Today marks the 149th anniversary of the opening day of the battle of Shiloh. To my way of thinking, the memory of the battle (a process that started while bodies were still being buried) is an interesting one, because most of the issues, at least from the Union side, were already framed within days of the battle.
Contrary to myth, Henry W. Halleck had always planned to journey to Pittsburg Landing once Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio linked up with Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee. Halleck looked for this large army to make its way south to Corinth to take that critical railroad junction. His greatest fear was that Grant might get involved in some sort of battle or go off on his own prior to his arrival, and so he sought to restrain Grant from probing south. After all, Grant had gone on to Fort Donelson on his own after the fall of Fort Henry, and we all know how that worked out.
Halleck’s orders inhibited Grant’s ability to see what might be going on south of his army. Remember, he had just resumed command in the field after a rather nasty spat in which Halleck accused him of all manner of administrative shortcomings (and spread whispers about Grant’s drinking). That said, contrary to the myth that Grant always learned from his mistakes, it seems he was rather overconfident and did not take into consideration that the Confederates might have plans of their own. That was the same mistake he had made at Fort Donelson.
Grant’s other serious mistake was not, as some people would have it, failing to entrench. It was, in fact, an understandable mistake: he entrusted William T. Sherman with maintaining perimeter security. Sherman was still struggling with a reputation of crazy behavior, even mental imbalance, in the wake of having expressed concerns about Confederate intentions in various places and demanding more men in order to undertake observations. Knowing that he had gained a reputation for overplaying his concerns, he decided to underplay them, dismissing signs of Confederate activity to the south that presaged an offensive movement. Given that Grant himself was hesitant to press forward due to Halleck’s strictures, the result was that Albert Sidney Johnston’s Army of Tennessee basically stumbled forward toward Shiloh Church without the movement being detected for what it was.
Certainly Grant and Sherman were surprised at Shiloh. However, early reports of men being bayoneted in their tents and so on went too far, and in responding to those charges, both men twisted the story too much the other way. One of the results of this was that the Grant-Sherman friendship, so often cited as a key to Union victory, began in part as something of a conspiracy of silence. Sherman could not blame Grant for what happened, because Grant could have cited Sherman’s own reports against him; Grant did not blame Sherman for what happened, possibly in part because he was well aware of Sherman’s political connections, and, after all, ultimately Grant was responsible for the welfare of his command. In turn, although Halleck upon his arrival chewed Grant out, he liked Sherman and realized that Grant had some ability. Thus it was Halleck who defended Grant when Lincoln through Stanton inquired about whether Grant was responsible for the slaughter at Shiloh … evidence that demonstrates rather clearly that Lincoln could have spared that man and had questions about how well he fought, contrary to the later mythical exclamation attributed to him of “I can’t spare that man! He fights!”
Finally, while much is said about the stubbornness with which Grant fought that day (and one can imagine other Union commanders collapsing upon encountering the chaos at the steamboat landing), it is well to remember that he did so anticipating the arrival of reinforcements that took longer in coming than he thought they would. No one who had been to Shiloh, seen the terrain along Grant’s last line, and read the accounts seriously thinks that the spearhead of Buell’s army saved the day: they arrived as things wound down on April 6. Still, that, too, is one of the myths of Shiloh, and we haven’t even addressed the Confederates or the debates over Lew Wallace, Benjamin Prentiss, and the Hornet’s Nest.