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 Posted: Fri Aug 29th, 2008 03:45 am
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Wrap10
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Actually Grant does praise Prentiss in his report, along with each of his other division commanders. After singling out Sherman, he goes on to say, "In making this mention of a gallant officer no disparagement is intended to the other division commanders," each of whom he then goes on to name, including Prentiss, and, he adds, "all of whom maintained their places with credit to themselves and the cause." He then mentions that Prentiss was taken prisoner on the first day of the battle.

  He also mentions Prentiss in his memoirs, where his criticism is implied and rather mild. He simply states that Prentiss failed to fall back with the rest of the army "during one of the backward moves" on the 6th, thus leaving his flanks exposed and resulting in his capture. But shortly after that he states that in his memory of his last meeting with Prentiss, at about 4:30 as Grant recalled, "his division was standing up firmly and the General was as cool as if expecting victory." He then goes on to refute the idea that Prentiss and his command were surprised and captured in their tents.

But there's no question to me that Grant viewed as a mistake Prentiss decision to remain where he was after the rest of the army had fallen back. Assuming he actually did tell Prentiss to maintain his position at all hazards - and we really only have Prentiss' account as a source for that quote - I don't think he meant "hold on until you're surrounded." I'm also certain that if he gave such an order to Prentiss, he gave it to other of his division commanders as well. W.H.L. Wallace quite possibly, as well as Hurlbut, and perhaps McArthur and Stuart as well. If any part of that line is breached, it flanks the entire line. And that's exactly what finally happened. Prentiss' position was vital, but no more so than the other units on either side of his position.

But the reason he stayed put as long as he did wasn't from any desire to sacrifice himself or his command for the rest of the army. He simply did not realize how serious his situation was until it was too late. He actually did give an order to retreat once he realized his predicament, but again, it came too late for many of his men.

The irony is that his stubborn stand caused problems for the Confederates, and further delayed their advance. But it was inadvertent on his part. He didn't mean to hold on until he was surrounded. That was the result of a misjudgment on his part.

Plus, the entire story of the first day's battle at Shiloh is one of repeated delays on the part of the Confederate army. The Rebel advance was repeatedly stalled for various reasons, and this quite often took place outside of the Hornet’s Nest line. The main focus of the battle didn't shift to the Hornet's Nest until very late in the day, after the units on both sides of Prentiss and W.H.L. Wallace had pulled back. But that’s really the main point here - it was the total action on the 6th that decided the battle’s outcome, and not just the action that took place along a certain portion of one defensive line.

I’m certain that Grant understood this, and that's one reason why he would not have focused any great amount of attention on Prentiss. His understanding of the battle, immediately after it took place, was different, more all-encompassing, and probably more accurate, than the myth that later grew up around the fighting in the Hornet's Nest. A name that I rather doubt Grant ever heard until near the end of his life, if he ever heard it at all.

But in my opinion, Prentiss was not central to Grant’s narrative because to Grant, what Prentiss did was simply one part of a larger event. In a sense, in fact, I think the history of the battle may be starting to move back toward that view. The image of Prentiss as the hero of the battle emerged later, in part because of Prentiss himself. That wasn't the only reason, but it was one reason.

Perry

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