Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Review - " Decisions at Shiloh: The Twenty-Two Critical Decisions That Defined the Battle " by Dave Powell

[Decisions at Shiloh: The Twenty-Two Critical Decisions That Defined the Battle by Dave Powell (University of Tennessee Press, 2023). Softcover, 8 maps, 12 photographs, appendix section, endnotes, bibliography, index. Pages:xiii,227. ISBN:978-1-62190-752-7. $29.95]

Many questions surrounding the April 6-7, 1862 Battle of Shiloh, which shocked the nation with its unprecedented casualties, linger to this day. In addition to condemning Army of the Tennessee commander U.S. Grant for lax security that enabled his encampment to be surprised on the 6th, critics of Union leadership, then and now, have often asked why the army was not entrenched (or at least systematically arranged for defense) and why Grant did not establish his headquarters with his army at Pittsburg Landing. Why the division of General Lew Wallace did not manage to reach the battlefield before the close of the first day's fighting and whether the arrival of General Don Carlos Buell's Army of the Ohio "saved" Grant's army are other sources of vigorous, unending debate. On the other side, many Confederate partisans, along with some prominent later historians, have contended that the Confederate army would have triumphed on April 6 had its commander, General Albert Sidney Johnston, not been killed that day. It has also been argued that, even with Johnston's untimely death, the Confederates would still have won a complete victory had Johnston's replacement, P.G.T. Beauregard, not canceled the final attack of day, instead pulling back his army to rest overnight in full expectation that the killing blow would be landed on the morrow. These thorny issues and more are addressed in David Powell's Decisions at Shiloh: The Twenty-Two Critical Decisions That Defined the Battle.

With University of Tennessee Press's Command Decisions in America’s Civil War series already comprised of well over a dozen titles (and many more on the way), the format is well established. As series designer Matt Spruill defined the term in the first volume, a "critical decision" is one of "of such magnitude that it shapes not only the events immediately following, but also the campaign or battle thereafter." Such critical decisions can be related to strategy, operations, tactics, organization, logistics, and personnel selection. Powell's twenty-two critical decisions for Shiloh are grouped into five campaign and battle periods: "Before the Battle" (8 decisions); "Morning, April 6" (5 decisions); Afternoon, April 6" (3 decisions); "Afternoon and Evening, April 6" (3 decisions); and "April 7 and Beyond" (3 decisions). The front-weighted nature of the critical decision pool sagely selected by the author reveals much about how contingent it was (on several levels) that the battle would be fought at all. The critical impact of early decisions on the course of the battle is also insightfully revealed.

For each critical decision, analysis unfolds in the following sequence: Situation, Options, Decision, and Result/Impact. Situation describes the state of affairs at key crossroads moments before, during, and after the battle. That element provides readers with the background context necessary to recognize and evaluate the decision Options (in this volume, two to three in number) that immediately follow. The historical Decision made by the leader is then outlined before the ensuing Result/Impact section recounts what happened and how those events shaped the rest of the battle and beyond. In a minor departure, Powell integrates alternative history conjecture based on choices not made (material usually found in a separate Alternate Decision/Scenario section) into the other elements, and he does it in seamless fashion. Powell also strips down the tour section of the book without detriment, excising the series-standard official reports while still effectually employing the staff ride approach to analyzing terrain and leadership decision-making. The only real complaint is with the relative dearth of maps, of which there are only eight. This is not an issue that has arisen with this installment in particular but rather has been a declining trend (likely cost related) of the series as a whole, the first two volumes of which contained rich collections of 26 and 41 maps, respectively.

At one time Powell was actively exploring the possibility of writing a Shiloh campaign history of his own, and he incorporates a hefty amount of his primary source research (including extensive archival materials) into this volume. In terms of properly contextualizing each situation, selecting and articulating the options reasonably available to the decision-maker, and discussing the historical decision and its impact, Powell's deeply informed work in those areas unquestionably ranks among the very best in the series. In equally strong fashion, Powell, with clear attribution, folds into his own analytical process many of the most persuasive interpretive arguments found in the modern literature. For example, recent publications from Gail Stephens and Timothy Smith (one might also add similar conclusions from the book-length studies of Charles Beemer and Christopher Mortenson) regarding Lew Wallace's mindset and actions on both days, forcefully argue for a greater appreciation of how much that general's actions on the Union right on April 7 shaped and enhanced the successful Grant-Buell counteroffensive. On that day, Wallace's division, its advance alleged by some to have been timid (as evidenced by the light casualties suffered), repeatedly dislocated the Confederate left without resorting to costly frontal attacks. Smith, the author of the most recent and best overall treatment of the Shiloh battle, influences Powell's perspective in numerous other places, including the frequently underappreciated impact of the April 6 midday counterattack by Sherman and McClernand. Temporary as it was, that unexpected forward movement bought precious time for later, and more celebrated, federal defensive stands (such as the Sunken Road position and Grant's "Final Line") to be formed. Powell also closely agrees with Smith that Johnston's initiation of his army's grand wheel to the northwest, one of the Confederate commander's most critical battlefield decisions, was launched prematurely, well before the Union left was fully developed. Instead of beginning the planned hammer blow aimed at separating Grant's army from Pittsburg Landing, the movement only deepened the disruption of the Confederate army's already rapidly fragmenting battle line. In line with today's more sober assessments of what was possible for the Confederates to achieve by the late afternoon and evening of April 6, Powell finds fault with Beauregard not for calling off the attack at that time but rather for failing to prepare his army for the next day's fight. Of course, these are just a few of the topics explored among the nearly two-dozen leadership decisions examined in the book.

The ultimate goal of the series to which this book belongs is to direct attention toward the "decisions that prefigured the action and shaped the contest as it unfolded," leaving readers "with a vivid blueprint of the battle’s developments" and "why they happened as they did." Powell's efforts meet those requirements exceptionally well. The evenhanded manner in which he presents the strengths and weaknesses of the differing viewpoints attached to major contemporary controversies and subsequent historiographical focal points alike, inviting informed discussion rather than simply promoting a "correct" interpretation dismissive of the others, is refreshing. This volume is both an excellent addition to the Shiloh bookshelf and one of the very best entries in the Command Decisions in America’s Civil War series. Highly recommended.


  1. Thank you. I am deeply humbled. This one was not the easiest to write, but it came out very well.

    1. It's my new favorite of the series!

    2. Drew: I've only read the portions of the book regarding four decisions but I fully concur with this review based on what I have read. The determination of plausible options is clearly well thought-out and the analysis of results is thorough and convincing. As we have discussed, Shiloh is in some respects a challenging battle for this series at the tactical level. I have all the books in this series and I agree - this is at the top of the list with the Fredericksburg book, in my opinion.

    3. Good to know, John. I never did get the Fredericksburg volume. It looks like it came out during a time when many publishers still had their physical review copy mailings curtailed or in suspension.

  2. Looks great for an old Shiloh buff. Thanks for the excellent review.


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