ECW is pleased to welcome back our friend, Dr. Curt Fields. Curt is nationally known for his acclaimed portrayal of Ulysses S. Grant. This week, he reflects on some of the highlights of his career thus far. (part three of seven)
Part Three: Shiloh
The Shiloh 150th was an eye-opener because of the size of the 150th crowd and the hundreds of re-enactors in attendance. It was my second experience in looking at the field as Grant would have looked at it. I had been to Shiloh many times before the sesquicentennial event but had never experienced the need to see it as HE did—or, depending upon whom you read, how he did not. This time I experienced that need.
I walked to the river, along the last line of defense, around the Hornet’s nest, and across that field where so many Confederate charges were made on April 6. For the first time, it sank in that Grant’s army nearly had its boots in the Tennessee River at that last line and how close they came to defeat.
Walking the few hundred steps across Duncan field from Ruggles’ battery to the sunken road in front of the tree line of the Hornet’s Nest made me realize the savagery that happened on that field because the distance is short—too short for fuzes to extend beyond the shell. Oh, yes, I had seen it before, but not in the context of Grant hoping that Prentiss would hold until he was able to put that last line of artillery in place before dark. I had not embraced or internalized the terror of the questions “What if this doesn’t work? What if they don’t hold?” Walking that ground after I had put on the uniform and tried to envision the responsibility Grant felt gave it a different appearance and feel.
A shiver or two went through me on occasion during that weekend of the sesquicentennial. The acceptance of the General Grant portrayal by the troops at Shiloh was heartwarming and touching.
My assessment of the man more sharply focused when trying to see Pittsburg Landing through his eyes. Walking that ground, I saw what he could have done to establish a better defense. Indeed, I saw what he could have done to establish ANY defense. It is painfully obvious that he was completely surprised that morning in April. Sadly, his troops paid a high price for his inexperience. However, the debacle proved to be the crucible in which he demonstrated his coolness and determination under fire. Shiloh was the refining moment when he clearly showed he could pull back from the brink of disaster through sheer presence on the field. He also learned from his mistakes. There was no repeat of that surprise for the rest of the War.
Shiloh was a consciousness-raising event for Grant in two significant areas:
1) He realized and accepted that the War was not going to be short but long and bloody and
2) He developed a healthy respect for the fighting fierceness of the confederate soldier.
Grant had developed, in the Mexican War, a respect for the volunteer soldier, and at Shiloh he added respect for the Confederate soldier. Both convictions served him well for the rest of the war.
Shiloh was a pivotal point for Grant as a commander and for me in how he should be presented.
In tomorrow’s segment, the Sesquicentennial continues as Curt visits Vicksburg for the 150th anniversary of the city’s surrender.
For more on Curt’s work, check out the ECW Podcast/YouTube video with Curt, or read about the “Fridays with Grant” series sponsored by the Civil War Roundtable Congress. And, of course, you can find Curt on the web on the web at generalgrantbyhimself.com.