Thinking Big on a Battlefield

Pierre G.T. Beauregard

After the bloody fighting ended around Pittsburg Landing on April 6, 1862, Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, recently appointed commander of the Army of the Mississippi following Albert Sidney Johnston’s death earlier that day, took stock of his army’s hard fought successes throughout that deadly Sunday. He telegraphed to Richmond that his army “gained a complete victory, driving the enemy from every position.”

As Beauregard looked at the battlefield proper, he had reasons to be optimistic about further success the next day. With one exception, the Confederates did drive the Federals from “every position.” Additionally, Beauregard believed that the Confederate plan to defeat the two Union armies in Tennessee–Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee and Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio–before they united also worked brilliantly. On the night of April 6, a dispatch addressed to Johnston reached Beauregard’s headquarters in the field. Thomas Jordan, a member of Beauregard’s staff, paraphrased its contents years later. “Scouts employed in observing General Buell’s movements reported him to be marching not toward a junction with Grant, but in the direction of Decatur, North Alabama,” Jordan wrote. Beauregard then dictated his “complete victory” note to Richmond with this intelligence tidbit in hand.

Confederate disorganization and unpreparedness on the morning of April 7 when Grant’s and Buell’s armies struck back was evident. Armed with hindsight, it is easy to lay this lack of preparation at Beauregard’s feet. Actually, even without hindsight, that can be done easily. However, the purpose of this post is not to get into all of that (check out pages 247-250 in Timothy Smith’s Shiloh: Conquer or Perish if you want more information). Instead, this vignette is illustrative of a larger point about the amount of information Civil War commanders had to digest and handle when it came to making critical decisions in a short amount of time, and often under a lot of stress and with the fog of war clouding their judgement.

As visitors to Civil War battlefields today, it is easy for us, myself included, to get hemmed in by a park’s boundaries and forget that marching armies, intelligence, and even battle action occurred beyond land owned by any public entities such as federal or state organizations. For army commanders, who were obviously humans and thus liable to misinterpretation of facts, battle fatigue, disagreements, and the fog of war, the sphere of influence that affected their decision-making processes extended well beyond the battlefield proper, as the case cited above demonstrates.

Beauregard was present on the Shiloh battlefield all day on April 6. His overconfidence and unpreparedness for action the next day though stemmed partially from information that originated near Athens, Tennessee, roughly 280 miles away from Pittsburg Landing! This is not a defense of Beauregard. Instead, it serves as an important reminder of the large and wide-ranging events that influenced army commanders on a relatively small battlefield in the midst of a larger theater of operations. Being a successful commander was about much more than just ordering troops where to go on a battlefield.

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9 Responses to Thinking Big on a Battlefield

  1. Mike Hardy says:

    Because today is the anniversary of the battle’s first day, I watched the American Battlefield’s battle in 4 minutes and the 18 minute animated battle map. These are very helpful to refresh my recollection of the two days of battle and to recall my visit to Shiloh several years ago. The battlefield is close to pristine.

  2. Sean Michael Chick says:

    Two things to add. One reason the Confederates attacked when they did is because Forrest’s scouts reported that Buell was headed to Savannah. At the same time the 1st Louisiana Cavalry, which was keeping tabs on Buell, rode for Shiloh, where they were present although not seriously engaged. As such, intelligence on Buell after April 2 was spotty. The intelligence Beauregard got from Helm on April 6 was his most recent and it was convenient for what he wanted to believe.

    Beauregard had to weight these considerations, plus the fact that he commanded an exhausted army of starving men; most regiments went into April 6 on empty stomachs. Furthermore, the gunboats did cause confusion to the Confederates, particularly Polk’s men after Prentiss surrendered. Camping closer to the river was seen as dangerous with good reason.

    Like you write, so many things to consider. In addition, these generals were learning their trade. Grant, and particularly Sherman and Prentiss, ignored evidence of Confederates massing in their front. Beauregard. himself in bad health, believed what he wanted to believe on the night of April 6. Each of these men had their reasons, but clearly Shiloh was a cruel lesson for both sides in the value of preparedness and proper intelligence.

    • There is one point I would like to add about Grant. I would argue Grant was not still “learning his trade.” Rather, Grant was perfecting it. I recommend William Feis’s Grant’s Secret Service. Grant put together one of the most effective intelligence systems throughout the entire war. It became deadly as the war progressed, but even when he had the wrong intelligence he could still read the enemy’s movements or understood the importance of retaking the initiative (Shiloh is an example of this action).

      Grant made many mistakes and the missed information at Shiloh as you mention proves this point. However, Sherman stated that the difference in war is 25%. Kevin does a wonderful job of explaining that generals are human and whether they possess the coup d’oeil or not, they will make mistakes. Even Napoleon missed opportunities and key intelligence during the Napoleonic Wars. What I find impressive about grant’s actions at Shiloh is that despite his inability to see the massing of Confederate troops, he utilized the terrain to his advantage in order to retake the initiative after April 6.

      • Henry Fleming says:

        Thanks for that A+ comment

      • Sean Michael Chick says:

        I love the reference to “coup d’oeil” in your reply.

        Nothing in my Shiloh research shows that Grant “utilized the terrain to his advantage.” Grant was best at the big picture, but not tactical details like using terrain. There is little in his orders, report, or letters to suggest otherwise. And as to retaking the initiative, that was mostly a matter of Don Carlos Buell bringing 15,000 men to the battlefield. Most came by a force march on empty stomachs, making it one hell of a baptism of fire.

        At Shiloh Grant learned some hard lessons. He never admitted to learning; his pride would not allow it. But one can see in his post Shiloh operations that he learned and become one of the war’s best commanders. But Shiloh was a harsh school.

      • Sean Michael Chick says:

        I love the reference to “coup d’oeil” in your reply.

        Nothing in my Shiloh research shows that Grant “utilized the terrain to his advantage.” Grant was best at the big picture, but not tactical details like using terrain. There is little in his orders, report, or letters to suggest otherwise. And as to retaking the initiative, that was mostly a matter of Don Carlos Buell bringing 15,000 men to the battlefield. Most came by a force march on empty stomachs, making it one hell of a baptism of fire.

        At Shiloh Grant learned some hard lessons. He never admitted to learning; his pride would not allow it. But one can see in his post Shiloh operations that he learned and became one of the war’s best commanders. But Shiloh was a harsh school.

      • John Foskett says:

        Sean: Those are fair points but I think you may overstate Buell’s role to some extent. Tim Smith in his excellent book on Shiloh makes a strong case that the results on April 7 were primarily due to a couple of turning movements by Lew Wallace. There’s no question that Grant needed the reinforcements but his own troops played a major role.

  3. Henry Fleming says:

    Sorry for off on a tangent, but I love the phrase, “thicker than fleas on a dog.” That’s what the scout reported to Sherman just before the battle began in earnest, “There’s rebs out there thicker than fleas on a dog”, to which Sherman replied he didn’t believe it.

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