- Reviewed by
The Battle of Shiloh on April 6–7, 1862, directly impacted the course of the Civil War. The failed Confederate attack on General Ulysses S. Grant’s army outside Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, killed Confederate western theater commander General Albert Sidney Johnston and opened the way for Union forces under General Henry Halleck to capture the vital railroad junction of Corinth, Mississippi. The two days of fighting foreshadowed the intensity and high casualty rates seen later in the war. Shiloh, however, has not recently received an updated battle narrative. Timothy B. Smith, who has previously written multiple works about Shiloh and its battlefield, has provided a new operational history that grounds the fighting in both the participating soldiers and the terrain surrounding Pittsburg Landing.
Smith has accomplished this task through an exhaustive examination of the reasons behind Johnston’s attack against Grant and how the battle unfolded. He mentions how Grant’s buildup at Pittsburgh Landing preceded a larger attempt against the vital Confederate rail junction in nearby Corinth, Mississippi, and awaited reinforcements from General Don Carlos Buell and the Department of the Ohio. On April 1, Johnston decided that the best way to defend Corinth was to attack Grant prior to Buell’s arrival, and he pushed forward an offensive. Smith further highlights how the terrain near Pittsburg Landing dictated troop deployments and defensive lines, particularly the creeks that framed Johnston’s initial advances.
Smith’s mastery of this topic shines when discussing key aspects of the battle. He rejects the notion that Johnston’s soldiers achieved complete surprise on the morning of April 6, arguing dawn skirmishes delayed the Confederate advance and provided Union soldiers minutes, if not hours, to form battles lines outside their camps. Smith subsequently portrayed the first day of fighting as a Confederate race against daylight, an advance hindered by increasing Union resistance and Grant’s arrival at Pittsburg Landing by mid-morning. Throughout [End Page 97] his discussion, Smith highlights the “Hornet’s Nest” at the center of the line, but he provides equal, if not more, attention to events along both flanks. Smith especially focuses on both Grant and Beauregard’s conduct. He particularly praises Grant’s actions on the night of April 6–7 as a major reason for Union success on the second day of fighting and conversely criticizes Beauregard’s inaction to prepare for a Union counterattack. While the Confederates eventually threw up multiple defensive lines, Grant’s counterattack caught many under Beauregard’s command unaware. Smith also rehabilitates the often-criticized Union general Lew Wallace. He argues that Wallace twice outflanked Confederate defensive lines and forced their retreat across the battlefield. By late afternoon, Beauregard withdrew his tired soldiers and retreated toward Corinth. Smith argues that Grant’s victory secured Corinth for the Union and denied the Confederates their best opportunity in the western theater for the entire war.
In Shiloh: Conquer or Perish, Timothy B. Smith has provided an easily accessible narrative on how the Battle of Shiloh unfolded. His balanced treatment of both days of combat and his emphasis on how the terrain impacted the proceedings presents an authoritative text valuable for both historians and Civil War enthusiasts. When taken in concert with his 2012 Corinth 1862: Siege, Battle, Occupation, also from the University Press of Kansas, Smith has finished an updated two-volume look at an overlooked but strategically important Civil War campaign. [End Page 98]
CHARLES WEXLER recently completed his PhD at Auburn University under the direction of Dr. Kenneth Noe. His dissertation, “Palmetto Navy: Ironclad Construction and the Naval Defense of Charleston during the Civil War,” examines Confederate naval procurement and operations within Charleston Harbor throughout the Civil War.