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Published:May 31st, 2010 16:38 EST
For Memorial Day: A Look Back at the Battle of Shiloh and the 'Myth of Hornet`s Nest'

For Memorial Day: A Look Back at the Battle of Shiloh and the 'Myth of Hornet`s Nest'

By John G. Kays

To honor our fallen Americans in battle for Memorial Day I chose a re-consideration of the Battle of Shiloh, April 6th and 7th, 1862. I was fascinated with Shiloh when just a boy, and reenacted the action of the battle with toy soldiers. I was especially fixated on the bold stand of Yankee infantry at the Hornet`s Nest under the command of Brig, General Benjamin M. Prentiss.

The way I heard it told, the Yankees hunkered down along a sunken farm road, repulsing wave after wave of Confederate charges on the Hornet`s Nest, and thus buying precious time for Ulysses S. Grant, who anticipated rapid reinforcements from Major General Don Carlos Buell.

Latest interpretations of Shiloh cast doubts on this traditional, if not mythical take on the battle. A shocking article appeared in the May 2006 issue of America`s Civil War magazine, entitled: Battle of Shiloh: Shattering Myths by Timothy B. Smith. A television production that I saw on The History Channel, Battlefield Detective, also tends to undermine my learning of the Battle of Shiloh. I had absorbed things very carefully when I was young, and I found it hard to unlearn it, to rearrange the sequence of events, then to reinterpret its significance for the Civil War.

How did the myth come about for Shiloh? One must review the historiographical record of the battle, a Hornet`s Nest itself of scholarly documents and humble narratives of soldiers, who were actually there. Much of the blame, according to Timothy B. Smith, should go to Benjamin Prentiss, who had spun his own myth, and made himself out to be a hero. Those who could counter his tale were mostly dead. Brig. Gen. W.H. L. Wallace, whose brigade had largely defended Hornet`s Nest, had died from wounds sustained at Shiloh.

The Battlefield Detective feature on The History Channel disproved scientifically that concentrated action had taken place in the center of the line at the Hornet`s Nest. In 1866 the War Department had buried the dead at Shiloh. There was a shortage of bodies in this particular area. This tends to undermine claims that a fierce battle raged at this spot, since you would expect many soldiers to have died right here.

Also, there was a shortage of unfired cartridges on the Union side, according to John Cornelison, an expert archeologist. If the Yankees were in a heated firefight with the Rebels here at the Hornet`s Nest, one would assume that soldiers would have dropped significant unfired rounds at this locale, as they nervously loaded there muskets, repelling ferocious Pickett-like Rebel charges.

Okay, I`ll admit, this presents a problem? But weren`t the Confederates bogged down in this middle area of the battle? Maybe they just lingered in this area in chaos; maybe many rebels were separated from their divisions and were stalled at this position? Perhaps they hesitated or slightly languished with cowardice? It`s also been pointed out that the terrain, riddled with impassable creeks and unmanageable thickets, prevented their forward motion. My theory is that the rebels were stuck there in the middle and simply lost much needed time to force a Yankee surrender.

My newest take on this conundrum is that a state of attrition took place at the Hornet`s Nest. The rebels were bogged down on both the western flank and on the eastern flank of this middle position. More southern casualties were sustained on the western end of the line, where Hardee and Polk surged against Sherman and McClernand..

My theory is that the Confederates moved to the middle and became bogged down, when their motion on the left and right flanks proved slow and treacherous. Grant himself, argued after the war, that he was able to forge a strong defensive position around Pittsburg Landing, because of the precious time he gained, when the Union infantry lines allowed only a slow progression of the Confederate lines

Thus, I don`t believe that the Hornet`s Nest Myth " has been entirely refuted. The buying of time for Grant was critical. Once Buell`s 15,000 reinforcements began to arrive in the evening, an aggressive counterattack was launched the next day, April 7th, that would drive the Confederates all the way back to Corinth, Mississippi. Thus, the Union had successfully conquered all of Tennessee, and Grant was slowly acknowledged as an accomplished general.

Another claim that is being countered, especially by Timothy B. Smith, is that with the death of Albert Sydney Johnston at the Peach Orchard, the tide was turned for the South. For without the leadership of their most inspiring general, the Rebel regulars floundered in their tracks. The truth is that none of the soldiers were even informed of the untimely death of their commander. Therefore, ASJ`s death could not have debilitated Rebel performance on the battlefield.

Nonetheless, I don`t believe that the leadership of General P.G.T. Beauregard offered an equal quality to ASJ`s. He avoided direct involvement in the fray, and made crucial decisions based on hearsay or second-hand reports. Johnston died at 2:30 PM on the first day, April 6th. This was early on in the battle, and Johnston could have possibly rallied his boys to force an earlier surrender of Hornet`s Nest. Furthermore, much of the chaos that cast a shadow on the rebels, that is, their lack of organization, may have been harnessed by a lack of presence of their trusted general, ASJ.

Therefore, I would not downgrade the importance of Albert Sydney Johnston`s death nor would I denigrate the crucial time bought for the Union by the "last stand` waged at Hornet`s Nest. For, it`s a known fact that the United Daughters of the Confederacy themselves had erected an elaborate monument at Shiloh in 1917, in commemoration to ASJ. This is ample argument of ASJ`s importance. The president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, considered ASJ to be the greatest general the South ever had(later, Robert E. Lee would prove to be even greater), and many thought of ASJ was the best general of both armies.

Other myths about the battle have recently been debunked. One myth is that the North was completely surprised by the Confederate attack in the early morning hours of April 6th. I sense that this myth has been successfully jettisoned by Tim Smith. Much of this myth was created by the shoddy journalism of Whitelaw Reid of the Cincinnati Gazette, who wrote a 15,000 word piece without being at the battle scene. Truth is, the North was fully aware of the Rebel presence.

Yet another debunking of a myth, the grim accounts of Bloody Pond, I find perilously egregious, and I don`t particularly buy their stripping away and branding of salient facts as fallacious fiction. It`s said that the thirsty wounded drank of the poisonous waters, then died right there and then, bleeding in the water and leaving it red. This is logical, since no other water was around to drink from.

While it`s true that there is only one eyewitness to the Bloody Pond, a local citizen who noticed it when walking by it a few days after the battle. So it`s only by an act of faith that I choose to believe the account of the Bloody Pond. But it seems likely to me that dying soldiers, thirsty for a last draft of water, would partake of drink here, then perish on its edges. I`m a believer!

Shiloh is misunderstood, even Grant knew this and commented on that fact years after the war. I would argue, and I`m concurring with Grant, that the great battle is still misunderstood today. I do believe that it`s a good thing to prune much of the romantic hoopla in historical exposes surrounding the battle out. This should include the brazen heroism and bragging rights of northern veterans, such as Benjamin Prentiss. Each time the story is told of the Hornet`s Nest, the bravery and obstinacies of Yankee bravery and courage is exaggerated all the more. I do believe this happened, yes.

But to merely reduce the battle to science, the measurement of left cartridges on the field, or to the inferior diet of the south, or to the lower quality of weapons and ammunition of the South, is also missing the point entirely. The "element of spirit` to the battle is important also. Science has no way to turn back the clock and measure this ineffable spirit with some type of meter.  With this take on the battle, I would agree with the Daughters of the Confederacy, the loss of A. S. Johnston was a debilitating factor for the South, spiritually speaking.

One thing that has not changed, however, is the reasons for Shiloh`s importance. Essentially, the Union was beginning to control Southern territory. With a victory at Shiloh, Grant now completely controlled Tennessee. Beauregarde and Johnston were attempting a check of Yankee gains in this Western Theater. This counterattack had failed. Robert E. Lee would try it again with Gettysburg, that is, an attempt to penetrate Northern territory. But the loss at Shiloh by the South signaled a loosening of the South`s grip on the entire Mississippi region. This foretells the loss of the war for Dixie.

The other grain of truth for Shiloh is the sheer horror and devastation exacted on the battlefield. This was the most costly battle up to this point in our history, in terms of casualties. If you combine the casualties of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Mexican-American War, they still would not equal the numbers of dead, wounded and MIA for the two days of fighting at Shiloh. There were 24,000 casualties those two days alone.

After Shiloh, Grant realized that this would be a long and bloody war, and that no single battle would decide its outcome. This must have been a gradual dawning on Grant, an existential realization?  Grant gleaned that this was largely a war of attrition, where every inch of hallowed ground must be earned with a common blood of sacrifice. The preservation of the Union would only come at a great cost, this is the lesson of Shiloh, and it has not changed in one hundred and forty eight years, as a panorama of historiography, as an essential painted portrait of the battle evolves through time.

I may be obstinate, clinging to my former beliefs about the past, learned at a time when fickle romanticism prevailed, intermingled with irrational patriotism. Yet, when I stare at images of headstones of the fallen at Shiloh, on this Memorial Day of 2010, I still believe in Yankee valiance at Hornet`s Nest.

 I still believe in Rebel tenacity as they screeched the haunting "Rebel Yell,` and lay in the thistle howling in agony from musket grape and stray buckshot. The pillowing flower petals (from flying iron) in the Peach Orchard is still very real for me! And there`s the dying ghost of Albert Sydney Johnson bleeding to death from his boot in the Peach Orchard. A withering of the flower of Confederate youth is experienced. A paranormal presence of restless spirits is far too great to allow science to define the truth about this history.

Battle of Shiloh: Shattering Myths by Timothy B. Smith.