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Shiloh: Conquer or Perish

 Timothy B. Smith University of Kansas Press $34.95

Only the dead know Shiloh better than Tim Smith, who ha of his professional life studying the battle that, according to Grant, “has been perhaps less understood or, to state the case s spent much Ulysses more accurately, more misunderstood than any other engagement.” Though Shiloh is better understood now than it was in Grant’s day, Smith assures readers “there is plenty new to say.” For instance, his in-depth analysis of April 7, the second day of the battle, shows it “was much more important to the central contest than is often thought.” Smith, who knows the region’s landscape, waterways and road system, points out, “Any understanding of the Battle of Shiloh has to start with an understanding of the terrain on which it was fought.” Maps enable readers to follow troop movements and grasp the topography. Unlike other authors, Smith contends the Union army’s camping ground was well chosen and defensible, favoring the Federals.

Lack of Union entrenchments has long been understood as a factor leading to the Confederates’ initial successes on April 6. But Smith argues, “despite everything, the idea that the Federals were totally negligent of security is a myth.” Sickness was rampant in the Army of the Tennessee, and a reorganization of the artillery and cavalry on April 4 and 5 had officers taking new commands and units moving campsites. Smith also makes it clear that Grant and Brig. Gen. William Sherman’s contention they hadn’t been surprised must be understood in a strategic rather than a tactical sense. Both Union commanders knew the enemy was in the area, but no one in blue had any idea 40,000 Rebels were poised to strike less than a mile from Union lines.

First contact at Shiloh involved a small Union patrol attacking the 3rd Mississippi Infantry, which was advancing in Fraley Field. Another myth Smith puts to rest is that the initial Confederate attack swept all before it. “Once it started,” Smith insists, “the attack was anything but quick and overwhelming.” In fact, many Union regiments in Sherman’s division executed effective fighting retreats, and mid-rank officers like Colonel Everett Peabody bought time so other units could organize themselves. But the untested regiments of Brig. Gen. Benjamin Prentiss’ small division fared poorly. In the mass confusion, some did rally with Prentiss in an area that became known as the “Hornets’ Nest,” fighting until forced to surrender.

Smith concludes that “The Army of the Tennessee was in shambles” on the night of April 6, but the decision to trade space for time and “lower level grit put Grant in a position to come out on top.” Rather than holding his position, hoping for a tactical draw, Grant attacked the next morning. Two factors made this a winning decision. First, Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell’s reinforcements, 17,000 strong, gave Grant fresh troops. A second component was “the remarkable lack of preparation in the Confederate army during the night, especially compared to what was occurring behind the Union lines.” All night long, boats ferried in reinforcements, while ammunition wagons rolled among the regiments. Victory at Fort Donelson in February 1862 may have given Grant a memorable moniker, but Shiloh gave him a prescription for victory.


Originally published in the June 2015 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.