Coincidence at Shiloh and Encourage a Young Writer Day

There are many coincidences for 10 April: the creation of the first Jewish Ghetto in Venice in 1516 and the liberation of Buchenwald in 1945; the establishment of the US Patent system in 1790 and the patenting of the safety pin in 1849; Congress authorizing the increase of the number of Supreme Court justices from seven to nine in 1869 (you are forgiven if you thought the number was in the Constitution–because it isn’t) and the imminent swearing-in of Neil Gorsuch some time this week.  But today we talk about two Civil War generals with notable events on the same day after the same battle–Shiloh–and writers.

On 10 April 1827, Lew Wallace was born in Brookville, Indiana. Early in life he loved to write and aspired to martial glory, but missed any chance for battle as a regimental adjutant in the 1st Indiana Infantry. As a practicing lawyer and newsman Wallace rose in the political ranks.  He also founded the Montgomery (Indiana) Guards as a Zouave outfit in the winter of 1859-60, which was rolled into the 11th Indiana Infantry after Lincoln issued his call for volunteers in 1861.

Lew Wallace quickly won promotion as Brigadier General of Volunteers after the brief West Virginia campaign, and was sent west to join US Grant’s command.  He won accolades at Fort Donelson, where he commanded a division.  By April 1862, Lew Wallace, William Sherman, John McClernand, WHL Wallace, Benjamin Prentiss and Stephen Hurlbut were all commanding divisions in the vicinity of Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River when the Confederates under Albert Johnston attacked on Sunday morning, 6 April 1862.

But Lew Wallace was two hours’ march downriver (north), encamped at Crump’s Landing.  Warned by Grant personally to be ready to move (not, as some sources insist, told to move) that morning, Lew Wallace finally received instructions to join Grant’s desperate fight at about 10:00.  He began to move his division on a route that he and Sherman had worked out…but that Grant and his staff knew nothing of.  Badgered by several staff officers for his apparent slowness, Lew Wallace finally put his division on a different route, which took longer, and joined Grant’s army about an hour after the fighting stopped.

During that desperate fight, the division commanded by William Wallace–an Illinois lawyer–was in the thick of the fighting.  William Wallace took command of this division because of the infirmity of Charles Smith, who was dying of sepsis. William Wallace  and his men joined the remnant’s of Prentiss’ division and the fresh units of Hurlbut’s in the defense of the Federal left wing–that later came to be known as the Hornet’s Nest–at about 9:00 on Sunday morning.  For the next hellish hours the Federals withstood at least thirteen Confederate brigade-size assaults. As the day waned, Hurlbut and much of the artillery withdrew out of ammunition, the water and ammo situation with the remnants of the Hornet’s Nest reached a breaking point and both Prentiss and William Wallace ordered withdrawal.  Some made it out, but neither Prentiss himself nor William Wallace were among the escapees.  Prentiss was taken prisoner, and William Wallace was wounded in the head, left for dead.

But William Wallace wasn’t dead, and was left by the Confederates the next day when they retreated.  He lingered until 10 April, when he died in his wife Ann’s arms…on fellow Shiloh division commander Lew Wallace’s 35th birthday.  Charles Smith died fifteen days later in the same mansion.

Lew Wallace would become known as a writer.  In 1880, he published Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, to great popularity then, continuous publication since, translation into nearly all human languages (including Coptic and, as an exercise, Esperanto), six different film treatments, and a TV mini-series in the 20th century.  As a young man Lew Wallace was encouraged in his writing, and as such I also honor him on 10 April on National Encourage a Young Writer Day.

Now, no one seems clear on when or where this national day started, but if I were to declare that it’s because it’s also Lew Wallace’s birthday, who would dispute it?

Well, agree or not, there’s lots more about the Wallaces and Shiloh in The Devil’s Own Day: Shiloh and the American Civil War.


Objective History, Part I

Most readers (all eight of you) should be familiar with the oft-told story of Grant and Sherman on the night after the first day of Shiloh.  On that night–so the story goes–General WIlliam Tecumseh Sherman found General Ulysses Simpson Grant on that bloody field during that long night.  Grant was dejected and long faced, smoking a cigar.  Sherman, carrying a lantern, is trying to be cheerful.  “Well, Grant,” says Sherman, “we’ve had the devil’s own day.”

“Yes,” Grant replies. “We’ll whip them tomorrow, though.”

What an exchange between two titans of American Civil War history.  Grant mumbling defiance in the midst of the greatest carnage of the war–indeed, of American history–so far, reassuring his principal lieutenant that everything would be all right.

What courage. What fortitude in the face of such great adversity.

What a load of bunk…probably

Yes, the tale has been told often enough, so often that it is no longer questioned.  Every history of the battle, from macro to micro, and nearly every biography and examination of the generalship of Grant and Sherman speaks of it.  But, if we look at this tableau objectively, it starts to come apart.

First, the scene.  It was raining, and by most accounts pretty steadily, from about 9 PM to just before 4 AM; it had been raining nearly every day around Pittsburg Landing for nearly a week.  But Sunday 6 April 1862 was dry, and fairly hot by most accounts, with small fires breaking out in several places in the piney woods and the clearings.  The woods and bottoms, especially around the creeks that split the area and along the Tennessee River behind the battlefield, were filled with smoke and fog.  Lost and wounded men, dying and frightened men, and the camp followers and assorted other civilians were scattered through the woods and every source of water in the area.  Travel around these areas would have been treacherous at best and dangerous at worst.

Sherman had had three horses shot out from under him that day.  He himself was grazed by at least three somethings hard enough to draw blood or cut uniform parts, lost a bodyguard/escort next to him by decapitation just as soon as he realized he was really, really being attacked, as he had admonished several officers before the battle (one hours before) was simply not possible.  He had lost a good portion of his division (dead, wounded, missing and captured) over the course of about 11 hours of intensive movement and combat.  A horrible insomniac who suffered from allergies most of his life, Sherman was by most accounts tirelessly working all that night to get his division ready for the next morning, and to tie in with Lew Wallace’s arriving division.

Grant, for his part, had greeted WIlliam Nelson’s arriving division at about 4:30 PM, had met with his Chief of Staff WIlliam Webster at about dusk (6:15 or so) and scribbled a note to be sent to Henry Halleck, his boss in St. Louis, by way of the nearest telegraph key (probably at Ft Henry, about three hours downstream), which likely went via Grant’s headquarters steamboat Tigress.  He had been hobbling around on a crude Army crutch for nearly three weeks after hurting himself in an incident with his normally surefooted horse.  At least one other officer reports Grant saying he was evicted from the cabin he was using for a headquarters at the Landing because the sight of the wounded sickened him, as did the sight of any blood. By his own account, he caught a few minutes of sleep under a tree somewhere.

The relationship between Grant and Sherman up to that point in the war had been cordial, but this was their first real battle together.  Sherman was three years Grant’s senior in service, but had agreed to serve under Grant because it meant getting him away from administrative duties.  He was terrified of being set on a shelf, as was Grant, though for different reasons.  Halleck trusted neither officer, and the press had had a merry time just months before ridiculing Sherman’s predictions for the requirements to win the war (hundreds of thousands of men and several years) as being the ravings of a madman.

The area around the Landing must have seemed like a Chinese fire drill that night.  Steamboats were coming in about every few minutes, with more and more of Don. C Buell’s men marching up the muddy ramp.  Initially, by most accounts, they had to work their way through thousands of stragglers that clustered by the river, but that was probably over by 9 that night: no one spoke of this after Nelson’s division had fully arrived.  The two Navy gunboats out in the river fired a round into the Confederate rear about every fifteen minutes from dark until just after sunrise (about 6 AM).  All the while, men were repairing cannons, finding ammunition, and sorting discarded weapons into compatible calibers for the hundreds who lost theirs in their hasty withdrawal to the Landing.  The wounded were legion; the officers and NCOs sorting out the men under the bluffs, who were frustrated by the cold rain but helped by the occasional coffee urn and cookpot, hearing their limits of endurance, many having been on their feet since before daybreak.  More, at least one battery of six guns made its way into the Landing and up the bluffs after dark, which would have required a monumental effort and several hundred horses.

Grant was never much of a detail-dictating general; his idol Zachary Taylor infrequently met with his juniors and Grant usually followed his example.  Grant met with Lew Wallace near dawn, but only because Wallace sought him out.  Grant met with Sherman twice during the battle, but being satisfied with his performance, not after 10:30 in the morning.  He met with Benjamin Prentiss, William HL Wallace and Stephen A Hurlbut at least three times (they were the hardest pressed), and with John A McClernand only once (they disliked each other).  Grant met with his fellow army commander Buell only once, and that only briefly (Buell hated Grant).

Give all the above, much of which is verified by multiple sources, when and where would Grant and Sherman have gotten together that night?  What’s more, why?  There was no council of war convened (Grant would do this only rarely throughout the war).  Both men were busy.  Further, and most crucial, who would have recorded such an exchange?  Neither man mentioned the meeting in their memoirs or in any correspondence known.  None of the several versions (which often exchange Grant’s “whip” with “beat” and Sherman’s “we’ve had” with “it’s been”) say anything beyond those few words.  Would these two very busy and weary men have gotten together for just that?  And, obviously, there were no recording devices at the time.  How could we know who said what?  There’s more holes here than there is story.

But why does this legend exist?  If most legends have some grounding in fact, what are the facts here?  The answer, I believe, is that this Grant/Sherman meeting with a sound bite is a parable, set on a horrid battlefield under miserable conditions: a oft-told tale repeated until it became the stuff of history, repeated in every book because everyone else does.  It may or may not have taken place; it may have been short; it may have been longer and had many witnesses, but there is no real evidence for it.

This is a somewhat long-winded introduction to what I’m calling “objective history,” a point-of-view, not a discipline, that examines the record and the sources (primary and secondary, physical and documentary and passed from mouth to mouth) of these oft-told stories.  Think about the long-winded Shakespearean oratories of worthies, malcontents and blowhards before even mechanical recording was available (like Pericles before a battle), and their shorter-version cousins: how plausible are they?  Every source, every artifact, every note and letter and report, compared to every other of their kind, tells a story.  Do all these stories add up?

Objective history takes a skeptical view of the historical record (when it’s there) and the evidence (especially, as in this case, it isn’t there and does not seem likely to have happened) and at the histories that are accepted as “true” and wonders how we think we know that.  It looks at pleasant and popular parks and sites and presidential libraries and museums and says “wait a minute: something doesn’t add up,“ especially when it does not.  It also says “traditionally” a great deal, and “according to one source” in excess.  What it does not say is “this is what really happened,” because such a statement is not possible without a time machine.

So: how objective is your view of the sources?  What oft-told tales are you suspicious of?

Next time, we’ll look at another famous (supposed) meeting, just before Shiloh.  If you want an objective view of Shiloh, I’d suggest The Devil’s Own Day by yours truly.

It Wasn’t Supposed To Be This Way

It was the first Sunday morning in April–6 April, 1862, and had been raining for days in south central Tennessee.  The boys from Illinois and Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota, Indiana and Iowa were just waking up.  Down the Tennessee River, to the north of the 35,000 man Army of West Tennessee’s encampment, Ulysses S. Grant was at breakfast in his headquarters steamboat Tigress.near William Cherry’s mansion..  The northern boys were in those pine barrens split by creeks and streams because Corinth, Mississippi  was important.  The junction of four rail lines was just a day’s ride to the southwest, and this flatboat near Pitts Tucker’s long forgotten saloon–called Pittsburg Landing by then, was the best boat landing closest to the only road to Corinth that was thought (wrongly, as it turned out) to be complete with adequate space for an army.

For six days before that Sunday a 40,000 man Confederate Army of Mississippi under Albert Sidney Johnson had marched through the mud and water to position itself to the south and west of Grant’s.  William T. Sherman, who was encamped at a Methodist meeting house called Shiloh Church,  “knew” that Johnston was cowering at Corinth, waiting for Grant’s army to come and crush them.

It was not quite five in the morning when it started.  A bunch of Mississippi boys from William H Hardee’s corps ran into a bunch of Missouri and Michigan boys from Benjamin J. Prentiss’s division in the dark.  The Unionists were outnumbered and fell back to their camps, where they found the rest of the division, likely all  of two thousand or so, just getting out of their tents and falling in on the company streets.  Few had ever seen combat before.  Many never would again, but the first thunderous blast from Prentiss’ two brigades into Hardee’s men at about a hundred yards was probably what Grant and his staff heard nine river miles away that made them end their breakfast and cast off for Pittsburg Landing.  The time was about 7:00 AM.

Prentiss’ men held on for probably 45 minutes.  His command gradually disintegrated as Hardee’s and then Braxton Bragg’s corps edged closer and closer.  His two batteries finally pulled out and the last of Prentiss’ stalwarts broke for the rear.

The other Federals shook themselves out of their tents as the noise grew: the “bayoneted in their tents” meme of Shiloh has always been a myth.  Sherman finally came to understand what all the fuss was about for the past three days that he had been getting reports of Confederate movement when his aide was decapitated next to him that morning.  “My God,” he is said to have muttered, “we are attacked.”  After that bit of understatement, he lost two horses and was wounded five times that day.  John A. McClernand, another Federal division commander, sent a brigade south to join Sherman’s open flank to Prentiss’ while Stephen A. Hurlbut and WHL Wallace shook out their divisions and marched to the sound of guns.

The Confederates drove into every successive Federal line like a rising tide, but it was 10: in the morning before Sherman and McClernand’s forces were overwhelmed.  By then Prentiss’s survivors had combined with Wallace’s and Hurlbut’s arriving men to form around a small pond, several stands of woods, a sunken road and a peach orchard, where they stood for the next seven hours against more than a dozen brigade-sized attacks.  Grant had told Prentiss to hold onto his position “at all hazards” because the road around it was the direct route to Pittsburg Landing.

Despite their early success, Johnston’s army was hardly a well-oiled machine.  The officers had hardly any experience with commanding men on drill fields, let alone a battle field: most brigades had yet to create a morning report.  Regiments and even whole brigades were often found simply standing around in the Confederate rear.  Much of the army’s ammunition was stuck in a titanic traffic jam on the Corinth road; the army’s medical director was down with pneumonia.  There was little coordination between the disparate forces slamming the Federals.

By 2:00 that afternoon Prentiss’ survivors, about a third of Grant’s artillery, and Hurlbut’s and Wallace’s divisions were holding off attack after attack in a position on the Federal left that came to be called the Hornet’s Nest when Johnston caught a hot piece of metal behind his knee that killed him in half an hour.   By that time the fight around the pond and the peach orchard had devolved into a maelstrom of screaming metal and choking smoke, dying men and frustration.

On the Federal right, with a yawning gap that might have accommodated a Confederate division, Sherman and McClernand built line after line of men and guns they could get to stand for a few minutes: at least nine lines in ten hours.  All along the fighting line on both sides the fight was a desperate race against time and exhaustion, hunger and dehydration.  Water sources near the fighting line, despite the recent rains, were quickly exhausted or polluted by the dead and dying.  Gunners urinated into buckets so the guns could be swabbed; infantrymen discarded muskets after they became too fouled to load.

Behind the Confederate lines Daniel Ruggels organized the elements of a grand battery that would pin down the Federal guns in the Hornet’s Nest so that an infantry attack could finally push the Federals back against the Tennessee River.  On the eastern shore of the river, separated by the swollen torrent, Don C. Buell’s Army of the Ohio was scrambling to get across, but was badly placed to load on the steamboats, having only partly arrived just the day before after a fifteen day route march.  Footsore and short on food, William A. Nelson’s division gathered steamboats for the half-mile crossing of the river.  Miles away to the north, Lew Wallace’s Federal division marched to the sound of the guns, but was delayed by confused interpretations of Grant’s orders and arguments as to routes.

By 4:30 Ruggels’ grand battery was forcing the Federal guns to pull out of the Hornet’s Nest.  The few Federal infantrymen still on their feet clung to what cover they could find.  At the Landing behind them, men and animals strained to unload the steamboats loaded with heavy artillery, ammunition and the odd infantry regiment.  Refugees from the battle started to arrive at the Landing and the bluffs above it soon after the battle commenced.  By nightfall thousands of frightened men, women and children huddled under the bluffs waiting for the fighting to end.  The roads and trails were jammed with traffic going both ways all day.

By 5:00 the Hornet’s Nest collapsed as parts of five Confederate brigades pushed into the woods, capturing guns and Prentiss, a dying WHL Wallace, men and a geographic feature that they didn’t need.  The only reason that Johnston, then his successor Pierre G.T. Beauregard had been mesmerized by the place was because the Federals were there: sidestepping it would have been easy.  But the Confederates couldn’t see that at this stage of the war, their tactical reconnaissance at that time was nearly non-existent and their staff work was abysmal.  But behind the Hornet’s Nest there had been building a Federal grand battery, called alternately Webster’s Battery (after Grant’s chief of staff John Webster) or Grant’s Last Line. By 5:30 a brigade of Nelson’s division had got across and positioned themselves near the Landing, anchoring Grant’s line on the river.  At the other end of the line, Sherman and McClernand shoved what men and guns in they could grab into a semblance of a fighting line.  In between were more survivors and a half a dozen gun batteries that had yet to fire a shot   As two Confederate brigades–one without ammunition–inched closer to Grant’s line at about 6:00, the line erupted in a storm of fire and metal that was heard at Savanna nine miles away.  The shock wave blew off men’s hats and broke a mule’s back.  The Confederate attack ground to a halt; the sun went down at about 6:15; Beauregard stopped offensive attacks at 6:30; Lew Wallace’s division arrived near the Landing at about 7:00.

Through the night Buell’s men and guns were hustled across, but it was a logistic nightmare.  Landing stages were too small; the guns and horses had to be manhandled and hoisted; crowds of refugees partly blocked the Landing; the rain started again at about 10:00; steamboat skippers, few of whom knew the treacherous Tennessee well, were reluctant to break the sabbath to brave the rain-swollen river in the dark with so much traffic on it.  But by daybreak about 12,000 of Buell’s 32,000 men were across, and another gun battery.  Grant still outnumbered him, with about 25,000 men and fifty-odd guns on the line.  But few of the Federal guns had horses for limbers, let alone caissons or ammunition wagons.  Buell had brought few reloads, using most of his cargo space to bring riflemen across.

During the long night the Confederates did little to consolidate their position, feed their men or even resupply them with ammunition.  There were some 20,000 casualties on this field, a charnel house of some eight square miles.  Through the night two Federal gunboats shelled the Confederate line, some say without effect   While the physical damage was certainly small, the morale effect was great.  Every shot fired reminded the Confederates that as long as the Union gunboats were on the river, they would not be able to cross.  The nearest bridge was forty miles away, up the river.

In the morning Grant and Buell attacked the Confederates and pushed them off the battlefield.  Until mid-afternoon on 7 April Beauregard expected Earl Van Dorn’s 18,000 men from across the Mississippi to march up the road from Corinth.  Little did he know that Van Dorn’s army had saluted the Confederate “victory” at Shiloh while waiting for steamboats on the White River some four hundred miles to the west that same morning.

In his retreat Beauregard left behind thousands of his wounded, which were just a fraction of some 23,000 casualties, including about 3,000 dead, in two days of fighting.  The numbers shocked both North and South, and staggered financial markets worldwide.  In two days more Americans had been killed and injured from 19 April 1775 to 5 April 1862.  But war wasn’t supposed to be like this.  Up until Shiloh war for Americans was a lark; an adventure of men and animals, colorful uniforms and precision marching, dancing flags and cheering crowds.  Battles were supposed to end in parades, not abattoirs.

Exactly fifty-five years later, America was at war with Germany.  Woodrow Wilson had asked Congress for a war declaration on 2 April 1917.  Congress voted on it on 4 April, and it went into effect on 6 April.  It had come after hundreds of Americans died in passenger ships that the Germans torpedoed without warning, after a veiled threat of a German alliance with Mexico and Japan, after America had offered to mediate a just peace in Europe over and over again since 1914.

For Wilson it was a personal disappointment, but the decision for war he felt became inevitable because of Prussian intransigence. Long striving for progressive principles,  Wilson, whose father was with the Confederate army briefly, earnestly believed that men and nations should work out their differences peacefully, with solemn treaties openly arrived at.  That such beliefs should end in places called Tannenberg and Verdun and Argonne was to Wilson and his fellow progressives an aberration of human progress.

Humanity wasn’t supposed to be this way.  But it was.