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Shiloh in Popular Media
It ain't too popular...
The usual forces that work on any historical event have colored memories of Shiloh. Regionalism, sectionalism, and blatant partisanship have influenced interpretations of army performance, leadership, the effects and the aftermath of the war to paint an uneven picture. Civil War habitues and the war’s survivors speak of the avalanche of memoirs and personal narratives that followed the war, including the Official Record, as a “Battle of the Books.” In their cacophony of claims and counterclaims, survivors, observers and non- participants carefully dissect battles, campaigns, soldiers and leader performances for avid audiences.
Battles outside the Washington-Richmond corridor are not popular subjects of commemoration, and film practically ignores Shiloh.
Nearly every Civil War film—and many westerns—mention or depict Gettysburg or Robert E. Lee, but only two sound-era “talkies” give any importance to Shiloh. One, Bernard Smith’s 1962 production of How The West Was Won based on a Life magazine series, only spends about five minutes on the events of Sunday night. The other, Howard Christie’s 1968 Journey to Shiloh based on Will Henry’s 1960 novel of the same name, spends about 20 minutes on the battle itself but about an hour getting there. A four-reel silent film entitled “Battle of Shiloh” released in 1913 has no known surviving copies. Most popular films ignore the major participants in the battle. Images of William T. Sherman, Pierre GT Beauregard or Albert S, Johnston are rare to nonexistent; Braxton Bragg appears but once in the above-mentioned Journey to Shiloh. Images of Don C. Buell or Henry W. Halleck, William J. Hardee or Benjamin Cheatham in 20th Century artworks are nearly unknown.
Three Popular Models for Shiloh
The popular image of Shiloh, for better or ill, fits only vaguely into the popular Lost Cause theme in Civil War literature. Because of geography and the political importance of the national capitols, has to be force-fit into the Save the Republic theme, the current underdog in the Civil War trade. The evidence points to an unready and green Confederate army striking an unprepared and green Union army early on a Sunday morning on the banks of the Tennessee River. By dark, they beat each other to a frazzle. With the help of another green and weary army, the Union forces got their camps back the next day. All books on the battle agree on these points. After that, they all diverge.
Buell Saves the Day
The first model has Grant caught flatfooted, neglecting his men, and his army nearly destroyed. Authors typify this view by spurious claims that only Buell’s timely arrival saved the remnant of Grant’s shattered army from being pushed into the river. First promulgated by Buell’s supporters, Southern writers often use this model in whole or in part. We still see it from time to time.
Martyr of the Lost Cause
The second popular model maintains a wily Johnston surprised Grant, but his premature death and Beauregard’s timidity robbed the Confederacy of its chance at victory. This model sometimes uses parts of “Buell Saves the Day” as filler, and is common in the South, and with Northern writers who wish to appeal to Southern audiences. It also appeals to some Northern audiences (especially Buell fans) because it also provides for a tipsy, indifferent, and incompetent Grant. This is the most common theme currently.
Grant the Military Genius
This is the last and least seen model. In it, Johnston surprised Grant on Sunday, but he recovered enough by midmorning to point every cannon and musket in the right direction, and that at no time did anyone near the Landing even hear any shooting. In this model, Grant maintained a continuous battle line all Sunday and merely marched forward back to his camps on Monday morning. The stragglers under the bluffs, when mentioned at all, were few and mostly non-combatants. We see this model primarily in 19th Century and early 20th Century biographies of Grant. Grant’s and Sherman’s memoirs present a watered-down version. This model is less frequently seen in general works, but occasionally in biographies.
The Common Thread
The common thread among Civil War scholars in articles, essays and analyzes of Union and Confederate strategy specifically on Shiloh is more nuanced. Serious writers don’t suggest that Grant was drunk, and there’s no evidence that he was. Most scholars agree that before Shiloh Johnston had an impossible mission to fulfill; that he came as close to success at Shiloh as he did is remarkable, but most agree that no Confederate victory there would have saved the Confederacy in the long term. Most writers hold the Confederates achieved complete strategic surprise on officers who should have known better. Much of the debate about Shiloh in academic circles hinges around whether Johnston could have succeeded with more manpower, a different plan, or any of several other variables. Nearly all hold that Grant was simply on the wrong side of the river, and believed what he wanted to believe about Confederate capabilities and plans.
The Import of Shiloh
For both scholars and popular readers, Shiloh suffers from the unforgivable sin of strategic and perceptual unimportance. It was a geographic backwater, an accidental battlefield that went forgotten for years after the battle. No one had to fight over the same ground again or camp on it for more than a month, and indeed no one ever had to go back to that part of the world after Corinth and Memphis were in Union hands. It decided the fate of no cities, though arguably it decided that of Tennessee. A month after the battle, Pittsburg Landing and the lower Tennessee went back to relative obscurity. The titanic events on the Virginia Peninsula, much closer to the media outlets of the day, were of much greater perceived importance than Shiloh. Finally, to be making such a big deal over a riverboat landing—the huge casualty list notwithstanding—in a part of the world known only to a relative handful of people was a perceptual leap few were, or are, prepared to make. While I argue Shiloh was a pivotal event in American history because of what happened after, I’m in the decided minority.
For students, aficionados, buffs and others with an interest in Shiloh or the Civil War in general, The Devil’s Own Day is a departure. It’s strictly military history, stripped of the romance of “butternut” and “blue-clad” wording and sentiments.
The Devil’s Own Day is about the campaign that ended with the battle of Shiloh, the conflict it took place in, what happened as a result, and very little else. There are biographic sketches of the principal leaders, descriptions of the strategic situation before the battle, and of the changes wrought in both the Union and the Confederate armies by the little-known battle in the Tennessee pine barrens. There’s also a study of the steamboats that provided logistical support for the Union, and their critical role in moving Buell’s army across the river. Those looking to know which Union general’s wife went to finishing school with Jefferson Davis’ wife’s second cousin's neighbor’s dressmaker’s sister—as might be found in other Civil War books—will be sorely disappointed because I not only don’t know, I don’t think it’s at all important…to Shiloh.
The Model T Reconsidered
On 29 July:
1907: Earl Silas Tupper is born in Berlin, New Hampshire. Using petroleum slag, Tupper made nearly indestructible plastic ware at the DuPont firm, starting his Tupperware Plastics company in 1938. Initially, Tupperware was sold in stores, but starting in the ‘50s, the firm marketed it solely in parties, and has ever since.
1914: Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia exchanged “friendly” telegrams, explaining that their military mobilizations because of the deepening crisis in Serbia had nothing to do with…well, each other. In days, they would be at war…with each other.
And today is RAIN DAY. Now, it seems this druggist in Pennsylvania noted it rained every 29 July in his part of the world, so he named it…there’s a festival, if you’re so inclined.