Friday, February 27, 2015

Smith: "SHILOH: Conquer or Perish"

[Shiloh: Conquer or Perish by Timothy B. Smith (University Press of Kansas, 2014). Hardcover, 20 maps, photos, OB, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:441/602. ISBN:978-0-7006-1995-5 $34.95]

The major Shiloh studies, classic works from Edward Cunningham, James Lee McDonough, Wiley Sword, and Larry Daniel, all have particular strengths and weaknesses, but none are truly satisfying and none offer more than a cursory summation of the battle's second day. Considering the stature of Shiloh and what happened on April 7, 1862 the latter point seems an unfathomable oversight. Thankfully, Timothy Smith's Shiloh: Conquer or Perish has finally bridged this gap in our understanding of the battle, a two-day bloodbath that shocked both sides into a realization of just what the Civil War might ultimately cost in human lives and destruction.

In crafting Shiloh, Smith thoughtfully draws upon extensive terrain expertise attained through years of studious contact with the ground as a Shiloh National Military Park ranger. The triangular shape of the battlefield progressively narrowed the fighting front the closer it approached Pittsburg Landing, but the topography within — a massive hourglass shaped expanse of table land bounded at its wider base by the deep, rugged ravines formed by the Shiloh and Locust Grove branches of Owl and Lick creeks respectively and at its narrow neck by Tilghman Branch and Dill Branch — perhaps channeled and influenced the course of events to an even greater degree. The SW-NE oriented offensive corridor, called the "Shiloh Divide" in the book, essentially rendered the Confederate battle plan of using a grand left wheel movement to push the Union army away from its Pittsburg Landing base and trap it against the flooded bottomlands of Owl and Snake creeks an impossibility.

The author of very well received Corinth and Champion Hill battle studies, Smith wields considerable skill in the art of writing battle narrative. The descriptive sections of the Shiloh text drill down to regimental and battery levels of tactical detail and the reader is guided seamlessly from one end of the line to the other and from each major phase of the battle to the next. The human element is not ignored but operational and tactical considerations trump other concerns over most of the book's course. For instance, unlike many authors of studies matching this type, Smith does not feel compelled to delve into the background of every officer the reader meets along the way. The book does discuss the devastating environmental impact of the fighting as well as the attendant property destruction and economic ruination of the local inhabitants. Post-Shiloh burials and the plight of the wounded of both sides are also addressed.

Shiloh's twenty maps are at their best in tracing battle lines and thoroughly documenting the position of each battery and regiment within those lines.  The high density of unit position and movement information tends to limit terrain representation. As an example, roads, field boundaries, camp sites and streams are properly delineated but contour lines tracing the extent of the ravines and points of higher ground that shaped the character of the battle so much are absent. Also, a few more maps were needed, as some fairly significant gaps in coverage exist and clarity is often hindered by incorporating too much back and forth action on a single map.

The most unprecedented contribution of the book to Shiloh historiography lies in its complete treatment of the second day's fighting. Smith's account of Monday's events is every bit as meticulously rendered as his April 6 narrative. He features in full the three major phases of the contest, along the way arguing powerfully for a revisionist reassessment of the resiliency and combat effectiveness of a Confederate army often portrayed in the literature as being too tired, weakened and disorganized from the previous day's battle to offer more than token resistance on the 7th.  Beauregard's Army of the Mississippi not only absorbed every offensive blow from the combined Union armies of Grant and Buell but also frequently counterattacked with effect, only withdrawing when turned on the far left by Lew Wallace's fresh Army of the Tennessee division. Significant cracks only appeared after three lines of defense were maintained, when both Confederate flanks became badly overlapped by superior numbers and Beauregard's army finally reached the limits of human endurance.

Shiloh has more than its share of enduring controversies. Matters conclusively reexamined in recent books and articles are only briefly summarized. General Lew Wallace has been roundly criticized throughout history for dragging his feet and getting "lost" on the way to the battlefield on April 6. Citing the modern consensus that Wallace was not lost and did not travel at an unreasonably slow pace, Smith quietly but firmly puts this old canard to rest. Another such issue revolves around the traditional role assigned to the Hornets' Nest fighting. The interpretation shared by Smith and others like the late Edward Cunningham that the Hornets' Nest fighting was a post-war construct that in truth lacked an exceptional impact on the course of the battle seems largely persuasive. On the other hand, the revisionists need to be careful that they don't excessively minimize its impact, after all it was the Hornet's Nest resistance (right in the middle of the battlefield on the coveted table ground) that ultimately tied down so many Confederate brigades for so long that no time remained in the day to organize a reasonably strong attempt to breach Grant's "Last Line." One can justifiably contend that any assault on that well posted position was bound to fail given the level of disorganization in the Confederate ranks but the Hornet's Nest probably deserves the distinction of at least eliminating the opportunity for a throw of the dice. If Prentiss and Wallace had simply fallen back with the rest of the army there most assuredly would have been a major afternoon attack on the Last Line [in all probability it would have failed but we'll never know for certain].  Smith raises new questions as well. His contention that the surprising and powerful Sherman-McClernand "Crossroads" counterattack was a key and largely unappreciated element in blunting the Confederate offensive on the 6th appears to have serious merit.

Smith draws an interesting distinction [but is it a distinction without a difference?] on the age old question of whether Grant was surprised at Shiloh.  It's beyond argument that the Confederate attack was a strategic/operational surprise, but the author deems it worthwhile to consider that there was an absence of tactical surprise.  With the Confederates so slow to get their first line into striking position after being discovered by Major Powell's famous dawn patrol, the Union camp's outpost divisions of Sherman and Prentiss were both fully deployed by the time they were assaulted.

Did Don Carlos Buell's Army of the Ohio "save" Grant?  The record seems clear that total victory by the Confederates was already an impossibility on the 6th before advance elements of Buell's army arrived on the field. However, given Smith's convincing account of the vastly underappreciated resilient combat punch of Beauregard's army on the 7th, it's equally evident that the badly battered Army of the Tennessee alone could not have driven the Confederates from the field on Monday and might even have been defeated themselves.

On the Confederate side, Smith disagrees with those that believe victory was in sight late on April 6 when Beauregard unexpectedly ordered his army to stand down. Given the lateness of the hour, the extreme state of Confederate disorganization, and the natural and material strength of Grant's artillery-studded "Last Line," the author concurs with Beauregard's controversial decision. Smith instead centers any condemnation of Beauregard on the Confederate commander's unforgivable neglect of army reorganization and preparation during the night and also for his too free abandonment of the shortest line and best defensive terrain. The southern army would pay dearly for this dereliction of duty on the 7th.  To his credit, Beauregard recovered quickly in the morning, managing throughout the day a surprisingly formidable series of defensive positions.

On the death of Albert Sidney Johnston, Smith does not believe the general's fall was a decisive factor in the failure to defeat Grant on April 6. With the planned grand left wheel already fatally derailed at the time of Johnston's mortal wounding, it's a reasonable assessment but one wonders whether Johnston might have had his army positioned better, more effectively concentrated, and at a heightened state of readiness at dawn on the 7th.

Shiloh's bibliography has the expected proportions and is heavily weighted toward the immense number of manuscript collections consulted by the author.  With no other appendices present beyond minimally detailed orders of battle and notes comprised only of source citations, it appears that burgeoning size (the book runs over 600 total pages) precluded the presence of more supplementary information and the kind of explanatory endnotes that serious readers crave. Nevertheless, none of these concessions distressingly weaken the scholarly achievements of Shiloh.

When it comes to Shiloh books, good options abound and different readers will always have their sentimental favorites but Smith's exhaustive and uniquely complete study is the first truly great treatment and is unquestionably the new standard bearer of Shiloh battle histories. 

More CWBA reviews of UP of Kansas titles:
* War's Desolating Scourge: The Union's Occupation of North Alabama
* Corinth 1862: Siege, Battle, Occupation
* Lincoln and the Border States: Preserving the Union
* Punitive War: Confederate Guerrillas and Union Reprisals
* A Gallant Little Army: The Mexico City Campaign
* The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth
* Guide to the Atlanta Campaign: Rocky Face Ridge to Kennesaw Mountain
* Bloody Bill Anderson: The Short, Savage Life of a Civil War Guerrilla
* Civil War St. Louis
* The War Within the Union High Command: Politics and Generalship During the Civil War
* Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era


  1. Drew: As always, a nice, extremely thorough job on the review. As I had indicated in a previous comment, I believe that Tim is under contract to deal with Henry and Donelson. At this point, I think we should expect a similar achievement.

    1. Thanks, John. I could definitely get on board a new H&D book. I still like Cooling over Gott and especially Hurst.

      I wonder how Chris Slocumb is getting along with his Siege of Corinth study.

  2. Hi Drew,

    Wonderful review of Tim's book. Tim has certainly done Shiloh a service with this tomb. We can never look at the battle the same way after his treatment of April 7th and Lew Wallace's role in it.

    My work is progressing along at a good clip - I've got a bunch written but things sometimes progress slower than I would like due to family and work commitments. As a bit of a preview I will say that my work touches considerably upon environmental and medical interpretations. The physical environment obstructed military objectives at Corinth at the same time that it changed the epidemiological
    circumstances under which the armies operated. My take is that it is important to understand these aspects of the campaign in order to fully understand the siege militarily.

    I've told Tim that I'm in awe of how he churns out so many books so quickly given his depth of research - it's an amazing feat.


    Chris Slocombe

    1. Thanks for the update, Chris. When I mentioned you above, I knew I had the spelling of your last name wrong so your comment clears up that, too! I like the different directions you're taking your study and can't wait to read it.

    2. Chris: That sounds very promising and i look forward to the project's completion and release. The "new" approach to campaign/battle histories which emphasizes the often-crucial role of the elements - terrain, environment, climate - is one of the most positive developments of modern Civil, War scholarship. The actors are obviously still important -planning, courage, leadership, decision-making - but these external forces were understudied for more than a century IMHO. That's one of the aspects of Tim's work that impresses me. 19th century fights like Champion Hill and Shiloh were significantly influenced by where and when the battle was fought. In fact, I'd wager that Tim might be snorkeling around the Donelson and (especially) Henry environs just to get the right "feel". :)

    3. John - Doing that would redefine "terrain analysis," though Tim is so thorough that I wouldn't put it past him : )

      This summer I'll be headed to DC yet another time to finish up research on troop strengths and sick lists. I still have a lot to write (and now with a second child I have had to get creative with time), but I'm beginning to see a bit of light at the end of the tunnel, and that's a good feeling. Then of course is the process of publication. My only hope is that I finish before Tim writes another Corinth study!

      Another Mississippi campaign that would be great to see studied in detail is Chickasaw Bayou. I seem to remember some rumors of someone taking that on, but haven't heard anything in quite a while as to its status. There was a Blue & Gray article on it a few years ago, but it's always struck me as a topic ripe for book-length study. Drew, do you have any news on this, or am I just dreaming?

      Chris S.

    4. Chris,
      It's been way over ten years since I heard about anyone working on a Chickasaw Bayou book and nothing about it since then.

  3. Many thanks for this review. Now I know which book to order next.

  4. In my opinion, Smith's "Shiloh: Conquer or Perish" has replaced Sword's "Shiloh: Bloody April" as the "go to" book on Shiloh. Smith's treatment of the second day's fighting is the principal reason for this reader's assessment. Regardless, Sword's book was ground breaking and still ranks as one of my all-time favorite CW books. I read "Shiloh: Conquer or Perish" twice, and it is even better the second time through. My only complaint was the offset shadows on the map arrows—completely unnecessary. Looking forward to his next project.


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