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Myths and Legends of Shiloh II
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Some myths and legends of Shiloh exist because of Ulysses Grant himself. By his own admission, Grant was a failure at almost everything when he was out of uniform. He was a melancholy homebody, and early in his adult life, he, like many of his peers, may have sought solace in drink when isolated from his family. Grant was small in stature even for the times—five foot five inches tall and never over 140 pounds.
Grant needed little to get him tipsy.
But he also suffered from blinding headaches and “ague”—a 19th Century name for several conditions, including malaria that first struck him when he was nine—most of his life. These “spells” or attacks, whichever they were, might have been both eased and aggravated by the only analgesic other than opiates available at the time: alcohol. They might also have been mistaken for benders and hangovers.
Non-historians frequently lay the charge that Grant was drunk at Shiloh.
There is no evidence to support this contention, and indeed there is testimony from civilian eyewitnesses to refute it. John Rawlins, Grant’s chief of staff, insisted that Grant not touch alcohol as long as he was around, and there are many accounts of Rawlins so stating, with Grant agreeing before witnesses. Grant had only a few real friends, and Rawlins was one of them. Grant would likely not have risked losing his association with Rawlins by drinking recreationally. If he imbibed at all, it might have been laudanum (opium in an alcohol solution) or just enough medicinal (diluted) brandy or whiskey to take enough of the edge off his chronic pain.
Grant didn’t behave like an oiler.
Slurred speech and clumsiness can have many causes, but mistakes in judgment, occasional paranoia, unconsciousness at critical moments, forgetfulness, prevarication, procrastination, blaming failures on others, and neglect of duties—just a few of many other well-documented behaviors of alcoholics—simply were not present in Grant’s life. But regardless of behavior, the specter of Grant as a drunkard would follow him all his adult life, a ready charge to whisper into a credulous ear whenever anything went wrong and someone connected Grant to it.
Many legitimate sources picked up on other rumors and whisperings about Shiloh.
One Iowa newspaper article stated that the wife of the 11th Iowa’s colonel, William Hall, had slept in camp with her husband Saturday night, and that her garments were “perforated by several stray bullets” before she put them on Sunday morning. By the time her story appeared in May 1862, the fact-and-fancy Whitelaw Reid story was the popular version of Shiloh, so her story was probably enhanced to mesh with that. Though women with the armies were the norm, no one expected them to be in harm’s way. While Mrs. Hall may have been at the battle, and it is entirely possible that something pierced her garments, it seems unlikely that she was under fire before she got up, unless both she and her husband were REAL sound sleepers who stayed abed most of the morning and the Colonel later fudged his report. But someone would have noticed the colonel’s absence from his regiment, and no one has found evidence of that.
There had to have been a good deal of embellishment to Mrs. Hall’s account.
Her description would have required that the Confederates fired on John McClernand’s camps before displacing William Sherman’s division, which is contrary to every other description. It also required that the 11th Iowa’s camps at the Cloud Field were under fire before 8:00, which is also refuted by other evidence, including Hall’s official report. The Confederates weren’t in musket range of the Cloud Field until at least 10:00 Sunday. Finally, Mrs. Hall quipped she was not “properly prepared to receive company” Sunday morning, in a homey, Iowa newspaper fashion meant to make light of a deadly situation. In a sea of unfamiliar men, how “unprepared” could or should she have been? Given the other accounts (including her husband’s report), we can safely say that the details of Mrs. Hall’s story (that she may have penned herself) were almost certainly altered to suit needs other than news reporting, with a dash of plucky courage added for entertainment.
But we can’t be sure.
We cannot reach absolute historical certainty backed by irrefutable and unfalsifiable evidence on any historical topic, but the reader can resort to a time machine to provide it if such a contraption existed. Even the best documented news story in human history—the moon landing of 20 July 1969—now has some controversial elements (aside from the outright deniers): did Neil Armstrong say “one small step for man,” or “one small step for a man”? Even he couldn’t remember in an interview in 2010, and the broadcast—that more people heard than have heard Elvis or the Beatles—was distorted at the crucial instant.
It is up to the users of history to decide what to believe: legends or facts.
The Devils’ Own Day doesn’t talk about legends save one: the Grant-Sherman meeting Sunday night from which I derive the title.
In fact, I don’t even claim that the many quotes from the participants are accurate: we cannot know, without actual recordings, that they were really uttered or not. Just because people have been repeating these stories for a century and a half does not make them facts. Call me picky…
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On 30 September:
1399: Henry IV, also known as Henry Bolingbroke, takes the throne of King of England after the death of Richard II, his cousin. Henry IV of the Lancaster branch of the Plantagenet dynasty is the first English king on the throne since the Norman Conquest.
1949: The Berlin Airlift ends. Though the Soviet land blockade of Berlin had ended in May, the Anglo/American “air bridge” continued in part to show that they could continue the operation as long as needed, and in part to ensure that the Soviets wouldn’t reimpose their blockade.
And today is NATIONAL CHEWING GUM DAY, for those of you who don’t tire of chewing the stuff. For someone who could never get bubble gum to work, this is an odd national day. There is a NATIONAL BUBBLE GUM DAY as well, in February…why I don’t know.