Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Friday, March 16, 2012

Shiloh's Confederate Monument

This is the latest post in my ongoing series on my recent visit to Shiloh. Over the next few weeks leading up to the battle's 150th anniversary, I will be posting on topics such as William Tecumseh Sherman at the battle, the death of Albert Sydney Johnston, the action in the Hornet's Nest and its relevance for the battle, Union gunboats, as well as other themes. I should note that in just a few weeks I will be resuming my work at Antietam, as another busy season is upon us. However, before I go back, I will again be speaking at the Mentor Public Library as a part of the James A. Garfield site's featured series of speakers on the Major Battles of the Civil War. I spoke a few weeks back in early February about Forts Henry and Donelson for the same series. The program is free, and all are invited. It will take place at noon on April 11 at the Mentor Public Library. Reservations are preferred (to get a good estimate of the crowd, and again, it is free event), and can be made by contacting the library via their website or by calling them at (440) 255-8811.

One of my favorite parts of visiting Civil War battlefields is observing the unique monuments left by veterans of battles, as well as others who simply want to commemorate the sacrifice and service of Civil War soldiers. I find the imagery and symbolism of monuments to be fascinating because it reveals the wildly different meanings that the Civil War had for soldiers of both sides. Union monuments recognize sacrifice that led to triumph and victory, yet Confederate monuments tend to be sullen, marking the service of Confederate soldiers whose cause died along with them. For those who read my post from yesterday about Confederate burial trenches at Shiloh, this monument post follows a similiar theme. While Shiloh has over 150 monuments and markers, one that stood out for me in particular was the Confederate Monument, located at Stop 2 on the park's driving tour map.

The first thing I noticed about this monument was the significance of its placement on the battlefield. Placed near the site of the Federal surrender in the Hornet's Nest on the afternoon of April 6 (more to come on that topic), one might say this monument signifies a moment of high tide for the Confederate Army of the Mississippi at Shiloh. Over 2,000 Federal soldiers were surrounded and captured in the Hornet's Nest, including General Benjamin Prentiss. Thus, with its location, the Confederate Monument would seem to be a nod to the school of thought on Shiloh which holds the Hornet's Nest to be the key to the battle. Such a haul was a tremendous morale boost for Confederates, and deprived Grant of key forces as he was forming his last ditch defensive lines near Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee. Yet, as the park's film also notes (a film running continuously since April of 1956), Federal resistance at the Hornet's Nest slowed Confederate advances for a period of several hours. While Union forces on the right and left flanks fell back toward the Tennessee River, Confederates were delayed in advancing further due to various pieces of the divisions of W.H.L. Wallace, who was mortally wounded, and Benjamin Prentiss, who was captured. According to this school of thought, the Hornet's Nest was important for Union victory because it allowed Grant time to gather his men and form a defensive line, significantly slowing Confederate attacks for a several hour period.

Yet, while the monument's location near the Hornet's Nest suggests that the action there was a turning point in the battle, the imagery of the monument conforms with the early Lost Cause notion that it was the untimely death of General Albert Sydney Johnston that saw a change in the tide of battle. Johnston was the number two ranking general in the entire Confederacy, and to this day he remains the highest ranking American officer killed in action in American history (with the obvious asterisk of him fighting for the Confederacy). A closer view of the monument reveals that this marker, erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the 1930s, is steeped in numerous layers of imagery involving Johnston and the Confederate fate at Shiloh.

The memorial's centerpiece depicts three figures: in the middle is the South, on her right is Death, and on her left is Night. If one looks closely, the center figure representing the South can be seen handing off the wreath of victory to Death on her right. The symbolism here is a part of Lost Cause mythology regarding Shiloh. Essentially, it was Death, specifically the death of Albert Sydney Johnston, which took away the wreath of victory on April 6 at Shiloh. Likewise, that evening, when Night set in, the new Confederate commander, P.G.T. Beauregard, ordered the attacks to stop and withdrew his lines to the Union camps from earlier that day. The cessation of Confederate attacks, combined with the arrival of Don Carlos Buell's Federal Army of the Ohio that evening, made the night of April 6 an equal contributor to the Confederate loss in the eyes of the South. Put it all together and this is what you get: the death of Albert Sydney Johnston led to a lull on the field and a leadership vacuum, which P.G.T. Beauregard could not properly fill. Had Johnston lived, he would have continued the attacks, preventing the night from staving off Confederate victory. Thus, Death and Night together stole victory from the South in a scenario revolving around Johnston.

Located just below the three figures pictured above is a profile of Albert Sydney Johnston, giving him a central place in the memorial. Not only does the figure of death and Johnston's profile focus the monument around the loss of the Confederate commander, but the flanking sides of the monument are highly symbolic of Johnston as well. 

 On the left side of the monument, stone carvings of faces marching confidently into battle are depicted. There are eleven faces present; one face for each Confederate state. To the far left, one can see two Confederate soldiers, an infantryman holds a Confederate flag in defiance of the Federal government, and he is supported by an artilleryman. Both infantry and artillery played prominent roles at Shiloh.

On the other side of Johnston, representing what occurred after his death, the same faces retreat with their heads down, although now they are fewer in number. They are joined by a frustrated cavalryman, as cavalry was not much used at Shiloh. Behind the cavalryman is a Confederate officer, representing the blame some felt the Confederate officers of the Army of the Mississippi deserved for the loss at Shiloh. While Johnston is heralded in death as a heroic figure, generations of Lost Cause veterans and historians blamed P.G.T. Beauregard in part for the loss. Had Johnston lived and the Confederates still lost at Shiloh, which was highly likely given the arrival of Federal reinforcements, Grant's strong defensive positions near the river, confusing and difficult terrain, and the chaos and disorganization of the Confederate attack by that point in the day, the now martyred Confederate general would surely be remembered differently.

 Here, the three central figures can be seen, flanked by the Confederates marching to and from battle.

In 1913, the United Daughter's of the Confederacy held a design competition to determine the nature and style of the monument they would place at Shiloh (the process had begun in 1905). The competition  winner was Frederick C. Hibbard. After beginning construction in 1916, the monument was dedicated on May 17, 1917. Inside the cornerstone of the monument, the UDC placed state flags from each Confederate state, Confederate money, a replica of the Confederacy's official seal, as well as a lock of Albert Sydney Johnston's hair.

I find this monument to be fascinating for so many reasons, but the biggest one is how much it has to say about Confederate interpretations of Shiloh. As a historian, part of my job is to understand not only what happened in the past, but to understand how others have interpreted history as well. Three main interpretations for the Battle of Shiloh can be found in this monument: (1) Confederates lost because of the death of Albert Sydney Johnston, which ultimately caused a lull on the field and led to great disorganization in the Confederate ranks, (2) Confederates lost because of decisions by Beuaregard and other officers, such as inefficient use of cavalry (ie. Nathan Bedford Forrest on the Confederate right), a poor strategy of attack, and the decision not to press the attacks of the 6th to their conclusion, but rather to call them off at dark, allowing Federal reinforcements to turn the tide of battle, and (3) that the Federal resistance at the Hornet's Nest delayed Confederate forces to the point of allowing Grant sufficient time to reinforce his lines and make a defensive line near Pittsburg Landing, all but dooming further Confederate assaults. In essence, this monuments placement and symbolism contain elements of all three explanations, which is why it is such a fascinating memorial.

The above interpretations of Shiloh are quite interesting in that they place the onus for losing the battle on the Confederates rather than giving Union forces the credit for victory. It is a common theme in Civil War history, such as the common argument that Meade didn't win at Gettysburg, but Lee lost there. For some reason, we seem to have a very difficult time giving Union officers the credit that they are due for victories that they won. In the much quoted words of George Pickett, when asked years later why the South lost at Gettysburg, "I always thought the Yankees had something to do with it."

This brings me to one of my common refrains: the Civil War proves definitively that the adage that the winners always write the history is far from true. The most famous generals of the war are all Confederates; the most famous battles of the war are commonly seen through Confederate perspectives; and our general interpretation of why the North won (that it simply had too many men and too much strength) plays right into traditional narratives of the Confederate Lost Cause mythology. It is these same interpretations of a Confederate loss, rather than a Union victory, which can be found so prominently at the Confederate Monument at Shiloh, one of the more profound and meaningful monuments on that battlefield, or any other from the American Civil War.

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