Accusations that Lew Wallace and his division blindly stumbled around the countryside trying to find the Shiloh battlefield on April 6, 1862, aren’t justified.
Any jealousy Lew Wal- lace’s contemporaries might have felt about his post–Civil War good fortune is forgivable. The Union general gained international wealth and fame for his 1880 epic Ben-Hur, the top-selling American novel of the 19th century. He had also held a prominent place in the limelight thanks to his 1865 stint as a judge for the Lincoln conspirators’ murder trial and the court-martial of Andersonville Prison commandant Henry Wirz. And then there was the political success he enjoyed, after helping Rutherford B. Hayes win the presidency in 1876, while serving as governor of New Mexico Territory and ambassador to Turkey. None of those exploits, however, could fully chase away the cloud that had hung over Wallace since the 1862 Battle of Shiloh.
That cloud descended on Wallace on April 6, 1862, when the Union major general, commanding the Army of the Tennessee’s 3rd Division, took more than seven hours to reach Shiloh from his camps only a few miles away, despite repeated orders by Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to rush reinforcements to the battlefield. Grant was among several Union officers to accuse Wallace of dereliction of duty for his tardiness, which had left the Union army at Pittsburg Landing on the verge of destruction in the opening hours of the battle.
A close look at Wallace’s actions, however—combined with postwar research conducted by Wallace himself and even more recently by this author—proves that the general did his duty as directed that day. He does not deserve the shameful mantle that is often placed upon his shoulders.
On March 13, 1862, following an aborted raid on the Mobile & Ohio Railroad, Wallace’s division had settled into camp near Crump’s Landing on the Tennessee River, halfway between Savannah and Pittsburg Landing. Wallace commanded three infantry brigades and detachments of artillery and infantry of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Nebraska and Missouri troops, but only the 1st Brigade under Colonel Morgan L. Smith stayed with Wallace at his Crump’s Landing headquarters. Colonel John M. Thayer’s 2nd Brigade had pitched its tents at Stoney Lonesome, two miles west on the Savannah-Purdy Road, and the 3rd Brigade, under Colonel Charles Whittlesey, had bivouacked another 21⁄2 miles down that road, at the small hamlet of Adamsville. The division would spend the rest of the month and the first six days of April there.
Wallace sent his troopers to explore the roads to the south that would serve as a communication link with the main army downriver at Pittsburg Landing. Two roads existed to that region. The easternmost and most direct route to Pittsburg Landing was the River Road. It crossed the flooded Snake Creek bottom, which was not bridged at the time and was of undetermined depth.
The western road, known as the Shunpike, split off the Savannah-Purdy Road at Stoney Lonesome and, like the River Road to the east, crossed Snake Creek, as well as two of its tributaries: Graham and Clear creeks. The Shunpike hit the Hamburg-Purdy Road between Clear and Owl creeks, and then crossed Owl Creek and intersected the Corinth Road near Union Brig. Gen. William T. Sherman’s camps, about two miles southwest of Pittsburg Landing.
Although the Rebel assaults at Shiloh would come from the south on April 6, the Federal high command had expected the Confederates to attack from the west. Wallace accordingly had developed a plan by which his isolated division would be supported via the Shunpike if the Confederates indeed approached as predicted. Wallace was thoroughly convinced the Shunpike was the shorter of the two routes to Sherman’s camps, and with the center of his division concentrated at the head of the Shunpike, he felt his brigades could quickly move along it in case of trouble.
Wallace also was aware that the River Road was completely flooded until April 3, and even later the thoroughfare remained partially under water—not a good situation for moving artillery, wagons and thousands of men. The 3rd Division soldiers laid down logs, or corduroyed, portions of the Shunpike in the days before the battle to firm up those sections, and as late as April 5 Wallace communicated with 2nd Division commander Brig. Gen. W.H.L. Wallace at Pittsburg Landing via the Shunpike, not the River Road.
On April 6, the men of the 3rd Division awoke to the sounds of battle coming from the south. Hearing cannon fire and presuming the battle was on at Pittsburg Landing, Wallace ordered the 1st and 3rd brigades to concentrate at Stoney Lonesome. Once orders arrived, he planned to march along the Shunpike to reinforce Grant’s main army.
While the 1st and 3rd marched to Stoney Lonesome, Wallace remained by the river waiting for Grant, who was headed to Pittsburg Landing aboard his boat Tigress. Grant stopped at Crump’s Landing to confer with Wallace and ordered him to have his division ready to move “at a moment’s notice.” He also asked him to send a party out the Savannah-Purdy Road to scout the enemy position, which Wallace informed him had already been done. Telling the general to be ready for further orders, Grant continued on to Pittsburg Landing.
Wallace rode to Stoney Lonesome, leaving behind a horse for the courier who would bring him Grant’s orders. Wallace remembered the hours passing slowly, writing: “Ten o’clock, and still the air laden with noises of the struggle going on…10:30—Yet no order.” At 11:30 a.m. Captain A.S. Baxter arrived at Stoney Lonesome by horse.
Baxter had originally been given Wallace’s orders orally but had asked that they be written down, a request accommodated by Grant’s chief of staff, Captain John Rawlins. Grant later claimed that he had ordered Wallace to march on the River Road to reinforce the Union right flank. But Wallace—after allowing his men 30 minutes to eat—began his march to battle via the Shunpike.
Exactly what order was delivered to Wallace remains one of the great questions about the battle that may never be solved, for neither the original version nor a copy has survived. Wallace said it simply ordered him to move to the right of the army, so he took the road with which he was most familiar: the Shunpike. Wallace also noted later that the order was “unsigned by anybody.” Grant initially stuck to his argument that he had ordered Wallace to advance to Shiloh down the River Road. When pressed on the issue after the war, however, Grant finally admitted that he had never seen the written order and therefore was “not competent to say just what order the general actually received.” One of Wallace’s officers ultimately lost the original version of the order, but considering it had to pass from Grant to Rawlins to Baxter to Wallace, it is quite possible that details could have been omitted or changed in the process.
What is certain is that before noon Wallace moved forward from Stoney Lonesome with two brigades. The 3rd Brigade was still at Adamsville, and because of a mix-up did not receive orders to move until 2 p.m. Two regiments and one gun were also left behind to defend Crump’s Landing and the division’s baggage.
About the time Wallace finally began his march, a cavalry officer sent by Grant cantered up and urged Wallace to hurry. After a quick exchange, the cavalryman returned to tell Grant that Wallace had questioned being given a verbal order and had requested one in writing. Wallace vehemently denied that charge later, and his actions verified his claim. Moreover, Wallace later argued that the “cannonading, distinctly audible, quickened the steps of the men.” By 2 p.m., he said, the brigades had passed the Overshot Mill and crossed Snake Creek.
Grant continued to express displeasure that Wallace had yet to arrive on the field, and he soon dispatched another rider, Captain W.R. Rowley, to further prod the general. Rowley rode to Crump’s Landing along the River Road and came upon the 3rd Division’s all-but-deserted camps. A teamster pointed the direction in which Wallace was marching, and Rowley galloped off in pursuit. He soon reached the division’s rear elements, which, he said, were “at a rest, sitting on each side of the road, some with their arms stacked in the middle of the road.” Rowley rode up to Wallace, who was just north of Clear Creek, and delivered the bad news that a relentless Rebel onslaught during the morning’s fighting had driven Sherman’s men back toward the Tennessee River.
The news shocked Wallace, who admitted being temporarily dumbfounded. He soon regained his composure, however, and sent his cavalry ahead to scout the situation. When the troopers confirmed the Union predicament, Wallace wisely decided he had to turn around. “In this dilemma,” he recalled, “I resolved, as the most prudent course, to carry out the spirit of General Grant’s order and join the right of his army as it then rested.” Wallace asked Rowley to stay on as a guide, and the captain acquiesced.
Instead of simply turning the division around, however, Wallace chose to countermarch—meaning he took time to move the 1st Brigade the entire length of the division so it would be first in line again; the 2nd Brigade then followed suit. Wallace wanted his best troops in the lead, since he did not know what to expect at Pittsburg Landing. It didn’t help that the 3rd Brigade, marching with all its baggage, showed up behind the 2nd Brigade just as the 1st Brigade began backtracking.
Wallace eventually marched back past the Overshot Mill, looking for a road that would quickly take him to the River Road. His cavalrymen found a young local, Dick Pickens, near the mill and ordered him to guide the division. Pickens led the division onto the small Crossover Road that started about a half-mile north of the mill on the high ground north of Snake Creek.
With Wallace still not in sight at 2:30 p.m., the anxious Grant sent Lt. Col. James B. McPherson and Captain Rawlins to find the reason for the division’s continued delay. En route to Crump’s Landing on the River Road, the two officers and their orderlies came upon a 3rd Division surgeon, who was familiar with the route Wallace had originally followed. The officers, joined by the surgeon and with another local citizen acting as a guide, took the Shunpike and soon found the division as it was entering the Crossover Road that led to the River Road. Smith’s 1st Brigade had already made the turn, and Thayer’s 2nd Brigade was about to do the same. Thayer told McPherson and Rawlins that Wallace was at the head of the column, so the party pushed on over the Crossover Road and reached Wallace about 3:30 p.m. McPherson and Rawlins informed the general of the situation at Pittsburg Landing and urged renewed haste. Then the column—all three brigades now together—continued along the Crossover Road and finally reached the River Road. By all accounts, it was a harrowing march through rough terrain.
McPherson and Rawlins later complained that Wallace was moving too slowly on the march and had stopped too often to close up his division. Wallace, however, told Grant: “The whole division was what I supposed you wanted, and I was resolved to bring you the whole division.” McPherson and Rawlins also claimed that Wallace’s lackadaisical body language did not express a desire for speed. One staffer even claimed that Wallace at one point dismounted “from his horse, [and] seated himself on a log.”
McPherson recommended to Wallace that the artillery, in line behind the 1st Brigade, be taken out of the column to make it move faster. Another delay occurred when the column reached the inundated Snake Creek bottom and local citizens informed Wallace that the Rebels held the bridge across the creek. When that rumor proved untrue, the march restarted, and the division finally reached the battlefield as the sun was setting.
After the war, debate raged over Wallace’s march, mostly centering on the details of Grant’s mysterious order and who was at fault for the division’s late arrival. There was little interest in Wallace’s actual route. As time passed, however, more people became involved in tracing the exact course. There was brief interest in the route in the 1880s when Century Magazine published an article on the subject, but heated debate didn’t materialize until the late 1890s.
By then, Shiloh National Military Park had been established, and its chief historian, Major David W. Reed, was trying to uncover exactly what had happened. At that time Wallace was writing his autobiography.
The location of the Crossover Road was a particular sticking point. That road, not much more than a rough path during the war, had since become overgrown and disappeared. Wallace had been trying to find it again as early as 1895, when he employed a local surveyor, George Harbert, to map his route. Wallace was present during Harbert’s surveying work, and so were several of his officers.
A map produced from the survey contained two major errors, however. One was the incorrect location of the beginning of the division’s countermarch; the other was the spot where Wallace had left the Shunpike to take the Crossover Road, for he incorrectly remembered that he had left the Shunpike at the Overshot Mill.
The Shiloh Commission, which was overseeing establishment of the national battlefield, also got involved in trying to determine Wallace’s route. Chairman Cornelius Cadle managed to find Dick Pickens, who had guided Wallace over the Crossover Road in 1862. Pickens led Shiloh Commission engineer Atwell Thompson over the route so he could map it. Thompson described the Crossover Road as an “old road, crossing fences and going through corn fields, pasture fields, and woods again.”
Pickens, though, was evidently losing his grasp of the events. He took Thompson on a road that led directly away from the Overshot Mill and also incorrectly told him that some of the division had marched on another road, and that most of Wallace’s men had returned to Crump’s Landing and traveled to Shiloh by boat.
In November 1901, Wallace returned to Shiloh to try to settle the issue once and for all. On November 20, Wallace and David Reed, accompanied by several other veterans and Atwell Thompson, rode to Crump’s Landing. Thompson said that Wallace pointed out the location of his headquarters tent and the campsites of Smith’s brigade. The group then moved on to Stoney Lonesome, and Wallace managed to locate the camps of Thayer’s brigade, doing the same for Whittlesey’s brigade at Adamsville.
After lunch the hunt began for the actual route of the march. Following Whittlesey’s route to the Overshot Mill and the Shunpike, the group crossed Snake Creek and continued along the 1901 route across Graham Creek. Thompson then led the men along the route laid out by the surveyor in 1895, but the veterans were not convinced of its accuracy. “Here we halted for a little while until the gentlemen could renew their memories,” Thompson recalled. Returning to the main route, the group decided it was the road traveled in 1862, and they continued to Clear Creek, where all agreed that Wallace had turned around. By then the day was “pretty well spent,” so Wallace and Reed decided to continue on to Pittsburg Landing by way of the Owl Creek bridge and locate the rest of the route another day. As they moved on, Wallace became firmly convinced of his error in believing he had turned around at Owl Creek in 1862.
The next day was spent examining Wallace’s role on the actual battlefield, but the group returned to the subject of his march on November 22. Thompson remembered Wallace as being “anxious to establish the place where he left the Shunpike Road and was guided by Pickens.…” Thompson led the way, following the route Pickens had shown him in 1895. It joined the Shunpike directly at the Overshot Mill, and the veterans were not satisfied that it was correct.
Thompson led the group to another road a half-mile north up the Shunpike, and it was agreed that it was indeed the Crossover Road by which the general and his division had marched to the River Road. Satisified at last, Wallace and his companions placed a sign at that point: “By this road General Wallace’s army marched to Shiloh April 6th 1862.”
Wallace asked Thompson to make a map of their expedition, which he did in 1902. Shiloh veteran Joseph W. Rich published his own map of the march in a 1909 Iowa Journal of History and Politics article, and he obviously used Thompson’s map as his base, since the Wallace march portions are identical. Unfortunately, Thompson’s original commission map from which the Rich’s published map came was lost, most likely in company with the abundance of papers and maps that were lost during the tornado of 1909, which literally blew away a priceless amount of original work on Shiloh. Today the only known copy of the 1902 Thompson map is at the Indiana Historical Society in Indianapolis.
Lew Wallace was never lost at Shiloh and knew exactly where he was going, but he was caught in an untenable situation. Trusting to the accuracy of the 1902 map he helped to create, it is now possible to understand the true path and circumstances of Wallace’s activities in April 1862, and accord him the vindication he deserved but was never able to achieve during his lifetime.
Originally published in the January 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.