Discover more from JDBCOM in your In-Box
Myths and Legends of Shiloh I
There were and are a lot...
Shiloh’s sheer scale and remoteness would have made for several legends, and the death of Albert S. Johnston would have added poignancy, but US Grant’s reputation and the needs of news reporting early in the war combined to create a whole mythos around it. Within hours of the battle, reporters filed "news" reports claiming that Confederate soldiers killed Federal soldiers in their tents, and they have repeated this story for generations.
Grant wrote that Shiloh has been the most “consistently misunderstood” battle of the Civil War.
Whitelaw Reid filed the first major news story on the battle dated 9 April 1862 under his “Agate” penname, appearing in the New York Herald. It was likely written while he was a passenger on the steamboat City of Memphis that was loaded with casualties and en route to Cairo, and on the train to Cincinnati while he swapped notes with Henry Villard of the New York Herald.
Reid had scooped every other reporter.
His was a breathtaking mix of fact, fallacy and outright lies, combined with details that he could not possibly have known when he left Pittsburg Landing. It began with an account of his arrival which, if the battle was the way he described it at that moment, could not have been before 11:00 AM Sunday 6 April. It included a breathtakingly detailed and accurate order of battle for both Johnston’s and Grant’s armies, and creditably described Johnston’s approach march. Some of these details, unknown to the Union at the time, must have been added to the original by “helpful” editors, but had the desired effect of adding cachet to the dubious “accuracy” of the story’s more blatant fictions. Without the original manuscript, it would be difficult to say now that they printed it the way he wrote it. Some popular histories accept the Reid “surprise” version of the first contact almost without blinking.
Editorial embellishment and telegraphic garbling may have altered Reid’s story considerably.
Otherwise respected military historians have sadly repeated Reid’s dispatch-initiated “killed in their tents” myth about Grant’s men into the 21st Century. But the only Federals still in tents by the time the Confederates reached the Federal camps were very sick or newly hurt. Some more bloodthirsty Confederates may have considered bayoneting sick or wounded men, but amid the cornucopia of food and drink that they found after days of short rations and hard marching, it seems unlikely that they would have acted on the idea. Critics often say that the bayonet rarely drew blood in the Civil War, a claim that finds no argument here. That wasn’t the point of the bayonet, anyway…
Demonization of the enemy is an age-old psychological warfare tool.
It makes beasts of people to explain and justify the chaotic cruelty of war. While this kind of ploy has been around for as long as there have been wars, this may have been one of those instances where false reporting became the stuff of history. That no one refuted the more hurtful elements of the story in the media of the day may have been a calculated act intended to hurt Grant. Reid worked for Horace Greeley, the media titan who detested Grant and his political patrons. While neither Greely nor Reid politically or privately wished Grant any good will, they didn’t editorially or publicly wish any fortune on the Confederates, either. Greely used his newspaper and political connections to repeat the innuendoes about Grant’s abilities as often and as loudly as he could. Reid or any of several others along the way may have taken advantage of a confused and deadly situation to make the Confederates look even worse than they really were.
Another legend of Shiloh finds great currency among Civil War buffs.
(A buff, or a fan, knows facts but lacks depth of knowledge. He knows how many cartridges were in an ammunition pouch, where a scholar knows the effect of that number on infantry training and doctrine, and how one affects the other.) The legend describes a meeting between Grant and Don C. Buell, commanding the Army of the Ohio. The legend holds that a meeting took place sometime on Sunday, either while the battle was taking place or in the evening, during a lull in the fighting. The exchange between them was supposed to have gone something like this:
Buell: General, can you hold out for a day?
Buell: Can you hold out for an afternoon?
Buell: Can you hold out for an hour?
Grant: No. I can’t hold out another minute. I have no army left!
Buell: Then get the hell out of my way!
There are several versions, all unclear who was present and when or where the exchange took place. All versions agree it appeared that Buell arrived just in time to save the battle for the Union, and that Grant was beaten like a red-headed stepchild.
Though Buell himself would have relished such an exchange, he never acknowledged such a conversation, and Grant certainly didn’t.
Other than the hurried conference on Sunday afternoon that probably took about a hundred words from each (at most), the two didn’t meet again for days. Buell’s Century Magazine article (his part of the “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War” series) wasn’t fulsome in praise of Grant, but it didn’t condemn him directly. This fanciful “meeting” story fits the common perception of Grant the bloodletting drunk, and suits the viewpoint that Buell was an unrecognized and underutilized military genius who was unlucky enough to have never been in the right place at the right time.
Buell’s fans without exception are Grant-haters.
Shiloh has always been their favorite place to condemn Grant. Aside from that, there’s the fact that anyone who has read anything definitive about Shiloh or Buell or Grant would realize that it simply doesn’t sound like either of them, and it doesn’t fit Grant’s situation. But it sounds like something cut from whole cloth by Ambrose Bierce. Bierce, an NCO with William Hazen’s brigade of William “Bull” Nelson’s 4th Division in Buell’s army, was an avid Buell fan and a venomous Grant hater. Bierce’s “What I Saw of Shiloh” newspaper column in the San Francisco Chronicle, published in 1881 when he was a well established all-around curmudgeon, contains flavors of the Whitelaw Reid version of the battle, alleging that the Landing was nearly taken by the time Grant arrived at Pittsburg Landing Sunday morning, and that Buell’s army saved the day.
Bierce spent the first part of his essay describing that which he had no way of seeing, namely all of Sunday’s battle.
A story Buell refuted in his Century Magazine article has Grant telling Buell at their meeting Sunday that he wouldn’t need steamboats to evacuate more than 10,000 men on Sunday afternoon. This story, like the “get out of my way” meeting, could have been created by someone who may not have been at the battle or long afterwards by someone who was. Buell mentioned it only in passing to dismiss it. By his own account, Bierce didn’t arrive at the battle until Sunday night. The death of Buell in 1898 gave Bierce yet another platform on which to pile scorn on Grant (who by then had been dead for over a decade), claiming that Buell saved Grant’s Army of West Tennessee from “the consequences of its commander’s fatuity.” In his eulogy of Buell, Bierce repeats the claim that only nightfall and Buell’s timely arrival saved Grant’s army from certain destruction. Bierce praises Buell over both Sherman and Grant, treating Buell as if he were the equal of Robert E. Lee in word, thought and deed. If a single post-battle source might have concocted the “get out of my way” meeting story, it was Bierce, but of course we cannot know.
As some of you know, The Devil’s Own Day addresses such myths indirectly by not repeating them, and makes a point of not repeating them…save one: the Grant-Sherman meeting on Sunday night from which I derived the book’s title.
The Devil's Own Day doesn't use flowery language or make any claims that the words spoken by the participants were actually spoken. Perhaps some were; perhaps not. There’s no good way to know now. Then again…does it matter now?
On Winning and Losing
What Was Germany's Story Before 1945 that made her so formidable?
On 19 August:
1812: USS Constitution, a 44-gun 24-pounder frigate under John Rogers, defeats HMS Guerriere, a 38-gun 12-pounder frigate under James Dacres, about 400 miles (640 km) southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia. While Dacres believed he could best the American vessel with superior gunnery, no British ship had ever faced the sheer firepower—754 pounds to the broadside versus 526 pounds in Guerriere that was typical of RN frigates—of a large American frigate. The encounter, and several others like it over the course of the next few months, would change naval warfare and raise American morale.
1976: Gerald R. Ford is nominated for the presidency of the United States at the Republican National Convention held in Kansas City, Missouri. As the successor to Richard Nixon, who also pardoned the disgraced president two years before, Jimmy Carter defeated Ford in the November election. Ironically, Ford beat Ronald Reagan for the nomination in ‘76, and Reagan would defeat Carter in 1980.
And today is both NATIONAL AVIATION DAY and WORLD PHOTOGRAPHY DAY, honoring both the birth of Orville Wright in1871 and the announcement of Louis Daguerre’s process for plate photography in 1839. Speaking of irony, it was also Alfred Hitchcock’s birthday in 1899, whose sense of both imagery and suspense would bring us to new heights.