Thursday, March 19, 2020

Review - "The Battle of Shiloh - The Union Armies: 6 April 1862 - Vol I & 7 April 1862 - Vol II" by Lanny Smith (to be continued)

[The Battle of Shiloh - The Union Armies - 6 April 1862 - Vol I by Lanny K. Smith (Author, 2018). Hardcover, 58 maps, notes, name index, unit index. Pages main/total:xii,597/704. ISBN:978-1-56837-444-4. $120 (2 Vol. set)]

A decade ago, Lanny Kelton Smith completed his publication of a two-volume history of the Stones River campaign and battle [The Stone's River Campaign: 26 December 1862 - 5 January 1863: The Union Army (2008) and The Stone's River Campaign: 26 December 1862 - 5 January 1863: Army of Tennessee (2010)]. Even more ambitious, Smith's newest battle history project is a planned four-volume examination of the Battle of Shiloh, with the first two installments The Battle of Shiloh - The Union Armies: 6 April 1862 - Vol I and 7 April 1862 - Vol II recently completed and a pair of Confederate companion volumes to follow sometime in the future. Though the Stones River books were well received by subject experts and enthusiasts alike, it should be mentioned straight away that Smith's books are not designed for general audience appeal. Both Stones River and Shiloh already have multiple popular treatments written along traditional lines, some being model battle studies that are great favorites among Civil War readers. Smith has alternatively assigned himself a very different task and focus, that of recounting the events of these battles from an incredibly comprehensive ground-level perspective at unprecedented levels of small-unit tactical detail. If anything, this unique quality is even more pronounced in the new Shiloh books.

Just to begin with an overview of the contents of Volume I, the first hundred pages are comprised of a fine summary of the origins of U.S. Grant's 'twin rivers' campaign through his army's establishment of forward posts at Crump's Landing and Pittsburg Landing. Covering the six days prior to the battle, the next section discusses at great length the layout of the Union camps and the various scouting expeditions conducted west of Crump's Landing and south of Pittsburg Landing. More than any other Shiloh study, Smith's intricate account of this period really shows how frequently and actively the pickets of both sides were in contact during the days preceding the battle. Lest this point be used to even further condemn the unpreparedness of the Union Army on the eve of Shiloh, it may perhaps be appropriate to remind potential critics that picket firing was not unusual whenever major armies were in close proximity to each other and no army can be on full alert indefinitely. The great middle of the book, around 400 pages of content, covers the Army of the Tennessee's conduct and experience of the April 6 battle (more on that below). A late chapter also discusses naval participation in the campaign and battle through the activities of the timberclads Lexington and Tyler. Starting on March 16, a pair of lengthy chapters recount the march of General Don Carlos Buell's army to the battlefield on a day-by-day basis. They discuss the arrival of the Army of the Ohio's advance elements and their reactions to what they saw while also plotting in great detail the staging positions taken by each unit on the combined army's left for the next day's dawn assault. Finally, Grant's personal activities are traced in the book's last chapter. In it some emphasis is placed on the Wallace controversy and questions regarding the veracity of Grant's later claim to have been everywhere on the field giving orders subsequent to his mid-battle arrival by boat from Savannah.

Unlike the major single-volume works (among them books by Wiley Sword, James McDonough, Larry Daniel, Edward Cunningham, and Timothy Smith) that cover the fighting in flowing narrative fashion, Lanny Smith's battle history is comprehensively displayed in distinct stages through a methodically-arranged series of hierarchical subsections based upon the Union order of battle. From top to bottom, sections start with the division and flow downward through each and every assigned brigade, regiment, and artillery battery). Unbrigaded cavalry battalions and independent companies are not forgotten in the process. There are even standalone sections detailing the personal movements and activities of the commanding officer of each division, brigade, and regiment. For the three divisions that experienced the longest sustained fighting of the day (Sherman's, McClernand's, and Prentiss's), these treatments are divided further into early morning and late morning/afternoon phases. The main battle section also includes a fairly exhaustive rundown of Col. Webster's arrangement of artillery in Grant's "Final Line." It would be difficult to overstate the volume and density of descriptive detail present in all of these parts. Perhaps more will be said about the bibliography in the review of Volume II, but from the notes it is clear that the text is O.R.-based and richly enhanced through skillful integration of many firsthand accounts written by participants of all ranks. Thankfully, Smith is more judicious than many other authors in his use (but not overuse) of block quotes.

The book's unusual but effective format is highly conducive to giving readers the unprecedented ability to follow with relative ease the movements and fighting activities of every component of Grant's army from dawn to dusk on April 6. This is just not possible using the traditional way of rendering battle history. In even the best narrative histories, through space limitations or any number of other practical reasons, a multitude of units get only abbreviated coverage, mere mention, or are not referenced at all. Using his own method, units that Smith feels have never been properly credited for their part in the battle (ex. the 15th and 16th Iowa) get full treatment. Of course, this ground-level focus risks distorting reader perception of the overall flow of the battle, and no one would recommend this style of book as a reader's very first exposure to the topic. Indeed, the audience group really capable of appreciating Smith's books for what they are is probably rather sharply limited to those already steeped in the Shiloh literature (or at the very least possessing a passing familiarity with the major secondary works).

While the material quality of the volumes is high and their overall presentation appealing, they do exhibit some of the common problems associated with self-publishing. The author's framing of events in nested-org fashion, combined with the fact that units from other divisions frequently intermixed on the firing line, means there's a great deal of content repetition throughout the volume. Some of this is native to the chosen format and unavoidable in that way, but a ruthless outside editor might have been able to apply some beneficial trimming while at the same time fixing up the text's pervasive typographical errors.

The book's 58 maps are hand-drawn at various scales and are stylistically similar to those found in Smith's other books. They are generally well integrated with nearby text and display most of the features that readers expect and want from maps tasked with showing complex military events (though a more standardized compass orientation would have helped).

The book's assessments of Union generals are a solid mixture of deference to established views and the author's own judicious interpretations. For example, Smith's discussion of the Lew Wallace controversy is in line with many of the learned opinions expressed in recent scholarship from Gail Stephens, Charles Beemer, and Christopher Mortenson (particularly the first two). Like those authors and others who have weighed in on the matter, Smith rejects the idea that Wallace got lost on the wrong road and marched inordinately slow, but he also appreciates that Wallace's decision to break for supper and his reversing his division's order of march in the most time-consuming manner possible are choices that still leave the prickly political general open to some level of criticism. While all of Grant's divisions were eventually driven back in varying degrees of disorder, the author convincingly singles out (1) McClernand's generous support of his fellow commanders on either flank, (2) his key role in the midday counterattack in the center that historians Cunningham and Smith cite as one of the most underappreciated aspects of the first day's fighting, and (3) his generally well-managed withdrawal throughout the day as providing ample support for concluding that the much-maligned McClernand's overall performance on April 6 was "equal to or better" than that of any of this division-leading colleagues (including Sherman).

At least so far, the author does not appear to be deeply wedded to any of the major schools of thought assigning primacy to particular Shiloh battlefield events and moments (ex. the Hornet's Nest fighting). If anything, Smith probably aligns himself closest with the ongoing "revisionist school" said to have its origins in Cunningham's work in the 1960s. There are other April 6 controversies and issues of contention, among them General Beauregard's decision to not launch a final assault late in the day and the effect that Albert Sidney Johnston's death had on Confederate momentum, that will presumably be addressed in the remaining volumes.


[The Battle of Shiloh - The Union Armies - 7 April 1862 - Vol II by Lanny K. Smith (Author, 2019).

Click here for ordering information.


  1. Drew:

    It appears that Mr. Smith has embarked on a monumental and deep dive with his anticipated four books on Shiloh. Aficionados of Shiloh will no doubt benefit from his work. I must admit, however, that since the total output will likely exceed 2,000 pages, as a concession to the shortness of life and limited shelf space, I will have to content myself with my Smith, Cunningham, Daniel and Sword Shiloh books (along with smaller essay books). Hope you are keeping yourself healthy during the coronavirus pandemic as we cooped-up readers look forward to your blog entries and reviews!

    John Sinclair

    1. I am trying to play it smart. Stay safe yourself. I've already been receiving notice from several sources that review copies will be cut off for the foreseeable future. I do have quite a backlog of books I want to read, so I should be able to keep up the reviews for a while at least.

    2. Drew: Thanks for the review. Given my obsession with field artillery, I noticed a few places where the author opted for one account rather than another in timing, location, etc. Inevitable because this is not a study aimed sat reconciling differences. And for John S I'm not sure the issue is space so much as weight-bearing capacity.


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