloh." For decades after the battle, Prentiss was hailed as the Federal officer who sent out the patrol that gave early warning of the attack. Likewise, Prentiss was also lionized as the commander who, ordered by Grant to hold at all hazards, defended the Hornet’s Nest for six hours against repeated Confederate assaults. Only after the Confederates brought up Ruggles’ 62-gun Battery and he thought he was surrounded did Prentiss surrender "the noble and brave remnants of his division." Prentiss’ after-action report was glowing in terms of his own accomplishments. Historians for years accepted that report at face value, one even labeling a photo of Prentiss as the "Hero of Shiloh." The National Military Park’s film Shiloh: Portrait of a Battle dramatically and mistakenly paints Prentiss as the chief defender of the Union army on April 6. Prentiss’ reputation grew until it reached iconic status. In truth, Prentiss did not send out any patrol on the morning of April 6. As mentioned earlier, one of his brigade commanders, Colonel Peabody, did so in defiance of Prentiss’ orders. Prentiss rode to Peabody’s headquarters when he heard the firing and demanded to know what Peabody had done. When he found out, Prentiss told his subordinate he would hold him personally responsible for bringing on a battle and rode off in a huff.
Likewise, Prentiss was not the principal defender of the Hornet’s Nest. His division began the day with roughly 5,400 men, only to dwindle to 500 by 9:45 that morning. By the time Prentiss took his position along a farmer’s dirt road (more about that below), he had lost almost his entire division, and could not have held his part of the line without being reinforced by two Missouri brigades of Brig. Gen. W. H. L. Wallace’s division. It was primarily Wallace’s troops, over 5,000 strong, who held the Hornet’s Nest before breaking to the landing leaving Prentiss behind. Around 5 P. M., Prentiss surrendered about 2,000 men, of whom only 300 were from his original division. Prentiss took full advantage of a fortuitous position as the sole surviving Union general officer of the Hornet’s Nest. After he was exchanged 60 days after the battle he was able to spin his story without contradiction from Peabody and Wallace, both of whom had died from wounds received at Shiloh. Prentiss simply took credit for their actions and became the hero of the fight.
Myth No. 3: Buell’s arrival near sundown on April 6 saved Grant from defeat. Some historians argue that Grant’s beaten army was about to be driven into the Tennessee River but was saved by the timely arrival of Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio near sundown on April 6, which deployed in the last Union line and repelled the final Confederate assaults of the day. After the war, veterans of the two Federal armies vehemently argued their contradictory cases. Even Grant and Buell crossed swords when they wrote conflicting articles for Century magazine in the 1880s. Buell’s article painted a picture of a dispirited Army of the Tennessee on the brink of defeat and destruction. Only his arrival with fresh troops saved the day. Grant argued that his tactic of trading space for time throughout April 6 had worked: the rebels had spent so much time breaching successive defensive positions that daylight was fading by the time the last Confederate assaults could began. Grant was convinced that his army could handle them even without help.
In reality, the Confederates had little hope of breaking Grant’s final defense line. Situated on an elevated ridge overlooking streams known as the Dill branch, Grant’s battered forces still had enough fight in them to hold this extremely strong position, especially since they had over 50 artillery pieces, two Federal gunboats (shown on the map above) and troops with good interior lines of defense. Grant’s guns lashed the Confederates from the front, flank and rear. Around 6 P. M., Grant remarked to a staff officer, "not beaten yet, by a damn sight."
The fact the Confederates never actually assaulted the Federal line in force further damages Buell’s claims. Only elements of four disorganized and exhausted Confederate brigades crossed the Dill Branch ravine and only two brigades undertook an assault, one of which was out of ammunition! The few Confederates who topped the rise faced a withering fire. Orders to withdraw did not have to be repeated. Grant could have fended off much larger forces than he actually faced. Buell’s arrival boosted Union morale and allowed Grant to take the offensive the next morning, were not needed to stave off defeat that evening.
Myth No. 4: The South would have won had Beauregard not called off the assaults. For many years after the battle, advocates of the "Lost Cause" castigated Beauregard for calling off the final Confederate assault as the sun set on April 6. The theme of the attacks was that the Confederates had victory within their grasp and needed only one last effort to destroy Grant’s army. Instead, Beauregard threw away a victory. Nothing could be further from the truth. Beauregard made the right decision to end the attacks, but for the wrong reasons. He acted on faulty intelligence that Buell’s reinforcements were nowhere near Pittsburg Landing. True, one of Buell’s divisions was still in Alabama, but unfortunately for Beauregard, five were actually about to reach Pittsburg Landing. Based on bad intelligence, Beauregard thought he could regroup overnight and finish off Grant the next morning, before Buell arrived. In this he was mistaken: Taking into account the terrain, the strong Union position and Confederate tactical disarray at the time, the Confederate chances of breaking Grant’s final line of defense, much less destroying the Union army were nil. Beauregard did not "throw away" a victory, but he did put himself in a position to be blamed for the defeat already transpiring.
Myth No. 5: The South would have won the battle had Johnston lived. Another Lost Cause myth of Shiloh is that Johnston would have been victorious had not a stray bullet clipped an artery in his leg and caused him to bleed to death. According to legend, Johnston’s slow death caused a lull in the battle on the critical Confederate right until a new commander could take over, halting progress toward Pittsburg Landing and then Beauregard then called off the attack on the Union left flank. The result: Confederate defeat. To drive the point home, the United Daughters of the Confederacy placed an elaborate memorial at Shiloh in 1917, with Johnston as the centerpiece and death symbolically taking the laurel wreath of victory away from the South. Even modern scholars sometimes follow this line of reasoning. Johnston biographer Charles Roland argues that Johnston would have won the battle had he lived. His superior leadership qualities, Roland concludes, would have allowed Johnston to spur the tired Confederate troops onward to victory.
Roland’s contentions fail to take the facts on the ground into account. First, any lull in the battle was not due to Johnston slow death. Neither side could sustain a continuous rate of fire for logistical reasons: ordnance departments could not keep thousands of soldiers continuously supplied with ammunition. As a result, combat at Shiloh did not rage continuously for hours at any one time or place (even in the Hornet’s Nest). Instead it was a complicated series of many different actions throughout the day at many different points. There were many lulls on the battlefield, some for as much as an hour or two. Some historians point out that a lull occurred while Johnston expired, but that break in action was more a result of the natural flow of the battle than Johnston’s death. Second, the argument that Johnston would have won even though Beauregard failed is also faulty. Johnston could not have pressed the attack any faster than the surviving Confederate commanders on the Confederate right could. In all likelihood, Johnston could not have captured the Hornet’s Nest any faster than Beauregard did. This means that Johnston would not have been in a position to attack the ridge guarding Pittsburg Landing until after Grant had stabilized his line of defense. The North’s concentrated infantry, massed artillery and gunboats, Confederate exhaustion and disorganization, unfavorable terrain and Union reinforcements were all factors -- some more than others -- in defeating the last Confederate attempt of the day. By 6 P. M., it is highly doubtful Shiloh could have been a Confederate victory even with Napoleon Bonaparte in command.
Myth No. 6: The Sunken Road was not, in fact, sunken.Visitors want to see the Sunken Road and the Hornet’s Nest more than any other attraction at the park. While some important fighting did take place at the Sunken Road, the draw is predicated on the myth of deep ruts in the road providing a natural defensive trench for the Federal soldiers. In fact, there is no contemporary evidence that the Sunken Road was sunken at all. What became known as the Sunken Road was a mere dirt path used by a local farmer, Joseph Duncan, to get to various parts of his property. Due to its limited use, the path would not have been worn down. At most, it might develop ruts several inches deep at various times during wet seasons. Post-battle photos of the road show a mere path, not a sunken trench. Not one single report in the Official Records mentions the road as being sunken. Likewise, no soldiers’ letters or diaries have been found that refer to it as sunken. The picture of the "Sunken Road" today (at the right) is a visual contradiction of the legend! Many buffs quote Thomas Chinn Robertson of Gibson’s Brigade as describing the road as three feet deep. In reality, Robertson never really saw the road. Gibson’s Brigade never reached the site of the Sunken Road. Robertson described a tangle of undergrowth that blocked his view. The unit shifted to the right, so Robinson never got to see how deep farmer Duncan’s cart path actually was. In all likelihood, he was describing the Hamburg-Savannah Road or the main Corinth Road, both of which were heavily used and thus would have been eroded. Federal troops occupied both roads at times during the battle.
Although the "Hornet’s Nest" label was used during the battle, the Sunken Road label did not appear until publication of Manning Force’s From Fort Henry to Corinth in 1881. Thereafter, veterans began to embellish the story. The Iowa units manning the position formed a veterans organization that emphasized the Sunken Road. When the Park was established in 1894, the Park Commission began to highlight certain areas, including the Sunken Road, to attract visitors. At the same time, the proliferation of veterans’ memoirs in the 1890s and early 1900s keyed on the growing popularity of this cart path, which grew deeper with each passing volume, ultimately reaching a depth of three feet. As time passed and more publications appeared, the myth became accepted as reality. Today it is one of the best known Civil War icons that never existed.
In Conclusion. Several factors account for the myths encrusting the Battle of Shiloh. The park, unlike Gettysburg, was not established until 30 years after the battle. By then, embellished memories had become fixed. Likewise, the original Park Commission may have let pride affect its Shiloh story. David Reed (the park’s first historian) had fought in the 12th Iowa in the Hornet’s Nest and promoted its importance. The Lost Cause mentality so prevalent in the postwar South fostered antagonism against Beauregard and laments over Johnston’s death and felt that the Confederates were outnumbered but never outfought. It is regrettable that over the years some of the facts about the battle have become distorted. Fortunately, however, today’s historians are looking at the battle from a different perspective. As more research is published, the oft-repeated campfire stories should be phased out in favor of the grand and noble reality of Shiloh. After all, truth is often stronger than fiction.
After a spirited question-and-answer period, Steve received well-earned applause.
Last changed: 08/04/14