Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Critical Decisions of Shiloh

I had posted here earlier that I recently gave a presentation to the Rocky Mountain Civil War Roundtable (of which I am the newsletter editor) on the critical decisions of the Shiloh campaign. After some minor prodding (I didn't need much) from the Shiloh discussion board (check them out at: I have decided to post it here in serial form. I probably will mix some other things into the mix in the coming weeks but there will be a lot of Shiloh stuff.

My presentation grew out of a presentation my friend Matt made to the RMCWRT on the critical decisions of the Gettysburg campaign. He encouraged me to start a similar project on Shiloh and read it a couple of times along the way to help fine tune it. When determining if a decision was a critical decision effecting the course of the campaign and battle I took into account the following two questions:
1) What were other possible decisions to be made at that moment?
2) What would have been likely course of action if this decision had not been made?

There were hundreds of decisions made in early April 1862, not all of them were critical to the course of the campaign and battle. I have tried to limit critical decisions to those actions that changed the course of the battle as it was at that moment. Or if the decision kept the battle from making a change that seemed certain. Or a decision that would have greatly changed the battle but was not made. In other words if the decision had or hadn't been made the story of Shiloh would be very different.

There are decisions that are important but that didn't have a huge impact on the way the battle was fought. For instance the Union gunboats may have played a key part in repulsing the final Confederate attack but if Grant had decided to deploy them differently it would not have effected the battle too differently. Another example is that A.S. Johnston exposed himself to rifle fire once too often, but if he had decided to stay in the rear the battle would have unfolded probably much the same, except for his own life of course.

For many decisions there are no hard answers that this was or was not critical. There are decisions that my opinion of has changed several times and will probably change again. And when I write about those decisions I will also try to explain how my thinking has changed.

I've studied Shiloh extensively for several years and could never attempt to give a complete bibliography here. But a few of my favorites for this discussion are:
  • Shiloh: the Battle that Changed the Civil War by Larry Daniel
  • Shiloh: Bloody April by Wiley Sword
  • Struggle for the Heartland by Stephen Engle
  • Shiloh: In Hell before Night by James Lee McDonough
  • Seeing the Elephant: Raw Recruits at Shiloh by Joseph Allan frank & George A. Reaves

I haven't read Tim Smith and Gary Joiner's edited version of Edward Cunningham's dissertation, Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862. But I have read Cunningham's original and it was good, a little hard to read because my copy is a xerox of the copy I got from the library. I'm hoping to get my copy of Smith and Joiner this week.

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