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Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862

by O. Edward Cunningham, edited by Gary D. Joiner and Timothy B. Smith, Savas Beatie, 2007, 520 pages, $34.95.

Shiloh. The word in ancient Hebrew means “place of peace,” but in Civil War historiography it has come to be associated with the roiling cauldron of smoke and blood that erupted for two days in early spring in the fields and woods surrounding the rustic Methodist chapel above Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River.

Unfortunately, the battle there on April 6-7, 1862, has never been studied with the intense scrutiny accorded the war’s more familiar killing fields in the Eastern theater of operations. But for the troops who fought there and survived the carnage, Shiloh would forever conjure up images of the apocalypse and evoke nightmare visions of the end of days. The writer Ambrose Bierce fought there as a member of the 9th Indiana Infantry, and after the war he wrote: “Death had put his sickle into this thicket and fire had gleaned the field. Along a line…lay the bodies, half buried in ashes, some in the unlovely looseness of attitude denoting sudden death by a bullet, but by far the greater number in postures of agony that told of the tormenting flame….Some were swollen to double girth; others shriveled to manikins. According to the degree of exposure, their faces were bloated and black or yellow and shrunken.” More than 23,000 young men forever consecrated the battleground with their blood, and even the most naive soldiers and civilians were now convinced that Johnny would not come marching home anytime soon.

Is the dearth of modern scholarship sufficient justification for publishing a Ph.D. dissertation written more than 40 years ago? Anyone who reads O. Edward Cunningham’s meticulously researched Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862 will probably answer a resounding yes. Written for noted Civil War historian T. Harry Williams at Louisiana State University and, for the most part, deftly edited by Gary Joiner and Timothy Smith, Cunningham’s work stands the test of time remarkably well. He puts the battle into the context of the Union’s overall campaign in the West, which used the Mississippi, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers as avenues to divide and conquer the South. He begins with an analysis of Union strategy and early engagements in Kentucky and Tennessee and ends with a chapter on the siege and capture of Corinth, Miss.

Cunningham displays an encyclopedic familiarity with the regiments and personnel engaged in the battle. He convincingly argues that the Union forces were not completely surprised and routed on the first day, nor were the Confederate attacks overwhelmingly successful. Moving his analytic eye from first contact in the pre-dawn darkness on a farm track beyond the Fraley field to the furious action around Shiloh meeting house, the Hornet’s Nest along the Sunken Road (which in reality was not sunken at all), the Peach Orchard and back again, Cunningham demonstrates that the battle quickly lost its strategic coherence and devolved into numerous savage firefights where regimental courage and line officer competence usually determined success or failure.

Cunningham’s comparisons of after-action reports, survivor letters and diaries and contemporary newspaper accounts allow him to challenge some of the myths that grew up after the battle and correct prevailing errors of fact, some of which have found their way into modern scholarship. He documents only seven Rebel attacks against the infamous Hornet’s Nest, not the 12 or 13 that had become ingrained in the public’s consciousness, and he can find only 51 cannons assembled by Colonel Daniel Ruggles that helped bombard that pivotal Union position into submission, not the 62 usually stated.

In their useful introduction, Joiner and Smith explain the prevailing schools of thought that have grown over the years to explain the outcome of the battle. There are proponents favoring the untimely death of Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston as the reason the Rebels didn’t press home their successes on the first day; others contend the Confederate second-in-command, P.G.T. Beaureguard, mistakenly ordered operations to cease while there was still nearly an hour of daylight on April 6, and one more attack would have driven Union forces into the Tennessee River or forced them to surrender. Some argue that only the arrival of fresh Union reinforcements from General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio during the night of April 6 allowed Grant to counterattack the next morning and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Cunningham evades entrapment into this type of causal reductionism and argues that it was primarily ignorance of topography that precipitated the eventual Confederate defeat.

Excellent as it is, Cunningham’s dissertation could have been improved prior to publication. The editors do correct factual errors in helpful footnotes and include a revised bibliography of works published since 1966. Perhaps because the author died in 1997 and was thus unable to participate in revisions, the editors were unwilling to tamper with his prose. But there is good reason why few graduate students see their work go directly from dissertation to publication. A reader who does not already have a basic understanding of the battle could be overwhelmed by the sheer number of individuals mentioned and the many regiments that appear and later reappear in the narrative.

A fuller treatment of the second day’s action might help the reader appreciate Grant’s fierce tenacity and understand why Beauregard’s valiant but decimated legions reluctantly wilted under the weight of unbloodied Union regiments and a merciless Tennessee sun.

But these are minor quibbles with an overwhelmingly excellent monograph. The publisher, Savas Beatie, has done its usual fine job of providing useful and plentiful maps, drawn by Gary Joiner, and the section of modern photographs included with the text provides the reader with a sense of place. Shiloh was one of the pivotal battles of the war and deserves the bright, albeit 40-year-old, light that O. Edward Cunningham shines on it.


Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here