Sunday, April 15, 2007

Cunningham and eds. Joiner & Smith: "Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862"

[Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862 by O. Edward Cunningham and edited by Gary D. Joiner and Timothy B. Smith (Savas Beatie, 2007) Hardback, 32 maps, photos, notes, appendices, bibliography, photographic battlefield tour. Pp. 520 $34.95 ISBN: 1-932714-27-8]

With their sparkling introductory essay, editors Gary Joiner and Timothy Smith give readers ample reason to want to read O. Edward Cunningham's 1966 dissertation Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862. Among the four* modern Shiloh campaign and battle histories written since David Reed's The Battle of Shiloh and the Organizations Engaged (1902), Joiner and Smith (and a host of other park historians) declare Cunningham's work to be the best overall study. The essay traces the various historiographical schools of thought that emerged over time, beginning with Reed's framework that accorded centrality to the "Hornet's Nest" fighting on up through today's revisionist accounts. The editors place Cunningham's much earlier manuscript (curiously uncited by both Sword and McDonough in the 1970s) comfortably within the latter group. In his study, Cunningham did not pay an inordinate amount of attention on either the Hornet's Nest or the death of Johnston. If with us today, he would probably be rather sympathetic to the revisionist Hornet's Nest views of park historian Stacey Allen.

Although mildly interventionist in their editing style (with minor text corrections and deletions), Joiner and Smith are very respectful of the author's research skills and writing style. I was especially pleased with their carefully measured additions to the notes. Cleanly separated from Cunningham's citations by a parallel line symbol, modern texts and sources were inserted for the reader's benefit along with explanatory notes. The notes delineating the various competing or supporting positions of the major authors upon various points of contention were most interesting.

Perhaps surprisingly, Cunningham's prose is written in a lively, popular style not commonly found in dissertations. The battle narrative itself is bracketed by nice summaries of both the strategic movements in the Western theater prior to the battle and the massive Siege of Corinth undertaken by General Halleck's army group in the weeks following Shiloh. While Cunningham's regimental and brigade level tactical history is very good in its own right, I agree with the editors that Sword's is the best tactical treatment of the four (I would probably even go further and prefer Daniel in some ways). One aspect of the book I do take issue with is the tactical scale of the original maps created by Gary Joiner. Almost exclusively drawn at brigade level and above, these otherwise fine maps sadly do not assist the reader much in visualizing the many regimental level maneuvers described in the text.

Beyond his intriguing emphasis on the western flank of the battlefield (the "crossroads" front), Cunningham made several other interesting contributions. His research into casualty levels led him to believe they were likely significantly higher for both sides. This was particularly eyebrow raising and not something subsequent scholars have picked up on consistently [note: the editors do mention a Shiloh casualty study currently in the works]. I also appreciated the author's assessment (often regiment by regiment) of the sharply differing levels of training and combat experience in the contending armies. Another fresh element was Cunningham's description of the pre-battle skirmishing. If memory serves me correctly, his account is much more detailed than that found in any of the other Shiloh studies. However, not all of the author's contentions hold up to scrutiny. His assertion that the result of the second day's fighting was a draw is a particularly controversial one.

In the final assessment, anyone with a serious interest in the early Western theater campaigns and the Battle of Shiloh will find this book to be essential reading. Casual readers will likely enjoy it as well (not something you can often say about a dissertation). Gary Joiner, Timothy Smith and publisher Savas Beatie are to be commended for finding a way to finally publish this highly respected manuscript. I've read all four major Shiloh works (some several times) and there is little reason to contend that they are necessarily competing against each other. With different emphases, all have something to offer to the Shiloh scholar and enthusiast. While I still prefer much of Sword and Daniel in the end, I remain absolutely amazed at how well Dr. Cunningham's forty year old study measures up to the best of present Civil War scholarship standards.

* - E.O. Cunningham Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862 (1966), Wiley Sword Shiloh: Bloody April (1974, Revised 2001), James McDonough Shiloh--In Hell Before Night (1977), Larry Daniel Shiloh: The Battle That Changed the Civil War(1997).

[A special thanks to Casemate]


  1. As you probably know, Ed got his degree under T. Harry Williams and may have picked up some of his writing style from his mentor. Ed's little book on Port Hudson was the standard account for many years and was written with the same style.

  2. I thought I did but it turns out I don't own a copy of his Port Hudson book. I've read Edmonds and Hewitt a couple times but avoided EOC because I doubted such a brief, older work could cover the entire campaign in any detail. After reading this Shiloh study, I do believe I'll pick it up.

  3. Drew,

    Thanks for the kind post on the Cunningham book. Tim Smith and I have believed from the beginning that his voice should be heard. I can explain about how I decided to do the maps. Tim and I discussed the issue of unit scale at length. I wanted to do everything on a regimental level, however, I quickly found that there was not enough firm information at critical times and places on the battlefield that single regimental units' positions could be absolutely identified and also the sheer numbers of regiments in very tight areas precluded the use of that level of detail where it was needed the most. I then decided, and Tim and Ted Savas both concurred that brigade level mapping was the best choice.

  4. Gary,
    Thanks for commenting about the maps.


  5. Does anyone know when Professor Cunningham died?

  6. Drew W.

    I thank you!

  7. Marsha F

    I was married to Ed in the early 70's and at one point was working with him to get his dissertation ready for publication. It makes me very happy that after his death his dream was realized


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