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Civil War Trust

Battle of Shiloh: Shattering Myths

From America's Civil War Magazine (historynet.com)

BY TIMOTHY B. SMITH  

Benjamin Prentiss
Benjamin Prentiss (Library of Congress)

The Battle of Shiloh, which took place on April 6-7, 1862, is one of the Civil War’s most momentous fights, but perhaps one of the least understood. The standard story of the engagement reads that Union troops were surprised in their camps at dawn on April 6. Defeat seemed certain, but Union Brigadier General Benjamin M. Prentiss saved the day by holding a sunken road some 3 feet deep. Thanks to the tenacious fighting in that area, it came to be known as the Hornet’s Nest.

Prentiss eventually capitulated, leaving Rebel commander General Albert Sidney Johnston in a position to drive on to victory. General Johnston, however, was soon mortally wounded and replaced by General P.G.T. Beauregard, which cost the Confederates vital momentum. Beauregard made the inept decision to call off the Confederate attacks, and the next day Union counterattacks dealt Rebel hopes a crushing blow.

This standard account of Shiloh, however, is more myth than fact. No less an authority than Ulysses S. Grant, the Union commander at the fight, wrote after the war that Shiloh ‘has been perhaps less understood, or, to state the case more accurately, more persistently misunderstood, than any other engagement…during the entire rebellion. Preeminent Shiloh authority and historian David W. Reed, the first superintendent of the battlefield park, wrote in 1912 that occasionally…some one thinks that his unaided memory of the events of 50 years ago is superior to the official reports of officers which were 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 oft-repeated campfire stories have over the years become for many the truth about Shiloh, distorting the actual facts and painting an altered picture of the momentous events of those April days. One has to look no further than the legend of Johnny Clem, the supposed Drummer Boy of Shiloh, to realize that tall tales surround the battle. Clem’s 22nd Michigan Infantry was not even organized until after Shiloh took place. Similarly, the notorious Bloody Pond, today a battlefield landmark, could be myth. There is no contemporary evidence that indicates the pond became bloodstained. In fact, there is no contemporary evidence that there was even a pond on the spot. 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.

The Bloody Pond at ShilohThe "Bloody Pond" on the Shiloh Battlefield.  Recent research has failed to find evidence that the pond was bloodstained.  (Rob Shenk)

The long-held belief that Grant arrived at Pittsburg Landing only to be greeted by thousands upon thousands of Union stragglers is also a myth. The frontline divisions of Prentiss and Brig. Gen. William T. Sherman 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, even though, by all accounts, they were pretty scared.

Cynicism aside, there is a real need to correct such errors. A newspaper columnist recently criticized the Shiloh National Military Park for removing the rotten and crumbling tree under which Johnston supposedly died, saying, So what if Johnston wasn’t exactly at that exact tree. Such an ambivalent attitude toward facts, continued and perpetuated through the years, not only produces false history but also diminishes the record of what actually happened. The most boring fact is always worth more than the most glamorous myth. In an effort to correct historical errors and analyze the myths, here is a brief analysis of several myths about the Battle of Shiloh.

Myth: The opening Confederate attack caught the Union totally by surprise

The matter of surprise is a major topic of discussion among military historians and enthusiasts. It is one of the modern American Army’s nine principles of war that guide military plans, movements and actions. Of course, most military tactics are common sense. When fighting either a bully or an army, who would not want to sneak up on an opponent and get in the first punch?

One of the most famous of all surprises in military history is Pearl Harbor, where Japanese planes attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet based in Hawaii. The attack on December 7, 1941, was indeed a surprise, with bombs dropping out of a clear blue sky. Shiloh is another well-known example of a supposed surprise attack. On the morning of April 6, 1862, the Confederate Army of the Mississippi under Johnston launched an attack on Maj. Gen. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee near Pittsburg Landing. One author has even gone so far as to call it the Pearl Harbor of the Civil War. In actuality, Shiloh was not all that much of a surprise.

The assertion of surprise came initially from contemporary newspaper columns that described Union soldiers being bayoneted in their tents as they slept. The most famous account came from Whitelaw Reid, a newspaper correspondent for the Cincinnati Gazette. But Reid was nowhere near Shiloh when the Confederates attacked, and he actually penned his nearly 15,000-word opus from miles away.

The idea that Reid perpetuated and that is still commonly believed today is that the Federals had no idea that the enemy was so near. Nothing could be further from the truth. For days before April 6, minor skirmishing took place. Both sides routinely took prisoners in the days leading up to the battle. The rank and file in the Union army knew Confederates were out there — they just did not know in what strength.

U.S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant (Library of Congress)

The problem lay with the Federal commanders. Ordered not to bring on an engagement and convinced they would have to march to Corinth, Miss., to fight the bulk of the Confederate army, the Union leadership did not properly utilize the intelligence gained from the common soldiers on the front lines. Grant was not about to go looking for a fight in early April, certainly not before reinforcements arrived from Nashville in the form of the Army of the Ohio, and certainly not without orders from his superior, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck.

Thus Grant ordered his frontline division commanders Sherman and Prentiss not to spark a fight, and they made sure their soldiers understood that directive. They sent orders reinforcing Grant’s concern down the line and refused to act on intelligence coming up through the ranks.

As a result, not wanting to prematurely begin a battle, Federal skirmishers and pickets continually withdrew as the Confederates probed forward. Perhaps Sherman said it best when he 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.

The lower echelon leadership was not all that convinced the fight would take place at Corinth, however. For days, brigade and regimental commanders had witnessed Confederates near their camps. Several patrols even went forward, but no major Confederate units were encountered.

Finally, on the night of April 5, one Union brigade commander took matters into his own hands. Sending out a patrol without authorization, Colonel Everett Peabody located the Confederate army at dawn on April 6. His tiny reconnaissance found the advance skirmishers of the Southern force less than a mile from the Union front. The Confederates promptly attacked, and the Battle of Shiloh began.

Because of Peabody’s patrol, however, the Confederate advance was unmasked earlier than intended and farther out from the Union camps than projected. The resulting delay in the Confederate assault on the Union camps allowed the Army of the Tennessee to mobilize. Because of the warning, every single Union unit on the field met the Confederate assault coming from Corinth south, or in advance of, their camps. Peabody’s patrol warned the army and thus prevented total tactical surprise at Shiloh.

Myth: Benjamin Prentiss was the hero of Shiloh

For decades after the battle, Prentiss was hailed as the Federal officer who took it upon himself to send out a patrol that eventually uncovered the Confederate advance and gave early warning of the attack. Likewise, Prentiss was seen as the commander who, ordered by Grant to hold at all hazards, defended the Sunken Road and Hornet’s Nest against numerous Confederate assaults. Prentiss withdrew only after the Confederates brought up 62 pieces of artillery that were organized as Ruggles’ Battery. Finding himself surrounded, however, Prentiss surrendered the noble and brave remnants of his division. Before modern scholarship began to look at new sources and examine the facts, Prentiss’ reputation grew until it reached icon status.

The Hornet's Nest at Shiloh
The Hornet's Nest at Shiloh (David Duncan)

Prentiss’ after-action report was glowing in terms of his own accomplishments. Historians through the years then accepted that report at face value, one even labeling a photo of Prentiss as the Hero of Shiloh. Shiloh National Military Park’s long-running film Shiloh: Portrait of a Battle dramatically paints Prentiss as the chief defender the Union army had on April 6.

In actuality, Prentiss was not as involved as legend has it. He did not send out the 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 key defender of the Hornet’s Nest, as the area adjacent to the Sunken Road came to be called. His division began the day with roughly 5,400 men, only to dwindle to 500 by 9:45 that morning. When Prentiss took his position in the Sunken Road, his numbers were nearly doubled by an arriving regiment, the 23rd Missouri. Prentiss had lost almost his entire division, and could not have held his second line without the veteran brigades of Brig. Gen. W.H.L. Wallace’s division. It was primarily Wallace’s troops who held the Hornet’s Nest.

Prentiss was in an advantageous position to become a hero after the battle, however. Although he remained a prisoner for six months, he was able to tell his story. Peabody and Wallace were both dead from wounds received at Shiloh. Thus Prentiss took credit for their actions and became the hero of the fight. Prentiss never even mentioned Peabody in his report, except to say that he commanded one of his brigades. Likewise, Wallace was not around to set the record straight as to whose troops actually defended the Sunken Road and Hornet’s Nest. Prentiss, the only Federal officer who could get his own record out, thus benefited from public exposure. In the process, he became the hero of Shiloh.

Myth: Major General Don Carlos Buell’s arrival saved Grant from defeat on April 6

Many historians have argued that Grant’s beaten army was saved only by the timely arrival of Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio near sundown on April 6. The common conception is that Grant’s men had been driven back to the landing and were about to be defeated when the lead elements of Buell’s army arrived, deployed in line and repelled the last Confederate assaults of the day.

Don Carlos Buell
Major General Don Carlos Buell (Library of Congress)

The veterans of the various armies vehemently argued their cases after the war. Members of the Society of the Army of the Tennessee maintained that they had the battle under control at nightfall that first day, while their counterparts in the Society of the Army of the Cumberland (the successor to Buell’s Army of the Ohio) argued with equal vigor that they had saved the day. Even Grant and Buell entered the fight when they wrote opposing articles for Century magazine in the 1880s.

Grant claimed his army was in a strong position with heavy lines of infantry supporting massed artillery. His effort to trade space for time throughout the day of April 6 had worked; Grant had spent so much time in successive defensive positions that daylight was fading by the time the last Confederate assaults began, and he was convinced that his army could handle those attacks.

Buell, on the other hand, painted a picture of a dilapidated Army of the Tennessee on the brink of defeat. Only his arrival with fresh columns of Army of the Ohio troops won the day. The lead brigade, commanded by Colonel Jacob Ammen, deployed on the ridge south of the landing and met the Confederate advance. In Buell’s mind, Grant’s troops could not have held without his army.

In reality, the Confederates probably had little hope of breaking Grant’s last line. Situated on a tall ridge overlooking streams known as the Dill and Tilghman branches, Grant’s forces, battered though they were, still had enough fight in them to hold their extremely strong position, especially since they had over 50 pieces of artillery in line. Likewise, the troops were massed in compact positions. Good interior lines of defense also helped, and two Federal gunboats fired on the Confederates from the river. Grant poured heavy fire into the Confederates from the front, flank and rear.

The Confederates never actually assaulted the Federal line, further damaging Buell’s assertion. Only elements of four disorganized and exhausted Confederate brigades crossed the backwater in the Dill Branch ravine as gunboat shells flew through the air. Only two of those brigades undertook an assault, one without ammunition. The Confederates topped the rise and faced a withering fire. They were convinced. Orders from Beauregard to withdraw did not have to be repeated.

In fact, only 12 companies of Buell’s army crossed in time to deploy and become engaged. Grant had the situation well under control and could have fended off much larger numbers than he actually encountered. While Buell’s arrival did provide a morale boost and allowed Grant to take the offensive the next morning, Grant had the battle situation under control by the time Buell arrived.

Pittsburg LandingFederal riverboats at Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River.  (Shiloh National Military Park)

Myth: The South would have won had Beauregard not called off the assaults

For many years after the battle, former Confederates castigated General Beauregard for his actions at Shiloh. Their main complaint was that the army commander, having taken charge of the Confederate forces after Johnston’s death, called off the final Confederate assaults on the evening of April 6. Many argued that the Confederates had victory within their grasp and needed only one last effort to destroy Grant’s army. Beauregard, however, called off his Southern boys and thus threw away a victory. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard
General P.G.T. Beauregard (National Archives)

The controversy had its beginnings while the war still raged. Corps commanders Maj. Gens. William J. Hardee and Braxton Bragg later pounced on Beauregard for calling off the attacks, even though their immediate post-battle correspondence said nothing de-rogatory about their commander. After the war ended, Southerners began to argue that being outnumbered and outproduced industrially were reasons for their defeat, and also blamed the battle deaths of leaders like Johnston and Stonewall Jackson. Another key element in their argument, however, was poor leadership on the part of certain generals such as James Longstreet at Gettysburg (of course it did not help that Longstreet turned his back on the solidly Democratic South and went Republican after the war) and Beauregard at Shiloh. The sum of all those parts became known as the Lost Cause.

Hardee, Bragg and thousands of other former Confederates argued after the war that Beauregard threw away the victory. Beauregard does bear some blame, but not for making the wrong decision to end the attacks. He made the right decision, but for all the wrong reasons. The general made his decision far behind his front lines, an area completely awash with stragglers and wounded. No wonder Beauregard argued that his army was so disorganized that he needed to call a halt.

Similarly, Beauregard acted on faulty intelligence. He received word that Buell’s reinforcements were not arriving at Pittsburg Landing. One of Buell’s divisions was in Alabama, but unfortunately for Beauregard, five were actually en route to Pittsburg Landing. Based on such spotty intelligence, Beauregard thought he could finish Grant the next morning.

In the end, the decision to call a halt was the right thing to do. Taking into account the terrain, Union reinforcements and Confederate tactical ability at the time, the Confederates probably would not have broken Grant’s final line of defense, much less destroyed the Union army. The castigated Creole did not throw away a victory, he merely put himself in a position to be blamed for the defeat already transpiring.

Myth: 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 death caused a lull in the battle on the critical Confederate right, which slowed progress toward Pittsburg Landing. Just as important, Johnston’s death placed Beauregard in command, who ultimately called off the attacks. The result of both cause and effect situations led to 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 have sometimes taken this line of reasoning. Johnston biographer Charles Roland has argued in two different books that Johnston would have succeeded and won the battle had he lived. Roland claims that just because Beauregard failed did not mean Johnston would have. His superior leadership qualities, Roland concludes, could have allowed Johnston to spur the tired Confederate troops onward to victory.

Albert Sidney Johnston Monument
Albert Sidney Johnston Monument at Shiloh (Rob Shenk)

Such a theory of certain victory fails to take many factors into account. First, there was no lull in the battle on the Confederate right because Johnston fell. A continuous rate of fire was not sustainable for several reasons, mostly logistics; ordnance departments could not keep thousands of soldiers supplied to fire constantly. Most Civil War battles were stop-and-go actions, with assaults, retreats and counterattacks.

Shiloh’s wooded terrain and choppy hills and valleys gave the soldiers plenty of cover to re-form lines of battle out of the enemy’s sight. The result was that the fighting at Shiloh did not rage continuously for hours at any one time or place. 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’s duration. Some historians point out that a lull occurred when Johnston died, but that was more a result of the natural flow of the battle than Johnston’s death.

Second, the argument that Johnston would have won when Beauregard did not is also faulty. Johnston could probably have pressed the attack no faster than the surviving Confederate commanders on the right did.

In all likelihood, Johnston would also have been preoccupied with capturing the Hornet’s Nest, as happened after his death. Thus Johnston at best would not have been in a position to attack near Pittsburg Landing until hours after Grant had stabilized his last line of defense. As stated above, the heavy guns, lines of infantry, gunboats, exhaustion, disorganization, terrain and arriving reinforcements all were factors — some more than others — in defeating the last Confederate attempts of the day.

The myth that the Confederates would have certainly won the battle had Johnston lived is thus false. By 6 p.m., it is highly doubtful Shiloh could have been a Confederate victory even with Napoleon Bonaparte in command.

Myth: The Sunken Road was, in fact, sunken

Coupled with the Hornet’s Nest, the Sunken Road has become the major emphasis of the fighting at Shiloh. Visitors want to see the Sunken Road and Hornet’s Nest more than any other attraction at the park. While some important fighting did take place at the Sunken Road, the entire story is predicated on the myth of the road being worn below the surrounding terrain and thus providing a natural defensive trench for the Federal soldiers. In fact, there is no contemporary evidence that the Sunken Road was sunken at all.

The road was not a major avenue of travel. The two major routes in the area were the Corinth-Pittsburg Landing Road and the Eastern Corinth Road. What became known as the Sunken Road was a mere farm road used by Joseph Duncan to get to various points on his property. As it had limited use, the road would not have been worn down as many people believe. At most, it might have had ruts several inches deep at various times during wet seasons. Post-battle photos of the road show a mere path, not a sunken trace.

Not one single report in the Official Records mentions the road as being sunken. Likewise, no soldiers’ letters or diaries exist that refer to it as sunken. Many buffs quote Thomas Chinn Robertson of the 4th Louisiana in Colonel Randall L. Gibson’s Brigade as describing the road as 3 feet deep. In reality, that soldier was in no position to see the road. Gibson’s Brigade never reached the Sunken Road and fell back in confusion. Robertson described a tangle of undergrowth that blocked his view, and even remarked that corps commander Bragg stated he would lead them to where they could see the enemy. The unit thereafter moved forward to the right, thus never allowing the quoted soldier to view how deep the road actually was. In all likelihood, the Louisianan was describing the Eastern Corinth Road or possibly even the main Corinth Road, both of which were heavily traveled thoroughfares and thus would have been eroded. Federal regiments were aligned on both roads at times during the battle.

Sunken Road at ShilohThe Sunken Road on the Shiloh Battlefield (Rob Shenk)

Although the Hornet’s Nest was a wartime term, the expression Sunken Road did not appear until the 1881 publication of Manning Force’s From Fort Henry to Corinth. Thereafter, veterans began to embellish the story. The Iowa units manning the position formed a veterans organization that emphasized the Sunken Road. When the national park was established in 1894, the Sunken Road became a major tourist attraction as the park commission began to highlight certain areas to attract attention and visitation. At the same time, the proliferation of veterans memoirs in the 1890s and early 1900s keyed on the growing popularity of this location, which grew deeper with each passing volume, ultimately reaching a depth of several feet. As time passed and more publications appeared, the myth became reality. Today it is one of the best known Civil War icons that never existed.

Over the years, a variety of myths and legends about the battle have crept into American culture, and today are viewed by many as the truth. Several factors account for these falsehoods. The veterans did not establish the park until 30 years after the battle. By that time, memories had become clouded and events shrouded in uncertainty.

Likewise, the original Shiloh National Military Park commission that initially developed the interpretation of the site may have let pride affect its documentation of the Shiloh story. One of the best examples is the heightened importance of the Hornet’s Nest, which was promoted by first park historian David Reed, who had fought in the 12th Iowa in the Hornet’s Nest. Finally, the Lost Cause mentality so prevalent in the postwar South provoked antagonism against Beauregard and laments for Johnston’s death, as well as the idea that the Confederates were simply outnumbered.

Buffs and even some historians who are not very knowledgeable about Shiloh’s history have perpetuated rumors and stories that are not actually based on fact. It is regrettable that over the years the truth about the battle has become distorted. Fortunately, however, today’s historians are looking at the battle from a different perspective. Hopefully, as more research is published, the oft-repeated campfire stories will be phased out and replaced by the reality of Shiloh, which in itself is much grander and more honorable than any of the myths that have grown up about the battle. After all, truth is often stranger than fiction.

This article is adapted from a chapter in Timothy B. Smith’s forthcoming book The Untold Story of Shiloh: The Battle and the Battlefield, to be published by the University of Tennessee Press, and originally appeared in the May 2006 issue of America’s Civil War magazine. Used with permission from historynet.com.

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