For the better part of that bloody April 6 at the Battle of Shiloh, Union Brigadier General W.H.L. Wallace and his embattled troops in the Army of the Tennessee’s 2nd Division had held their own in the Hornets’ Nest. Time after time they managed to shoot up, beat down and turn back the onrushing Confederate columns. But as dusk approached, the regiments on their flanks crumpled, and Southern fury raged unabated in the center of the Union line. Having surrounded the exposed Federals in the Hornets’ Nest, the Rebels laid down a murderous crossfire on any who tried to flee.
The Federal situation had worsened when, about 5 p.m., a Confederate bullet plowed into the head of Wallace, the primary organizer of the Hornets’ Nest defense. Wallace lived for a time—he would finally succumb on April 12, 1862—but at that point he was incapable of further command. Brigadier General Benjamin Prentiss was the only general left standing by virtue of the gory process of elimination that had taken place within the battered Union position.
Prentiss was actually a Southerner fighting for the North. He was born in Virginia in 1819, but his family soon moved west, and he grew up in Missouri and Illinois. While serving in the Illinois militia in the 1840s, he fought against Mexicans and Mormons. He eventually started practicing as an attorney, but remained a militia colonel.
His Civil War career began in 1861 when he was named colonel of the 10th Illinois, and by August he had been promoted to brigadier general and sent to Missouri to combat irregular Confederate operations. On April 1, just days before the Battle of Shiloh, Prentiss joined Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee as commander of the 6th Division. With the army camped around Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River, Prentiss and his men took up an exposed position near Barnes Field, about two miles from the landing, and he set about organizing and getting to know his 5,400 mostly untested charges.
Early on the morning of April 6, General Albert Sidney Johnston’s Rebel army burst forth from the Tennessee woodlands and headed straight for Prentiss’ overwhelmed greenhorns. By 9 a.m., most of the rookies had broken under the Confederate onslaught, but the general managed to rally about 500 soldiers and at 9:30 planted his ragged force along a section of a “sunken” farm road that ran through a dense forest in the Union center. Wallace’s men were already there, fighting hard to hold onto a key swatch of land that would eventually be known to history as the Hornets’ Nest. Prentiss set up on Wallace’s left and was soon reinforced by roughly 575 men of the 23rd Missouri arriving from Pittsburg Landing. That put Prentiss in command of about 1,100 soldiers, a relatively small chunk (12 percent) of the approximately 8,850 Federals currently in the Hornets’ Nest.
When Wallace was mortally wounded at 5 p.m. while leading a retreat to Pittsburg Landing near a deadly stretch of land known as “Hell’s Hollow,” Prentiss was left as the senior commander in the Hornets’ Nest. Earlier in the day, General Grant had personally instructed him to hold his position “at all hazards,” but by 5:30 Prentiss could see he had no alternative save outright slaughter. He raised a white flag and surrendered the 2,250 soldiers who remained in his charge.
As the conquering Confederates shouted in triumph, Prentiss quickly bellowed, “Yell, boys, you have a right to shout, for you have captured the bravest brigade in the U.S. Army.” With those two acts—the reluctant surrender and his decision to make that boastful retort—Benjamin Mayberry Prentiss was on his way to undeservedly earning the weighty sobriquet “Hero of Shiloh.”
Every war produces its false heroes, men who claim they did much more than the actual records validate. Stories have recently popped up in the news about Vietnam veterans wearing medals they bought at surplus stores, for example, unscrupulous behavior that insults the soldiers, sailors and Marines who have put forth the true measure of heroism. Sometimes these frauds are found out, but it seems just as often they manage to get away with their deceit.
As awareness of the determined defense of the Hornets’ Nest grew in the decades after the war, Prentiss’ fame increased by leaps and bounds. He was helped considerably, of course, by the fact that Wallace was dead and unable to vouch for himself. For Wallace there would in fact be no martyrdom like that accorded Albert Sidney Johnston, struck down at Shiloh, or Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, mortally wounded at Chancellorsville. In the case of the Hornets’ Nest, selective memory would side with Prentiss.
When it comes to Civil War history—or any history for that matter—there is often a vast difference between what actually happened and what people believe happened. In the case of Shiloh, Prentiss has received great praise for holding the Hornets’ Nest long enough to allow Grant to patch together a defensive line at Pittsburg Landing, which ultimately allowed his army to win the battle on April 7.
Historians have also given star treatment to Prentiss and have typically ignored Wallace. No fewer than 15 major Civil War authors credit only Prentiss with having defended the Hornets’ Nest (a few mention W.H.L. Wallace in passing, but the emphasis is clearly on Prentiss). In Battle Cry of Freedom, for instance, James McPherson never even mentions Wallace in conjunction with the Hornets’ Nest, writing: “Although 18,000 Confederates closed in on Prentiss’ 4,500 men….Prentiss surrendered his 2,200 survivors at 5:30, an hour before sunset. Their gritty stand had bought time for Grant.”
Bruce Catton states in Grant Moves South that “Prentiss had done precisely what he had been told to do—hold on at all hazards—and so had his men.” Most tellingly, in P.G.T. Beauregard: Napoleon in Gray, T. Harry Williams wrote: “Prentiss, under orders from Grant to hold to the last, fought on with 2,200 men….If any one man saved the Federal army at Shiloh, Prentiss was the man.” In reality, Wallace was in the Hornets’ Nest the whole time, longer than Prentiss, commanding his division from 8:30 a.m. until he was mortally wounded.
The early historiography of Shiloh sheds critical light on how and why historians have wrongly shaped the story of the Hornets’ Nest. In the years immediately after the war, Prentiss and the Hornets’ Nest were not the focus in accounts of the battle. When early authors did deal with the action in the center of the battlefield, they gave credit to Wallace. That view began to change in the mid-1880s.
Prentiss himself had a lot to do with the shift in public opinion about Shiloh, and he played a major role in swaying later historians into inaccurately chronicling what had occurred during the battle. Not long after being released from Confederate custody in October 1862, he wrote an after-action report that provided a fairly accurate representation of the events in the Hornets’ Nest; he even gave Wallace full credit for his actions. During a subsequent round of speaking engagements, however, the general began making more grandiose claims about his own role.
On his way back home to Quincy, Ill., following his release, Prentiss spoke in Washington, D.C., Chicago and many other cities, always to huge crowds that hung on his every word. In a number of essentially similar speeches, Prentiss recounted his capture and captivity, and was extremely critical of the treatment he and his men received in Confederate custody.
Playing on the emotions of the crowd, Prentiss began a speech in Chicago with, “My friends, I feel free to-night; I am at home in Illinois.” Near the end of his oration, Prentiss spoke of meeting with Wallace. “We had determined to hold our position,” he thundered, “We determined to sustain our government; we determined there to save the army of Gen. Grant. I think we did it.” Loud applause filled the building.
Prentiss gained even more adulation as time wore on and the story of the Hornets’ Nest became the centerpiece of the battle, thanks in large part to several famous paintings. In 1885 artist Theophile Poilpot and 12 assistants produced a Hornets’ Nest panorama in Chicago that prominently featured Prentiss, and the general himself gave lectures there. An accompanying publication, Manual of the Panorama of the Battle of Shiloh, testified that the Hornets’ Nest was “The Thermopylae of modern times…the turning point in the battle.”
The inclusion of several panels of the painting as illustrations in Century Magazine made Prentiss’ name familiar to even more Americans, and Thure de Thulstrup’s 1888 L. Prang and Company lithograph centered on the Hornets’ Nest, with Prentiss an obvious focal point. That brought the general additional attention.
W.H.L. Wallace was not prominently featured in the Poilpot panorama, and he was not even included in the Thulstrup painting. By the 1890s, Prentiss was well on his way to being viewed as the key defender of the Hornets’ Nest.
In 1900 the Shiloh National Military Park gave another boost to the general’s inflated reputation by placing an iron marker that read, “Brig. Gen. B.M. Prentiss surrendered here at 5:30 p.m., April 6, 1862.”
When Prentiss died in February 1901, the Washington Post headline on his obituary read “Hero of Shiloh Passes Away.” Later that year the Missouri legislature passed a resolution stating, “On the pages of history his name will appear as one on whose bravery and indomitable courage hung the fate of Shiloh battle field and perhaps the fate of a nation.” Prentiss apparently had saved more than just the Union army at Shiloh.
Many later authors simply picked up and continued the Prentiss myth. For example, in The Story of Shiloh (1946), Otto Eisenschiml wrote, “For hour on hour, Prentiss here held up the bulk of the Confederate army; when he finally did surrender, he had saved the day for Grant.” He later added more detail, stating that Grant “owed his own military survival and subsequent Presidential honors to Prentiss’ stubborn and sacrificial resistance.”
After the National Park Service took control of the Shiloh battlefield in 1933, the agency’s historians institutionalized Prentiss’ supposed heroics. The text on the park’s visitors brochure mentioned Prentiss but not Wallace, and the Thulstrup painting showing Prentiss in the Hornets’ Nest was later used as the brochure’s cover image. Likewise, the park’s 1954 film Shiloh: Portrait of a Battle heavily concentrated on Prentiss in the Hornets’ Nest, leaving other significant actions relatively untouched. At one point, after only mentioning Prentiss, the film’s narrator states, “The troops in the Sunken Road held the key to the battlefield.” Later the narrator notes that “Prentiss’ sacrifice had indeed not been in vain,” that his stand had allowed Grant time to build a last line of defense. At another point the narrator refers to veterans who claim they would never be ashamed to say, “I fought with Prentiss in the Sunken Road at Shiloh.”
The film, still being shown at the Shiloh visitor center, never mentions that 75 percent of the troops Prentiss surrendered were not under his command when the battle began.
Prentiss’ overblown reputation simply does not fit with the facts. His postwar heroic status is demonstrably the result not of heroic action at the Hornets’ Nest or anywhere else, but of battlefield mythology—hype or spin, as we would call it today. And while the general himself was not solely responsible for mistakes propagated in the early historiography of the conflict, we can see that Prentiss took advantage of those skewed reports to enhance his status as well as his income.
Benjamin Prentiss’ courage in helping Wallace to defend the Hornets’ Nest cannot be debated. But perhaps Prentiss’ honor as an officer and a gentleman should rightfully be questioned when we come to examine the battle’s storied aftermath.