Welcome to back to our next installment of the ECW Symposium Spotlight. Our first speaker on Saturday morning at the 2018 Emerging Civil War Symposium is Gregory Mertz. Focusing on the events of the battle of Shiloh and its results as a turning point, Greg has shown a “spotlight” on his presentation in this week’s post. You can learn more about this critical turning point in war and our presenter by reading on.
Throughout most of the Civil War, the hopes of Confederate victory rested with the success or failure of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. With few exceptions, the armies of the Western Theater would only send bad news to Richmond. The first commander of a department controlling all or portions of seven states between the Appalachian Mountains and the Indian Territory indeed began the war with a disaster.
Under the oversight of General Albert Sidney Johnston, the army defending Fort Donelson, Tennessee, under General John B. Floyd surrendered. All but one member of the Tennessee delegation called upon President Jefferson Davis to remove Johnston from his post. Understanding that the people had lost confidence in him, Johnston proposed that he retain an administrative role as department commander—as he had done during the Fort Donelson fiasco—allowing General P.G.T. Beauregard to command the army for the next campaign. Despite possessing a substantial ego, Beauregard declined the offer to be the top soldier on the field of the next battle.
Though Johnston would rely upon Beauregard and General Braxton Bragg as he organized his army and planned the April 6-7, 1862 battle of Shiloh, Tennessee, both of those officers felt that delays in the march and in getting the troops into battle formation surely alerted Union forces of a sizable Confederate body of troops in their presence. Beauregard and Bragg counseled that the Confederate army should abandon plans for the battle. Johnston refused to entertain the proposal to turn around and retreat. In the face of resistance to his plan, he also decided that he would direct the battle from the front. Critics of Johnston contend that he abdicated command of the army; supporters assert that Johnston was in position to make sure that the key elements of his plan were carried forward, especially in the face of opposition to that plan by key subordinates.
During the course of the battle, Johnston made critical decisions and importantly demonstrated that he understood how to respond to and motivate the green officers and men making up his army facing the most horrific conditions they had ever experienced in their lives. Other high-ranking officers in Johnston’s army responded illogically when dealing with new volunteer officers still learning their duties.
Johnston fell in mid-afternoon of his first battle as army commander, and with such a short record, it is with uncertainty that we judge the impact of the loss of his life on the Confederacy. Yet it can be argued that Sidney Johnston displayed a greater degree of skill and achieved more success than any other Confederate on the battlefield of Shiloh, and his death is worthy of being included in the discussion of significant turning points of the Civil War.
Gregory A. Mertz has worked for the National Park Service for 35 years and is currently the supervisory historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. Raised in what is now Wildwood, Missouri, he grew up going to the Shiloh battlefield and hiking one of the six trails every spring with his Boy Scout troop. He has a degree in park administration from the University of Missouri and a master’s in public administration from Shippensburg University. He has written several articles for Blue & Gray Magazine, is the founding president of the Rappahannock Valley Civil War Round Table, and is a former vice president of the Brandy Station Foundation.
If you have not purchased your tickets for the Fifth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium, you can find them, and all information about the symposium, here.