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The Mystery of the Confederate Attack Plan at Shiloh
Does anyone really know how the Confederate forces deployed when the fighting started?
General Orders #8, Pierre GT Beauregard’s outline for the 6 April 1862 attack on US Grant’s army at Pittsburg Landing, described waves of corps led by Joseph Hardee’s, followed a thousand yards apart by Braxton Bragg’s, Leonidas Polk’s and finally John C. Breckinridge’s. This kind of formation had fallen into disuse before the French and Indian War, in part because it required a level, open terrain resembling a huge parade ground for command control.
Hardly Shiloh terrain…
Beauregard’s General Orders #8 also give a great deal of latitude to the corps commanders to adjust their deployments “according to the extent of the ground;” in other words, as they saw fit.[i] The plethora of maps and descriptions made since then has several variations, including:
All four corps spread out into a single wide front line;[ii]
Hardee in front, with Bragg behind him, both in lines of brigades (where units spread out across the front), with Polk and Breckinridge following them in columns of brigades (brigades stacked one behind the other);[iii]
Hardee on the left and part of Bragg on the right in the first line, the rest of Bragg making up the center line, followed by Polk and Breckinridge in a third line;[iv]
A Napoleonic column of corps with divisions and brigades in line.[v]
Given the way the battle unfolded on Sunday, parts of each of these descriptions may have been correct…at one time or another. The most likely starting formation is Hardee and one brigade of Bragg in the first line in brigade columns with Bragg following in line of divisions, and Polk making up a rough third line followed by Breckinridge—neither in any discernible order.
The Confederate deployments outlined in Beauregard’s orders were based on a false premise.
The plan surmised that Grant’s camps were further south of the Shiloh Church than they actually were, based on the postcard-sized map both Johnston and Beauregard used. That scale compression gave army commander Albert S. Johnston, Beauregard’s boss, a poor impression of the size of the encampment and Grant’s army.
But, Johnston may never have seen General Orders #8.
Jefferson Davis would later claim that Beauregard changed Johnston’s simpler plan without consultation, and it was too late for Johnston to change it back (how Davis would have known that…?). Johnston’s son claimed they fought the battle just as his father planned it, and that Beauregard subsequently made false claims for the plan.
Traditionally, the Confederate staff used Napoleon’s orders for Waterloo as a model in creating General Orders #8.
Exactly what they used the 1815-vintage orders for is unclear. None of the descriptions of Shiloh fit any known versions of the initial French deployment at Waterloo, so they did not use it for the attack plan. Perhaps they modeled their plan on the Waterloo order, expecting to emulate Napoleon—who wanted to fend off the Prussians and other allies before hitting Wellington south of Brussels—by first hitting Grant, then Don C. Buell. Perhaps…but we really can’t know.
It is odd that the Confederates selected Napoleon’s most spectacular defeat as a guide.
Planning for this battle depended on maps that were best used for wrapping fish, but they weren’t big enough for that. We can conclude, after studying them a century and a half later, that Beauregard’s maps were based on incomplete or nonexistent information: Bragg’s chief engineer didn’t start his survey of the ground until 4:00 in the morning of the 6th, and no first-hand reconnaissance of the area was conducted before the plan was even made, let alone…yeah…
Neither Clausewitz nor Jomini would have thought highly of the dispositions for the attack.
Though there was a plan for a turning movement by the river flank, the area next to the Tennessee had to be clear for such a sweep to work. If the Federals found cover to organize near the river, any assault was going to bog down. The rest of the terrain was too restricting and broken for anything but a brutal frontal attack. With local sources of information about the target area—which Beauregard and his staff were said to have had—the problems with the plan would have been clear. But what that information was is a mystery.
Both Beauregard and Johnston seemed to be unaware of conditions around Pittsburg Landing.
Despite an allegedly abundant supply of reports from local residents, the Confederates seemed unaware that William Wallace and Stephen Hurlbut and their divisions were at the Landing, even if Johnston’s officers estimated Grant’s strength fairly accurately. Worse, their impression of Buell’s army was way off the mark: Ormsby Mitchell’s 10,000 men, mentioned in a telegram Johnston received 3 April that warned of their approach, were a week’s march away under the best of conditions. Buell’s main body of about 40,000 men altogether reached Grant on Saturday night and was completely opaque to the Confederates.
On Sunday, the Confederates made three grievous errors that they never recovered from.
The first was trying to fight a linear battle on terrain that prohibited it. The second was in not knowing enough about the terrain. Their last was trying to reduce the Hornet’s Nest instead of bypassing it. All pointed to unpreparedness in planning, a lack of coordination and tactical reconnaissance, but worse still, more than a little hubris. They could not imagine defeat. No plan survives contact with the enemy, and Beauregard’s at Shiloh was certainly no exception. Shiloh is consistently misunderstood, as Grant said after the battle. The Confederates misunderstood it even while it was happening.
[i] Nosworthy, Brent, Bloody Crucible of Courage: Fighting Methods and Combat Experience of the Civil War (New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers, 2003), 400; Perret, Geoffrey, Ulysses S. Grant, Soldier and President (New York: Random House, 1997), 190; War Department, “Shiloh, Corinth: Series I, Volume X, Part 2,” in War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1911 (Electronic version 1999 by Guild Press, Indianapolis, IN)), 392–5; Williams, Kenneth P., Lincoln Finds a General: A Military Study of the Civil War. Volume Three: Grant’s First Year in the West (New York: The McMillan Company, 1952), 355.
[ii] Keegan, John The Mask of Command (New York: Viking- Penguin, 1987), 123–4; Martin, David G., The Shiloh Campaign: March-April 1862, Great Campaigns (Pennsylvania: Combined Books, 1996), 103.
[iii] Arnold, James R. Shiloh 1862: The Death of Innocence (Oxford, England: Osprey Publishing, LTD., 1998), 23; Cunningham, O. Edward, (Gary D. Joiner and Timothy B. Smith, Eds.). Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862. (New York: Savas Beatie, 2008), 139; Reed, David W., The Battle of Shiloh and the Organizations Engaged (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 2008), xxiii.
[iv] Beauregard, Pierre G. T., “The Campaign of Shiloh,” in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Volume 1 (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1956 (Electronic Edition 1997 by H-Bar Enterprises)), 587; Dillahunty, Albert. Shiloh: National Military Park, Tennessee. (Washington, D.C.: United States Park Service, Department of the Interior, 1955 (Reprint 1961)), 9; Horn, Stanley. The Army of Tennessee. (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1941 (Reprint 1993)), 127.
[v] Daniel, Larry J. Shiloh: The Battle That Changed the Civil War. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), 119–20.
The controversy over the Confederate plans for the attack on Grant takes second place to the execution of those plans.
The Devil’s Own Day: Shiloh and the American Civil War talks a great deal about confusion, and recriminations for failure to plan or anticipate the plans of others. Like any conflict or the aftermath of any failure, there were many fingers to point. Available now at your favorite booksellers or from me, if you want an autograph.
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On 9 September:
1087: William I of England/the Conqueror/the Bastard/of Normandy dies in Rouen, France. After William defeated Harold I of England in 1066 at Hastings, he was coronated as the king of England at Westminster Abbey on 25 December. Like many of the monarchs of the British Isles who would follow him before the 15th Century, William spent most of his reign in Europe.
2015: Elizabeth II surpasses her great-great grandmother Victoria I to become Great Britain's longest-reigning monarch. Unrelated to William I by blood or direct family ties, Elizabeth II would reign for another seven years, passing away 8 September 2022, aged 96.
And today is NATIONAL WIENER SCHNITZEL DAY. One of the few things that Army mess cooks could make consistently was breaded veal, which is what Wiener Schnitzel is. So, enjoy!