Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Prentiss and the Hornets' Nest

In the December 2008 issue of Civil War Times Tim Smith has an article that examines how Prentiss came to be the hero of Shiloh. How despite commanding roughly 12% of the Hornets' Nest defenders he became the general chiefly associated with this defense in the stories of the battle.

I thought it was a very good article, I wished it had been longer but that's just my Shiloh bias speaking. Basically Smith focuses on why Prentiss got the credit and not on an examination of the fighting in the Hornets' Nest (perhaps he will do that in a future article).

To crudely summarize the article Prentiss became the synonymous with the Hornets' Nest primarily because his chief compatriot WHL Wallace was mortally wounded during the battle. Prentiss gives Wallace credit in his report but as time progresses people seem to forget about Wallace. The cyclorama that was painted in 1885 features Wallace and Prentiss though Prentiss is more prominent. Later paintings tend to leave Wallace out and only show Prentiss. This extends to writings, contemporary and modern historians have mostly given the credit to Prentiss. Perhaps the oddest oversight comes from the park service which features Prentiss prominently in the orientation movie as well as on the iron tablets that dot the battlefield. This iron tablets also minimize the efforts of Everett Peabody whose early morning reconnaissance revealed the Confederates' presence. The tablets simply state that a reconnaissance patrol from Prentiss' division started the battle and does not list the brigade commander directly responsible.

All in all I thought it was a good article although I'd have preferred more Hornets' Nest details. But as far as a dose of Shiloh writing in the major magazines this will admirably fill the void. Since originally publishing this post on Battlefield Wanderings in October I have learned from Tim Smith that the article originally had much more on the fighting in the Hornets' Nest. In fact the article was originally abour 4 times as long but had to be cut down for the magazine. Perhaps we can convince Civil War Times to run an all Shiloh issue in April that would have the full length article. Otherwise I think we'll have to wait for Tim Smith to publish a Shiloh book with this article as a chapter. Either way I'll be happy.

The Battle of Shiloh and the Organizations Engaged by David W. Reed

The Battle of Shiloh and the Organizations Engaged by David W. Reed
Reed was the first Shiloh park historian and this is the history of the battlefield he created. Enough said. Buy this book.

Oh wait you want more information? Okay. Reed's book is one of the single most detailed resources on Shiloh you can find. And until recently you really couldn't find it. Reed's first edition came out in 1902, followed by a revised edition in 1909 and the final revision in 1913. Very few copies of the book were printed and finding one is a rare feat. I saw one on ebay a few years ago and held one in the special collections section of a Wisconsin library many years a go. Luckily though it wasn't quite that scarce. Every (Northern) state that had a Shiloh monument commission included a copy of Reed's story in their book, so I own 3-4 copies of it and have looked at many others. But now the book is readily available to anyone.

One of the huge benefits of this edition (a copy of the 1913 version) is that the four maps are included on a CD in pdf format. In the various copies I own or have seen the maps are always in sad condition as they were usually folded many times and in a pocket at the back of the book. Folding and unfolding over the last 90 or so years has made them very brittle. Now though with the CD you'll always have a nice copy. Plus you can print them out and make notes on them, carry them into the field and generally do things you'd never have been able to do otherwise. This was a very wise decision.

If you've been to Shiloh you have read Reed's story; its on the iron tablets that dot the field. Reed wrote the text for those too. In many respects it is hard to experience Shiloh without having Reed influence what you see, read or do.

Timothy B. Smith has provided an introduction that helps explain Reed's influence on the various schools of historiography of Shiloh. In brief Reed was the first to highlight the actions in the Sunken Road and make that one of the main stories of the battle. It is no coincidence that Reed was in the Sunken Road when he fought at Shiloh. Later schools of thought have tried to shift the focus to other events but Reed's original thrust has dominated. When Smith was at the Rocky Mountain Civil War Roundtable's symposium in April he said that the Reed map on the wall of the visitor center has spots that have been touched by enough visitors as to be rubbed off. These spots are the areas Reed highlighted, Sunken Road and the Hornets' Nest, plus obviously Shiloh Church and Pittsburg Landing. Johnston's death site or Sherman's fighting at the Crossroads have not been rubbed off, though there are scholars that support those areas as key to the battle instead of the Sunken Road.

This is a wonderful book that now everyone can use to better track the movements of units around the battlefield. As I said at the beginning of this post, buy this book. You won't be disappointed.

PS: If you've ever wanted one of those old monument commission books you can find them on ebay relatively cheaply. The Pennsylvania and Ohio editions seem to be the most plentiful. I've never paid more than $50 for one and have lucked into some bargains too, I got my Pennsylvania copy for about $10. The commission books for Chickamauga are even more plentiful while I've hardly ever seen a Vicksburg copy. Of course Antietam and Gettysburg are out there too but I've never bid on those.

Shiloh & Corinth: Sentinels of Stone by Timothy Isbell

Shiloh & Corinth: Sentinels of Stone by Timothy Isbell. I've been burned in the past by buying books sight unseen just because it was on Shiloh. There is some horrible stuff out there. So I requested this book through inter library loan. It came in the very day I received an email from Timothy Isbell wishing me luck on my new house and saying that he reads my blog. A very strange coincidence but something that was pretty cool too.

Anyway, this is a great book. The pictures are amazing but its more than just a picture book as there is quite a bit of text accompanying each picture. This was a nice way to relax after a day of painting and unpacking. This is definitely a book I want to add to my collection (I probably shouldn't announce that here as Jess is sure to ask me where I intend to find a place for another book). I will soon order the Shiloh book and his volume on Vicksburg (he's also done Gettysburg but I need to watch the shelving space somehow). I was excited to learn that a volume on Chickamauga is in the works.

Some of his photos are available online at http://www.timisbell.com./ He definitely has a talent for getting the perfect shot. I have included a picture from his website of the Water Oak Pond at Shiloh so you can see a sample of the great shots he gets. Some of his other work, including a series on the Vietnamese people of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Hurricane Katrina damage in the Biloxi area and some scenes from the career of Brett Favre, are also available on his site.

Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862

Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862 by O. Edward Cunningham. Edited by Gary D. Joiner and Timothy B. Smith.

Cunningham wrote this book as a PhD dissertation in 1966. Until this past year it has remained unpublished. I had earlier gained a copy through interlibrary loan and a ton of xeroxing. I've never sat down and read it cover to cover before though because my copy was so ungainly to hold and read. The dissertation has a wonderful reputation among serious students of Shiloh as one of the best examinations of the battle.

This new edition has been edited by Gary D. Joiner and Timothy B. Smith. I'm familiar with Smith's previous works but not Joiner's, and a better choice for editing a Shiloh book could not be made in Smith. They did a great job of adding their own footnotes and comments into Cunningham's work without it being distracting. Besides using the footnotes to clarify points or discuss new sources, they also used them to compare and contrast Cunningham's conclusions with Larry Daniel, Wiley Sword and James Lee McDonough (the three other modern examinations of the battle). I enjoyed this as I didn't have to remember exactly what those three authors had said. Plus page citations were given so that I could check exactly what they wrote in each instance.

My only problem with the footnotes was there were times that the editors would say that Cunningham's original text had said something that is pretty clearly incorrect and that they changed the text so that it read better. Perhaps this "error" was because Cunningham's work hadn't gone through the extensive review process that books go through now (and you could assume that if he was alive now to publish his dissertation the peer review process would have fixed those things). Or maybe its not really an error and further research might show Cunningham was right. I'm still not sure where I sit on this issue. In some respects I wish the new book was a faithful reproduction of the dissertation, warts and all. In other respects I think its good that obvious mistakes were edited out. In other sections the editors did mention that Cunningham's interpretation differs, the text was left alone, just a foot note added to indicate the interpretive differences. And that is a great thing. I'm still have not decided if I like the minor corrections or not.

The one problem I had with the dissertation is a complete lack of maps. Thankfully that has been fixed in this new edition. But the maps seem a little busy at times with too many of the trails shown. Also the maps typically show brigade sized units (some do show regiments) and I'd prefer if they had all shown regiments. But that's only a minor point and does not detract from the worth of the book. Just a personal preference, I'm sure there are other readers who would prefer only brigades shown.

The claim made often about Cunningham's book is that his interpretations were well ahead of their time. I'm not sure about that. There was nothing I read that was a real surprise to me, but I'm not exactly new to studying Shiloh. I think it is an important book that can now be read by everyone and sit proudly on the shelves with Sword, Daniel and McDonough. I highly recommend it to all. If I only was going to have one of those four Shiloh books I think it would be Daniel's (then again I have 3 copies of Sword's book so I'm not the best judge of only having one book) but Cunningham's would be my second choice and only because I think Daniel did a better job of showing Shiloh's place in the war. Cunningham is a strong second place though.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Fort Smith

When Confederate General Leonidas Polk invaded Kentucky and captured Columbus, Union General US Grant moved fast. He soon after took Paducah and Smithland, strategic spots along the Ohio River. Paducah guarded the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers while Smithland guarded the Ohio and Cumberland rivers. In February 1862 Grant would need naval access to the Cumberland River to aid his attacks on Fort Donelson.

So in my continuing efforts at visiting the rare spots of the war I went to Smithland to see what I could see. There is not much. Smithland is a small town. I think there was just a warning light in town, not a traffic light, just a flashing yellow light. But on the hill south of town are the remains of the Union Fort Smith. They are pretty well preserved, I've heard that they are the best preserved entrenchments in Kentucky but I'm not sure I'd go that far.

This is the only sign in the fort although there were two park benches. The whole place seemed creepy. Perhaps that's because its right next to the cemetery. The benches did not give me a warm cozy feeling, I almost felt like an intruder.
And of course along the river was a place to see the confluence of the Cumberland and Ohio rivers. The Cumberland enters the picture from the right and exits the left side as the Ohio.

I doubt I'll ever visit Smithland again but it was nice to see it once.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Columbus, Kentucky

The day I visited Cairo and Mound City I started my adventure at Columbus Kentucky. This is a nice state park that also doubles as a picnic area. Actually most people there were probably there for picnics. But there was a small museum (though nicely done) and a gift shop.

I was impressed at the amount of markers around the park, plus these markers offered a ton of text. I've been places that have a simple "entrenchments" sign but these markers offered much more interpretation.

There was a nice view of the Mississippi River and the lower ground of Missouri. When I was there the ferry was not operating. I'm not sure if this was a permanent or temporary decision. So I was not able to tramp the battlefield of Belmont, but it is the low ground across the river. Specifically what ground I'm not sure as the river has moved since then and I was not able to wander around Belmont. I could have gotten over there but it would have been quite the detour and from what I heard there is only a marker or two over there.

One of the more interesting things to see was a section of the chain defenses the Confederates strung across the river to prevent (or slow) the Union gunboats from passing the bluffs here. You can try to pick up a link of chain but it is very heavy.

Then of course there are the guns that made Columbus a formidable position for the Union navy. While this particular gun may not have been here during the battle it was here afterwards as the Union used Columbus as a depot for captured cannon. It would later fall in the river as the bank eroded and was found again in 1998. In any respect it is similar to guns that would have been here.

The problem with Columbus is that while it provides a strong defense against the Union navy it is easily outflanked by land. When Forts Henry and Donelson fell the Confederates had to abandon this spot. That is why when General Polk invaded Kentucky he made a fatal error by stopping at Columbus. If he had secured Paducah the invasion might have been worthwhile. Gaining Columbus was not worth opening up much of the rest of Kentucky to Union forces, who now could come in claiming that they were rescuing the state from the Confederates, never minding that both sides had been recruiting in the state since the initial neutrality proclamation. Polk invading the state ended the sham neutrality.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Stringer's Ridge

Yesterday I got an email asking for help preserving Stringer's Ridge in Chattanooga. This site on Moccasin Bend is where Eli Lilly's battery bombarded Chattanooga at the start of the Chickamauga campaign.

The Trust for Public Land is trying to preserve 92 acres on the ridge. The cost is $2.5 million and they are now just $180,000 away from the goal. But they need to hit that by January 9th. If they fail to reach it in time they can sell some of the land (5-10 acres) to a residential developer to cover the shortfall.

Eventually this land would likely become part of the National Park Service. The NPS has recently bought other land on Moccasin Bend and while the Stringer's Ridge parcel is not next to it the two pieces would be a nice addition to the sort of Chattanooga in the war.

Amazingly this parcel has not yet been developed, although from searching the Chattanooga papers online it is not from lack of trying. Many developers have proposed projects but the community has been able to derail each effort. Now we might take this target off the market forever.

To see the map of the parcel and the link to donate click here.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Mound City

Located just north of Cairo, a few minute drive, is Mound City National Cemetery. When I was doing research with the Wisconsin unit rosters I often saw men listed as dying at Mound City. Obviously there was a hospital in this area, also at Cairo. During the war 1644 men were buried here. After the war other dead soldiers from places along the Mississippi and Ohio were reinterred here raising the total to 4808 soldiers. Since then other veterans have been buried here raising the total to over 9000.

One interesting feature of the monument is that it has the names of some of the men buried here. These panels are a bit worn but you can make out quite a few names. The panels were a bit too high to get a comprehensive set of pictures but here are a few so you can see that the panels are still in pretty good condition.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Cairo, Illinois

Cairo is an interesting place. It is pretty small but its role in the Civil War was quite large as it served as a staging area for riverine operations in the West. Early in the war it served as Grant's headquarters and his desk is still there. Even Grant's desk shows that he was always ready for movement as there are little plastic wheels on the bottom (yes I know those are modern additions but its a tiny joke).

I went to Cairo though on a Shiloh hunt. I had read in a book that the Tigress's flagpole was in Cairo. This was the ship that Grant used to get from his headquarters at the Cherry Mansion to Pittsburg Landing for the big battle on April 6th. My book said it was downtown somewhere, I think near city hall. So I went there but instead found this cannon.

I was discouraged but kept driving around. After no luck I finally stopped in at the Chamber of Commerce. Where I learned that the locals do not pronounce the C in Cairo. I knew it wasn't pronounced like the city in Egypt but I was surprised that it sounds more like a-row. In any respect the lady there called the librarian to ask, which led them to a museum and that's where they suggested I go. Which brings up a wonderful tip. You can buy all the guidebooks in the world, do tons of preliminary research but if you ignore talking to the locals you can miss some gems. I went back to the museum and there I found the flagpole, which to me was a true gem. The flag is obviously a modern made version but the flagpole, and original wooden historical marker, are fantastic. I had the museum to myself that day and wonder how many people have ever seen this treasure. I'd wager that more people will see it here today than will see it in person today.

The desk and the flagpole are in the Cairo Custom House Museum.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Jonesboro is a rough battlefield to visit. The effort was made harder because I had not done much research prior to the visit. I knew generally where I could go but did not have a list of other areas to try my hand at. Plus visiting a battlefield in a city is even tougher because you have to fight traffic. So with our limited time in the afternoon we saw one piece of the battlefield. From what I've heard from other travelers there is a little bit more to see but not too much more.

Our visit basically encompassed the Cleburne Cemetery, named this because Cleburne's Division fought on this ground. The cemetery is interesting in that it is laid out in the shape of the battleflag. My pictures don't quite give it justice but the walkways serve as the blue cross and the red field sections are now dotted with tombstones.

Since it is in the city there are no sweeping vistas to share. The cemetery is located right next to a busy road that is on the historic roadbed from 1864. It was a main road then and it still is. It has way too much traffic for such a small road and I'm sure they will widen it someday. It will further degrade the quality of the visit but at this point there is not much that can be done to fix things.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Jefferson Davis' Capture

On one trip we were headed from Andersonville to Macon and found ourselves with some extra time, so we detoured over to Irwinville, GA, site of the capture of Jefferson Davis.

After the fall of Richmond Jefferson Davis and various cabinet members and generals planned to shift the seat of the war to the West. They had no idea where they would make their stand but in hindsight it appears their best chance would have been in Texas. Along the way some members of the party conceded that the war was over but Davis continued on with his family, a few officers and Postmaster General John Reagan of Texas (who probably stuck with Davis since Davis was headed towards his home).

Assorted Union units were searching for Davis and on the morning of May 10, 1865 they caught up to him near Irwinville. The 4th Michigan Cavalry and 1st Wisconsin Cavalry actually skirmished with each other for a few minutes as they came upon the camp from opposite directions and did not know the other regiment was nearby. There was a reward to be had and there are some stories that the commander of the 4th Michigan had his men skirmish with the 1st Wisconsin so that the rest of his regiment could make the capture, and win the $100,000 reward.

There is also quite a few stories about the gold Davis took with him when Richmond fell. Some have said that there was still quite a bit of gold with Davis near Irwinville and that those two regiments made out quite well. The park ranger said that people come there every year to try to find the gold. There probably was gold with Davis though not in large amounts. I've heard that most of the gold was distributed to a large group of recently paroled soldiers the Davis party came upon. I forgot the name of the city but believe it was near Washington, GA, or across the border in South Carolina. In any respect by the time Davis reached Irwinville there was little gold remaining. If some Union soldiers got lucky and received an early retirement gift is unknown but does not seem too unlikely.

The park has one monument, a state historical sign and a museum. The museum is pretty neat. I think the highlight of the museum was chatting with the park ranger. We were there on a slow day and he was more than willing to chat with us. He was a treasure trove of information and I hope if I'm ever back there I will find him again and have another wonderful chat. He had said that he was from Resaca so if/when Georgia makes that a staffed state park he will probably try to be transferred there.

Inside the museum was the 50th Georgia's flag. After promising not to use my flash the ranger let me take a picture of it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Britton Lane

Britton Lane battlefield is located near Denmark, TN, which is southwest of Jackson. I visited it alone in 2004 and had just about given up on finding it when I crested a low ridge and saw cannon and a state historical marker. Interpretation is just a small self guided walking tour. There are a few signs and monuments (actually for its size it has a pretty good amount of markers and monuments). There was no gift shop, no staff, nothing to let anyone know you'd been there. I'd love to take people there (my only visit was that 2004 trip) just so they could see how remote and difficult it is to find.

The battle is a pretty minor affair. On September 1, 1862 a Confederate cavalry force attacked a mixed Federal unit (all three branches represented). The goal was to prevent Grant (in the Corinth area) from sending men to Buell in Kentucky. After a four hour fight the Union withdrew. The marker says that the Confederates withdrew but to me it seems that the Union got the worst of the situation. The main Union force for much of the battle was the 20th Illinois which was routed near the end of the fight, but that is when the 30th Illinois appeared on the scene and prevented a rout. At that point both sides let the battle end. The Confederates could have pursued the Union towards Jackson but instead they broke off the fight.

Colonel Frank Armstrong, commanding the Confederate force, probably feared that the Union was wise to the raid and would soon have too many different units converging on them. The raid had accomplished as much as it could and now was the time to get back to their lines. As always casualties are tough to pin down. Armstrong (who had been a Union officer at First Bull Run) said that he captured 213 Federals and killed or wounded 75 more. His loss was roughly 100 total. Colonel Elias S. Dennis, commanding the Union force, put his losses as 8 killed, roughly 50 wounded and approximately 50 captured. Realistically its 100 casualties per side.

On the Big Black Creek Historical Association page you can see the battlefield marked by a red arrow. Unfortunately they do not have any other information about the battle on their site. There is a Britton Lane Battlefield Association website that has a bit of info and a map of the battlefield.

There are a number of these signs. I remember one being so weathered that no text was readable.

A monument to the 7th Tennessee Cavalry CSA.
And the detail of the monument.

One house stands on the battlefield but I do not remember any interpretation there. And in the bit I can find online about the battle I do not see any info about it.