Sunday, June 21, 2009

Woodworth (ed.): "The Shiloh Campaign"

[The Shiloh Campaign edited by Steven E. Woodworth (Southern Illinois University Press, 2009). Cloth, 3 maps, notes, index. 168 pages. ISBN:978-0-8093-2892-5 $24.95 ]

The Shiloh Campaign is the first volume of Southern Illinois University Press's Civil War Campaigns in the Heartland series. Steven Woodworth, the author of many western theater titles, is an excellent choice for series general editor, and here he has assembled eight scholarly essays (all by academic historians). The compilation is heavily focused on the military aspects of the Shiloh Campaign, and one hopes the budding series will grow into a worthy western themed counterpart to UNC Press's Military Campaigns of the Civil War series.

The first essay, by John Lundberg, offers a spirited defense of Albert Sidney Johnston's leadership during the Shiloh Campaign. His refutation of the notion that Johnston was indecisive and lacking in confidence is largely effective; however, interesting as it may be in conception, Lundberg's argument that the general's offering of army command to P.G.T. Beauregard was not a significant sign of weakness is ultimately unpersuasive1. The author's contention that Johnston was unusually ill served by major subordinates is also well taken, but, even so, the commanding general's lack of oversight and knowledge of Beauregard's poorly conceived battle plan until it was too late to change is indefensible.

The book's next two chapters are the most tactical in nature, with Alexander Mendoza's account of brigade commander David Stuart's defense of the Union far left flank and Timothy Smith's summary of the Hornet's Nest fighting. Smith's article is additionally focused on the historiography and memory of the Hornet's Nest sector of the battlefield, concluding that its importance has been greatly exaggerated2.

Some chapters examine familiar controversies. Steven Woodworth does a fine, objective job of outlining the contentious circumstances and timeline surrounding Lew Wallace's march to the battlefield on April 6. Gary Joiner explores the effectiveness of U.S. naval gunfire, reiterating his 'skip shot' theory and providing evidence for its demoralizing effect on Confederate forces, as well as the navy's direct role in turning back the late afternoon Confederate assaults on the Union left. Grady McWhiney's essay, previously published in 1983, is critical of Beauregard's evening decision to suspend the offensive with sufficient light to continue and publicly declare victory.

For his article, Charles Grear sifted through diaries, letters, and reminiscences to gather evidence about how Confederate soldiers viewed the events at Shiloh. Perhaps surprisingly, given the relative chaos of the retreat, he finds that most soldiers viewed the battle as a draw, although with heavy doses of concern about the future.

In the final essay, Brooks Simpson pierces several myths about U.S. Grant, demonstrating that President Lincoln's advocacy was far from unshakable and it was timely and unexpected support by General Henry Halleck that did much to allay calls for Grant's removal. One is also persuaded by Simpson's contention that William T. Sherman's support for Grant in the aftermath of Shiloh is better viewed in the context of a sympathetic sounding board than an impassioned promoter of his commander's generalship.

While the book's material quality and scholarly representation bodes well for the series, The Shiloh Campaign is wanting in several aspects. The lack of an essay focusing on the second day of the battle mirrors the Shiloh literature's larger neglect of the April 7 events. Tighter copyediting was needed, and additional cartography [the absence of maps for Mendoza's tactical article was a critical omission] and illustrations would have greatly enhanced the study's clarity and presentation.

Regardless, some growing pains are to be expected with a series's first volume, and The Shiloh Campaign's strengths certainly do outweigh the weaknesses. Western theater scholars and students have been hoping for a series of this type for some time, and with continual improvements in presentation and content freshness, one hopes the run of Civil War Campaigns in the Heartland will prove to be a lengthy and fruitful one.

1 - The point is made that the offer was not pressed, and was perhaps not seriously entertained. Knowing Beauregard would not accept, it may also have been a ploy to outwardly reaffirm Johnston's superior position.
2 - Smith's point of view on this matter has also been expressed in previous publications -- Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862 (Savas Beatie, 2007), The Untold Story of Shiloh: The Battle and the Battlefield (UT Press, 2006), and This Great Battlefield of Shiloh: History, Memory, and the Establishment of a Civil War National Military Park (UT Press , 2006).

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Other CWBA reviews of SIU Press titles:
* Chicago's Irish Legion: The 90th Illinois Volunteers in the Civil War


  1. Drew,

    Nice job on the review. We've discussed some of these issues on the Shiloh Discussion Group, and no doubt these articles will renew some of those, and generate new debates as well. I'll look forward to reading the book. Thanks. :)


  2. I'm glad to see the series. I agree that this first volume made a good start to it. But I did feel that the McWhiney article was a bit out-of-place.

  3. Hello Drew

    I looked at the SIU Press page and they haven't listed a winter catalog yet. I'd heard, the second volume in this series would be on Chickamauga. Have you heard when this might be published?

    Don Hallstrom

  4. Drew - One of the outstanding features of the UNC series was Gary Gallagher's bibliographic essays at the end of each of his edited essay collections...does the Shiloh book offer the same feature?

    Keep up the great work.

    Jim Schmidt

  5. Don,
    I haven't seen a date for vol. 2 yet.

    No, there isn't a bibliographic essay.

  6. Nice review Drew! I remember taking a tour at Shiloh with Timothy Smith at Shiloh in 2001 and hearing his theory about the importance of the Hornet's Nest. I have always disagreed with the putting down of the importance of the Hornet's Nest. From walking the ground I thought the Hornet's Nest line ran from the end of the Peach Orchard line to the end of the line at Duncan Field. I know only one assault was made across Duncan field but I have always believed in the woods between Duncan field and the Peach Orchard that heavy fighting must have taken place there and that was the 'Hornet's Nest'. Allen's Louisiana troops must have been fighting Union troops in those woods unless there were big squirrels with Union uniforms on shooting at them. Randall Gibson made those assaults three or four times. I definitely agree that the fighting to the left and right was critical to the Battle of Shiloh but I have felt that the making of the 'Hornet's Nest' was as myth is a bit much. Cunningham also describes much fighting there also.

    It reminds me of stuff such as the cavalry not putting up much of a fight against the Indians at Little Big Horn or the Texans being overrun quickly and with little casualties to the Mexicans at the Alamo. I am just an amateur student of the battles but I disagree very respectfully with some of the new interpretations at Shiloh.


  7. Chris,
    For me, it's a question of degree. I think the strength of the revisionist argument about the Hornet's Nest isn't in any contention that the fighting was unimportant, but rather that it was relatively unexceptional when compared to the fighting on either flank. Individual proponents might go a bit too far toward the former, but the overall idea seems fairly reasonable.

  8. To answer Don's question, as I understand it, the second volume is to be on Chickamauga, and the third on Chattanooga.

  9. Drew,
    Thanks for the response. What you say makes the most sense about the argument over the fighting at The Hornet's Nest. There was plenty of heavy duty fighting to go around on April 6th. I just wish when the battle was originally interpreted that the fighting on the left and the right would have been emphasized so The Hornet's Nest could have been in its proper perspective then and not so severely downgraded by interpretation as it has been over the last 10-15 years.
    Thanks again,

  10. I gave up on this essay collection rather quickly when I turned to Woodworth's introduction and read the old saw about there being "more deaths at Shiloh than in the Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Mexican war combined." (not an exact quote.) I don't even have a college degree and yet I can tell that Prof. Woodworth is way off the mark. There were at least 6,000 Patriot combat deaths in the Revolution (previous figures of 4,800 are inaccurate), 2,600 Americans killed in combat from 1812-15 and 1,700 in Mexico. The total figure is considerably larger than deaths at Shiloh, even if we count the mortally wounded.

    It's rather ironic that Woodworth repeats this old fallacy when the authors of this collection are devoted to debunking Shiloh myths. -- Will Hickox

  11. Not to disagree about the number of deaths at Shiloh but I remember Stacy Allen in 'Confederates in the Attic' saying something to the effect that around 10,000 soldiers died at Shiloh because of their wounds after the battle. I wonder what the number actually is? But I guess statistics like that would have to be computed into the previous wars casualties to compare properly. I think more people died after the battles in the Civil War than is commonly believed but that has never been really taken into account in the casualty lists.


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