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The Hornet's Nest: Did It Matter?
Another view of Shiloh
The important thing is not to stop questioning.
In the last century-and-a-half, scholars and pundits have spilled much ink regarding the value, intensity and actual effects of the Hornet’s Nest—the popular name given to the Federal left (or river) flank at Shiloh on 6 April 1862. Confederate commander Pierre GT Beauregard may have truly believed that the Hornet’s Nest was all that his Union counterpart Ulysses S Grant could throw at him, and may have been mildly surprised to discover that Grant himself was neither captured nor killed when the last prisoners marched off. To reduce the Prentiss-Wallace-Hurlbut Bullet Magnet and Magic Show (Hornet’s Nest), the Confederates used at least half of their artillery and parts of 12 or 16 brigades—as many as 18,000 men—against fewer than 5,000 Union effectives. That left the remnants of four weakened infantry brigades to entertain two Federal divisions that Beauregard knew were on the field. How did Grant’s militiamen manage that trick?
Southern notions of honor may have seen the Hornet’s Nest as a challenge that in the Code Duello had to be answered regardless of the cost. This might fit Southern notions of war that all Southerners readily understood without spelling them out, negating the need for later discussion or debate. The casualty count, the horrific storm of cannon that blasted the thing loose, the ragged bands of survivors that accepted the surrender of other ragged bands of survivors in a chaos of blood and splintered trees, and the wisdom of needing 18,000 men to neutralize less than 5,000 is pretty compelling evidence that this was an important piece of real estate that Grant needed that Sunday, if for no other reason than the Confederates thought they had to take it. Beauregard and the other senior Confederate officers may have ignored the rest of Grant’s army because they wanted to believe—had to for their peace of mind—Grant was on the ropes.
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Some writers, as late as the 21st Century, insist that the Hornet’s Nest was a postwar name, made up by overzealous newsmen or other pundits to add excitement and mystery. However, most sources attribute the name to Confederate chief-of-staff Braxton Bragg, as he witnessed one of several failed assaults on the makeshift position mid-morning on Sunday, calling it “a nest of hornets.” We should note that the writers who suggest that the Hornet’s Nest was just another part of Grant’s line also suggest that Grant’s/Webster’s Last Line/Battery didn’t exist, either, and that the battle merely petered out on Sunday.
Testimony from Cherry Mansion of a great thundering late in the day being ignored or discounted.
The battle ended Sunday in such a way that both sides could proclaim a modest victory, and ever since 8 April 1862, both sides have, though only the Union claims are credible. With all due respect to his predecessors, this writer submits that after two days of fighting, the Confederates retreated under Union pressure, and it was the Union in full possession of the battlefield when the shooting stopped. The Confederate attack achieved none of its objectives, which included saving the Mississippi Valley, destroying Grant’s force and preventing a juncture between him and Buell. Beauregard later claimed success in the “Battle of the Books:”
By a rapid and vigorous attack on General Grant it was expected he would be beaten back into his transports and the river, or captured, in time to enable us to profit by the victory, and remove to the rear all the stores and munitions that would fall into our hands in such an event before the arrival of General Buell’s army on the scene.
PGT Beauregard, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War
However, Grant nearly destroyed Beauregard’s army, and Corinth fell six weeks after his “raid,” which does not support his claim of “victory” at Pittsburg Landing. But if, as some others claim, Pittsburg Landing was the Confederate geographic target Grant was covering by the sacrifice of 5,000 men…it would have been useless to them. Union naval dominance of the upper Tennessee negated its importance to them other than to deny it to Grant. Beauregard’s first report on the battle, penned late Sunday 6 April and sent off by courier to Corinth, boasted of a battle gloriously won, complete with AS Johnston the martyred hero breathing his last at the cusp of victory. In his second report of 11 April Beauregard lamented that he had been sick for months and, though amply supported by senior officers, he was just not up to a “pursuit” of Grant after the collapse of the Hurlbut-Prentiss-Wallace Magic Show, AKA the Hornet’s Nest. He also blamed the Federal “ironclad” gunboats for his army’s inability to finish Grant off on Sunday.
It was never contemplated, however, to retain the position thus gained and abandon Corinth, the strategic point of the campaign.
PGT Beauregard, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War
The “never contemplated” phrase is telling: it likely was not a retrospective cover for defeat because the Confederate strategic situation was increasingly grim in the spring of 1862. Union advances since the beginning of the war had cost the Confederacy an area roughly the size of France. The Union would have the Mississippi Valley under direct attack from both ends before summer and there was very little the Confederacy could do about it. The Confederate high command practically stripped the garrison of its largest city—New Orleans—and many of them Grant captured at Fort Donelson. While this was happening, a considerable Union fleet cruised between the mouth of the Mississippi and Mobile, and had been shelling Biloxi. It would take them two days to reach the Mississippi. Though the Confederate forts near the river mouth were strong, their fleet below New Orleans was a floating Potemkin village short on men, guns, armor, and machinery. With John Pope investing Island Number 10 a day’s steaming above Memphis before Johnston left Corinth, the Confederate commanders knew it would only be a matter of time before Memphis fell to the Union, negating the strategic importance of the upper Tennessee River for the defense of the Mississippi Valley. Holding the Mississippi Valley depended on a mobile and well-supplied force close to transportation, and Pittsburg Landing wasn’t the place for it. Supplying the Army of Mississippi around Pittsburg Landing by road from Corinth was improbable, so a bulk of the army would have returned regardless if they won or lost. Though staging a large-scale raid as the Southern Confederacy’s first strategic offensive with 10% of its combat power seems unlikely after the events of the first quarter of the year, especially for officers with Johnston’s and Beauregard’s reputations, in the best of all possible worlds, Shiloh could have accomplished little more than a show of force. While his “raid” claim may have some credibility in this sense, sending so much combat power so far away on a “raid” seems either wasteful or improbable, though not impossible. Thus, what purpose the Hornet’s Nest had in the greater scheme of things is debatable…but it was tactically vital for Grant to distract the Confederates and save his army.
While most scholars have neglected Shiloh in favor of the Peninsula Campaign in early 1862, it was the first battle in the American Civil War that revealed what the conflict would be like.
The Devil’s Own Day: Shiloh and the American Civil War captures the drama of the dominant issues involved for both the Union and the Confederacy in the Tennessee pine barrens. Available in paperbound or ebook at a bookseller near you on 19 June!
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On 17 June:
1775: The battle of Bunker (actually Breed’s) Hill took place on the Charlestown Neck north of Boston. The third “major” engagement of the rebellion against King George III by the Massachusetts colony, Bunker Hill stunned British officers because of its ferocity and the fact that the rebels only gave ground because they ran out of ammunition.
1972: Police arrested five men who were conducting an apparent break-in to the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Office Building in Washington, DC. Contemporary reports were muted, the affair later gained national and international attention, resulting in the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974.
And 17 June is NATIONAL STEWART’S ROOT BEER DAY. Stewart’s was a competitor to A&W and offered flavored root beers early on. Root beer itself was first made by Native Americans, but it was the white man who added the carbonated water.