By ECW Correspondent Shannon West
Every spring, groups of Boy Scouts would wander the long, dirt-covered trails of Shiloh National Battlefield. Each step they took traced back to times of war where, in the spring of 1862, divisions marched with their bayonets high in the air toward a meeting with death. Now, there are only wide, open fields of green grass and a long line of cannons. As the scouts drove by one of the largest congregations of artillery in the United States, a young Gregory Mertz asked his youth leader if they were going to go past the long row of cannons.
The youth leader replied begrudgingly, “It’s called Ruggles’ battery.”
Once he got home, he searched through his home for encyclopedias, looking up all the generals he could find. He made his own library, which included a collection the Historical Handbook series. He nurtured his passion for years, finally majoring in park administration at the University of Missouri. While a history major seemed like the most common and logical choice, he chose park administration for its more non-traditional route.
“The most important class I took was interpretation, the art of explaining a story to visitors in a way they can relate to,” said Mertz. “In many respects, interpretation is translating a language, and when you are translating a language, you’re taking these complex stories like a battle and explaining it to people in a way they can understand it.”
Mertz, currently supervisory historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Military Park in Virginia, still retains his love for the Tennessee battlefield. He focuses on the battle of Shiloh in an essay published in Turning Points of the American Civil War, the first volume in the new “Engaging the Civil War” Series. He will present his topic at this year’s Fifth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium.
Mertz’s essay looks at the death of General Albert Sydney Johnston, one of the highest-ranking commanders of the Confederacy. According to Mertz, on the eve of battle, Confederate troops had arrived at the battlefield slowly. Many generals, including Johnston’s second in command, General P.G.T. Beauregard, advised Johnson to turn around and cancel the attack. However, Johnston refused to retreat.
“So, compared with other army commanders thus far in the war and compared with several of his generals at Shiloh, Johnston demonstrated superior initiative—an important military attribute forcing the enemy to react to the army with initiative rather than follow the preferred course of action the enemy might prefer,” said Mertz.
As the men lined up to fight, Johnston announced that his place would be on the battle front, assigning Beauregard to stay in the rear and direct troops forward to the action. Johnson ordered his men to charge and use their bayonets to push the Union back across the other ends of a field. Johnson tapped the tips of the bayonets, rousing the men before they went off.
“Johnston repeatedly showed that he skilled at dealing with the former community leader who were suddenly officers in his army,” said Mertz. “Several times he spoke to and otherwise motivated and rallied men who had been roughly handled in battle, and led them into successful attacks.”
Johnston reeled in his saddle and fainted after sending one of his aides to redirect a portion of his army to knock out some Union cannon, according to Mertz. Aides took Johnston to a nearby ravine and searched for a wound. They eventually found that a bullet had struck Johnston on the back of his right leg, just above his tall boot. The wound had damaged Johnston’s sciatic nerve and he had lost sensitivity to heat, cold and pain in that leg. Johnston had already lost too much blood by time anyone became aware of the injury.
At about 2:30 pm Johnston was dead and command of the army passed to Beauregard.
“What would Johnston have done had he lived? We cannot know,” said Mertz. “Would Johnston have been successful in carrying out whatever he would have done? Though Johnston had been quite successful throughout the first day of the battle, the same condition of the Confederate troops, harassing Union gunboat fire and limited daylight that affected Beauregard’s decision to call an end to the first day’s battle, would have been faced by Johnston as well.”
Tickets are still available for the Fifth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium at Stevenson Ridge, Aug. 3-5, 2018. For more information, including the full line-up of speakers, click here. To order tickets ($155 each), click here.