|View single post by Wrap10|
|Posted: Sat Mar 24th, 2012 12:16 am||
A little late to the party here, but Shiloh is of special interest to me so I thought I'd drop in for a minute. On the significance of the Hornet's Nest, it's obviously been the focal point of the battle's history for literally decades, but in recent years its importance has been called into question by some historians. Which I think that Battlefield Detective's program hit upon. I've seen the show and even have that episode on CD here somewhere, but for some reason I'm drawing a blank on most of it, except that it did call the importance of the Hornet's Nest into question.
Here's my own take on it. I think we have to look at the Hornet's Nest within the context of the entire battle, and see how it fits. When you do it that way, I think it starts to become clear that other parts of the battle were at least as important, if not more so, to the final outcome than was the fighting in the Hornet's Nest.
That's not to denigrate the men who fought there, or suggest that what took place in the Hornet's Nest was of no importance. It's simply to point out that there was in fact significant fighting outside that area that had an enormous impact on how things turned out.
Broadly speaking, after the initial attack finally overran Prentiss's camps, Johnston, apparently (and mistakenly) believing that he had turned Grant's left flank, issued orders that effectively caused the Confederate attack to split into two parts. As a result, most of the battle's heavy fighting took place on either side of the Hornet's Nest until late in the afternoon.
Maybe the best way to see this is to have a motion map of the first day's battle. Unfortunately we don't really have such a thing to the best of my knowledge, but we have something online that's reasonably close.
Below is a link to a map from a web site called CivilWarLandscapes.org. It's a series of maps that more or less step you through the battle. I've linked in the map labeled "4:30 a.m. - Confederate Troops Approach." When you scroll all the way to the bottom of that map, you'll see a link for all of the first day maps. From there, you'll be able to step your way through the battle by clicking on each one. Here's the first link...
If you carefully study these maps, you can see how the bulk of the southern army ended up on either side of the Hornet's Nest until late in the day. For most of that time, the attacks on the center (Hornet's Nest area) were a series of isolated, unsupported infantry assaults that had little hope of success.
Not saying the fighting that resulted there wasn't incredibly vicious, because it darn well was. But, the truly heavy assaults were taking place on the flanks. Not until those flanks finally collapsed did the focus shift to the center.
Had either flank fallen apart sooner, the center could not have held, and Grant's army would probably have been overrun. Had the center been breached while those flanks were intact, my semi-educated guess is that the Union troops on either side of the breach could have closed it. There simply was not enough hitting power for the southerners in the center relative to what they faced. The Union position along that stretch was stronger than what the Confederates there could throw at it.
Only after the Union flanks pulled back did Prentiss and Wallace's position finally become the focal point. And in truth, Prentiss probably should have pulled back sooner than he finally tried to do. (Wallace was pulling out when he was fatally shot.) Prentiss would later claim that he and Wallace tried to hold on with the idea of saving the rest of the army. I don't buy that. I think he held on that long because he didn't realize how serious it was until far too late. But by holding out as long as he did, he inadvertently caused the southern army to focus all of their attention on his dwindling position.
Did this buy enough time to save the rest of the army? That's open to question. My own answer is, "perhaps." But even if so, no more than did the fighting on the flanks earlier in the day. Everything that played into causing a delay in the Confederate advance worked in the Union army's favor. They spent the day trading space for time, and it paid off. Barely, and at an incredible cost on both sides. But it worked.