Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Smith: "RETHINKING SHILOH: Myth and Memory"

[Rethinking Shiloh: Myth and Memory by Timothy B. Smith (University of Tennessee Press, 2013). Cloth, 14 maps, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:176/212. ISBN:978-1-57233-941-5 $38.95]

Rethinking Shiloh: Myth and Memory is a collection of nine previously published essays by Timothy Smith, in recent times a prolific contributor to the body of published historiographical analysis of the Shiloh battle and battlefield. His reexaminations of what happened at Shiloh have resulted in a number of revisionist conclusions and his investigations into how the battle has been taught and remembered have informed us why certain parts of the battle have received disproportionate attention over the years. Smith is also a scholar of the park system's establishment, and his work specifically on Shiloh National Military Park has been prodigious. Elements of all of these areas of interest are present in the chapters of Rethinking Shiloh.

The compilation kicks off with a real jewel, the best article length terrain analysis of a Civil War battlefield I've come across in the literature. Everyone knows the natural landscape plays a role in every battle, but, in this Tennessee Historical Quarterly article, Smith explains how the terrain around Pittsburg Landing [especially the topography and the orientation of the river, creeks, and streams] determined the course, location, nature, and timing of each stage of the battle. He makes a strong case that the ground was the most important single factor in determining Union victory and Confederate defeat, even plausibly suggesting the possibility that its qualities and restrictions made Confederate victory on April 6 impossible.

A trio of other THQ articles are also present. In one, the story of the families who lived on the battlefield is told. Obviously, the battle itself was devastating to both dwellings and improvements, but Smith argues that their treatment at the hands of the U.S. government in the post-war period was generous. With the establishment of the park, land was purchased at higher than market value (with only three plots seized through condemnation). In addition, those that wished to stay were allowed to do so at miniscule rents and were provided with jobs during the New Deal era. Another chapter examines these New Deal works projects in more detail, noting that, although the river damming, road building, facilities construction, and archaelogical work modernized the park and brought a measure of increased prosperity to the region, they also permanently altered the historical landscape of the battlefield in a negative fashion, especially along the riverbank. The final THQ piece looks at the development and legacy of the park visitor orientation film, Shiloh: Portrait of a Battle. Its creation is an interesting tale in itself, but Smith is also cognizant that its Hornet's Nest-centric content, presented to millions of Shiloh visitors between 1956 and 2012, played a key role in promoting the primacy of that segment of the battlefield in the popular imagination.

On the subject of the Sunken Road fighting, regular Smith readers will know that he believes the Hornet's Nest sector has received far too much credit as the deciding factor in the battle, and two essays in the volume directly address this. The first, originally published in The Shiloh Campaign (SIUP, 2009), traces the ascendancy of the Hornet's Nest school of thought through the efforts of veterans that fought there and invested patrons, the most influential being 12th Iowa soldier and Shiloh park historian David W. Reed. Smith also tries to impress upon the reader that fiercer combat with higher casualty rates occurred on other parts of the battlefield, with the sunken road front something of an afterthought to the two main Confederate drives on each side. The second essay, an enhanced version of an earlier Civil War Times article, addresses the hero status of Hornet's Nest defender Benjamin Prentiss. While acknowledging the general's personal bravery, Smith finds Prentiss largely undeserving of his elevated status. Prentiss lied about ordering the early morning reconnaissance that discovered the enemy advance [Everett Peabody was the officer that did so] and actually commanded only a small proportion of the troops engaged. The vast majority were led by W.H.L. Wallace, who was killed in the waning moments of the fighting, leaving Prentiss to surrender the lot. Smith finds it odd that the surrendering general received legendary status while Wallace is largely forgotten, a happenstance in stark contrast to other battles with celebrated martyrs. The author also finds fault in the manner in which Prentiss freely imparted useful battlefield intelligence under questioning. According to Smith, Prentiss is not a hero, just the fortunate beneficiary of effective self-promotion and of the general ascent of the Hornet's Nest interpretation in both official and unofficial circles. The author's careful reevaluation of the record surrounding the Sunken Road/Hornet's Nest is both laudatory and convincing revisionism, but the tone of the corrective sometimes veers dangerously close to being a dismissive one. I don't think anyone should get the impression that the fighting was relatively unimportant, because, while I would agree that it was highly unlikely Grant's Last Line would have been penetrated if Wallace and Prentiss had simply withdrawn with the rest of the army, the stand clearly disrupted the Confederate advance in a major way at a time late in the day when each minute was precious. With the benefit of hindsight, it is also certainly debatable whether the loss of 2,200 men as prisoners was worth whatever was gained by the Union army from the all too literal "hold at all hazards" sacrifice.

The chapter originally published in the third volume of UT Press's Confederate Generals in the Western Theater series takes a look at the death of Confederate Army of the Mississippi commander Albert Sidney Johnston. Questions surrounding whether Lew Wallace was lost and moved too slowly are answered ('no' to both) in another expanded CWT piece from 2008.  It relates the results of an experiential approach to historical investigation, one involving retracing the route using research and modern technology and then walking it to compare the time element. Finally, the Shiloh fates of a number of Mississippi secession convention members are discussed in an article from Hallowed Ground magazine.

Rethinking Shiloh has more discretionary value to those already owning the books, magazines, and journal volumes in question, but those Shiloh students who will be encountering this material for the first time are well advised to add this compilation to their collection. In addition to its thoughtful criticism of how the big questions surrounding the battle have been remembered by both popular and academic audiences, several essays dwell on fascinating little-known aspects of the Shiloh park and battle.

More CWBA reviews of UTP titles:
* Ruined by This Miserable War: The Dispatches of Charles Prosper Fauconnet, a French Diplomat in New Orleans, 1863-1868
* The Knoxville Campaign: Burnside and Longstreet in East Tennessee
* To the Battles of Franklin and Nashville and Beyond: Stabilization and Reconstruction in Tennessee and Kentucky, 1864-1866
* Confederate Generals in the Western Theater, Vol. 3: Essays on America's Civil War
* Confederate Generals in the Western Theater, Vol. 2: Essays on America’s Civil War
* Great Things Are Expected of Us: The Letters of Colonel C. Irvine Walker, 10th South Carolina Infantry, C.S.A.
* Confederate Generals in the Western Theater, Vol. 1: Classic Essays on America’s Civil War
* Crimson Confederates: Harvard Men Who Fought for the South
* Yale's Confederates: A Biographical Dictionary
* The Battle of Shiloh and the Organizations Engaged
* The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign: Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion
* Echoes of Thunder: A Guide to the Seven Days Battles
* Little to Eat and Thin Mud to Drink: Letters, Diaries, and Memoirs from the Red River Campaigns, 1863–1864
* Earthen Walls, Iron Men: Fort DeRussy, Louisiana, and the Defense of Red River
* Through the Howling Wilderness: The 1864 Red River Campaign and Union Failure in the West


  1. Excellent review.

    I think Smith's points about the Hornet's Nest have been made. As I pointed out before on the blog he was big on it in 2001 on a tour I took.

    You make a excellent point that a historian can veer to far to the other extreme and make it like it wasn't important.


    1. The next logical step would be a new full history of the battle incorporating these new interpretations while also finally giving proper due to the 2nd day's action. I hope this is what his UP of Kansas contracted Shiloh book entails.


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