On April 6, 1862, a Union army encamped at Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River unexpectedly found itself under attack from a Confederate force commanded by Albert Sidney Johnston. In the months prior to April 6, Union arms had won a series of significant victories in the region between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River that seemed to put the Confederate war effort in the West on the verge of complete collapse. Johnston responded by concentrating Confederate forces for a desperate effort to destroy the Federal force at Pittsburg Landing. The result was the bloody battle of Shiloh, in which Johnston was initially able to surprise Union commander Ulysses S. Grant and drive his forces from their campsites. The Confederates, however, were unable to achieve a truly decisive [End Page 615] victory and on April 7 were compelled to retreat from the field, having lost Johnston to a mortal wound during the first day of fighting.
The story of Shiloh and its effect on the course of the Civil War are familiar topics to most students of the sectional conflict, though Timothy B. Smith demonstrates that there are aspects of the battle that merit significant reconsideration. In Rethinking Shiloh, he offers a collection of previously published essays that will be of value and appeal to anyone with an interest in the battle. The first provides a useful discussion of how terrain influenced the course and conduct of the battle, while three essays offer interesting contributions to scholarship on three generals for whom Shiloh was a pivotal event in their military careers: Albert Sidney Johnston, Benjamin Prentiss, and Lew Wallace. The essays on the last two men are notable for their focus on how their performances have been remembered by history—inaccurately, Smith argues. Smith’s critical take on Prentiss is part of a larger case he makes throughout the book against the central place that fighting at the so-called “Hornet’s Nest” on April 6 occupies in most accounts of the battle, which he demonstrates is to a large extent the result of the efforts of David W. Reed, who fought on that part of the field and served as the first historian of Shiloh National Military Park. This is followed by a short essay looking at the fate of delegates to the Mississippi secession convention who served in Johnston’s army at Shiloh.
Smith’s final three essays offer compelling looks at the history of the battlefield, reflecting his extensive research into the efforts to preserve and interpret battlefields in the western theater. Readers interested in the community that resided in the area where the battle was fought, how the battle affected its members, and the relationship they had with the federal government as it endeavored to preserve the battlefield will enjoy the essay on that subject, one aspect of which is treated in greater detail in a separate essay looking at the effect New Deal programs had on the park. The intriguing story of the film shown at the visitor center for fifty-six years prior to its retirement in 2012 is the subject of the final essay. [End Page 616]
All nine of these essays offer full treatments of their various topics without sacrificing readability. The ability of readers to follow the text is greatly enhanced as well by the many high-quality maps that appear in the book. By bringing these essays together under a single cover, Smith and the University of Tennessee Press have performed a welcome service for students of Shiloh, its battlefield, and the history of both.
Ethan S. Rafuse is professor of military history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.