Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Review of Tagg - "THE GENERALS OF SHILOH: Character in Leadership, April 6-7, 1862"

[The Generals of Shiloh: Character in Leadership, April 6-7, 1862 by Larry Tagg (Savas Beatie, 2018). Hardcover, 2 maps, photos, critical bibliography. 251 Pages. ISBN:978-1-61121-369-0. $32.95]

According to the description, the overall design of Larry Tagg's The Generals of Shiloh: Character in Leadership, April 6-7, 1862 is modeled after its now two decade old predecessor, The Generals of Gettysburg: The Leaders of America's Greatest Battle (1998), a staple item of many a Gettysburg home library. The format of The Generals of Shiloh is well suited to its purposes of emphasizing leaders, command relationships, and organization. With the closely paired general (or acting-general) officer background and Shiloh command performance discussions arranged for each leader in descending order of battle [army→corps (Confederate only)→division→brigade], the volume's presentation is also reminiscent of David Reed's pioneering The Battle of Shiloh and the Organizations Engaged (1902). By employing this non-narrative style, the volume perhaps more effectively conveys to readers the early-war structures of the three armies that met at Shiloh—the Confederate Army of the Mississippi and the Union's Army of the Tennessee and Army of the Ohio.

With neither side employing true corps (three of the four Confederate proto-corps at Shiloh were in reality more akin in size to divisions), the military formation serving as the basic building block for discussion in the book is the division. As stated above, each division commander is given a brief biographical and basic leadership assessment section. This is immediately followed by another section providing both an overview of the general's command performance over the two days of battle at Shiloh and a broadly outlined discussion of the actions of his subordinate brigades. This process is then taken one step lower in the chain of command and repeated, with subsections for each brigade commander. Under those headings, brigade actions are summarized and the activities of each regiment and attached battery briefly recounted.

Given how deep and well the operational and tactical aspects of the Shiloh campaign and battle have been documented in the literature already, Tagg appropriately limits his own unit by unit discussions to the salient points of their battlefield experiences. Most veteran Shiloh readers won't have much of a problem following the action, but the paucity of maps (the book has only one campaign map and one map of the battlefield) will likely leave many new and general interest readers confused amid the general swarm of units and places described in the text. The book also lacks an index, which is even more inexplicable.

While attention paid to other parts of the book feels appropriate in scale, one wishes there was a bit more heft to the biography and leadership analysis sections assigned to the sub-commanders. In The Generals of Shiloh these are generally limited to less than a page and a half, which isn't much more text space than one might find in the leader introductions inside modern battle narratives. In emphasizing "character in leadership," it seems the book would have profited from expanding these parts a bit more. Because the still rapidly growing Union Army of the Tennessee at Pittsburg Landing was caught in the midst of reorganizing (and a number of leader were away from their commands), many lesser-known colonels found themselves acting-brigadiers. For some of these men and other officers (as well as those killed during the battle), Shiloh would be their shining moment before fading immediately or soon after into obscurity, and it would have been nice to get some deeper profiles of those individuals who made significant contributions but would never become household names—men like Union colonels John A. McDowell, Madison Miller, Everett Peabody, Abraham Hare, Julius Raith and Confederates Robert M. Russell, William H. Stevens, Preston Pond, and Walter S. Statham among others. Though less relevant, sometimes the abbreviated nature of the leader profiles also omits important parts of a general's later career. For instance, General Lovell Rousseau's later war service is described as having been "relegated to garrison duty by enemies in the War Department" (pg. 101), leaving out mention altogether of the successful and significant cavalry raid he led in July 1864 during the Atlanta Campaign, which was a high point of the otherwise largely dismal performance of Sherman's mounted arm.

The Albert Sidney Johnston leadership portrait stands out as one of the strongest ones, with its judicious critical assessment of Johnston's martial abilities and the strengths and weaknesses of his command personality (particularly as they related to his management of P.G.T. Beauregard). The segment of the Army of the Mississippi history sketch covering Confederate strategic options in the West in early 1862 is similarly perceptive. The book also does a good job of shining a bright light upon the great preponderance of highly placed citizen-generals in the Shiloh armies. One might draw from Tagg's descriptions of the Army of the Tennessee's non-professional leadership corps that that army, through all its success from Shiloh onward, represented perhaps the highest pinnacle of the American citizen-soldier ideal and tradition.

A case could be made that the greatest value of the book lies in its treatment of the Army of the Ohio and, by obvious extension, the discussion of the fighting on April 7. Outside of Timothy Smith's Shiloh: Conquer or Perish, the Shiloh literature continues to badly neglect the second day of battle in comparison to the first, and Tagg's book offers a good deal of information about the Army of the Ohio and the activities of all of its component units, both on the long journey to Pittsburg Landing and on the Shiloh battlefield itself.

The volume eschews source notes, which is justified on the grounds that the volume is "not intended as a new definitive battle or campaign history" (see Introduction, pg. ix). Whatever one thinks of that line of reasoning, the decision leaves the reader to guess at where the author is getting his information. The "Critical Bibliography" helps in a general way, and some passages have very recognizable antecedents. For instance, the book's Army of the Ohio organizational summary is clearly very heavily influenced by Prokopowicz's All For The Regiment. However, the lack of notes becomes more problematic when potentially controversial statements are issued (for example, one doubts that James Garfield was ever truly a serious contender for replacing Rosecrans after Chickamauga). Some sections also cling strongly to older interpretations, leading to questions about how up to date the research is and how diligently Tagg sought out differing views. His presentation of Lew Wallace at Shiloh is regressively old school. Without any notes to guide the reader, it's unclear if Tagg is completely unaware of the respected revisionist scholarship of Gail Stephens, Charles Beemer, and others (none of their books are listed in the Critical Bibliography either) or is simply unconvinced by their arguments and those of other active Shiloh historians when it comes to reassessing Wallace. The author also clearly subscribes to the classic interpretation of Polk's capture of Columbus, Kentucky as one of the war's greatest unprovoked strategic blunders even though recent scholarship has somewhat mitigated that extreme position.

As one can readily grasp from what's written above, it is this reviewer's opinion that Larry Tagg's The Generals of Shiloh possesses considerable drawbacks and red flags, but it does have more than enough positive strengths to warrant a guarded recommendation.


  1. Drew: An excellent analysis. Based on my own skim I agree on every point.

  2. Thank you for the review of “The Generals of Shiloh” We appreciate your review! Those interested in checking out this book can read more at the Savas Beatie website here:

  3. I'm rather surprised a publisher on the level of Savas Beatie would publish anything without an Index.


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