Who’s to blame for the Hornets’ Nest surrender at Shiloh? 8 comments

The valiant stand in the Hornets’ Nest position at Shiloh by Union generals William H.L. Wallace and Benjamin M. Prentiss helped to save the rest of the Union army from ignominious defeat on April 6, 1862. Instead of honoring their achievement, General Ulysses S. Grant offered two implausible assertions in his Personal Memoirs. First, he unjustly cast blame on one of his subordinates for the surrender: “In one of the backward moves, on the 6th, the division commanded by General Prentiss did not fall back with the others. This left his flanks exposed and enabled the enemy to capture him with about 2,200 of his officers and men” (although most of those captured actually came from Wallace’s Second Division, and Grant ignored how Wallace would have been as guilty as Prentiss). Second, Grant improbably noted, “my recollection is that the last time I was with [Prentiss] was about half-past four, when his division was standing up firmly.”

At that time, however, with the Confederate envelopment of the Hornets’ Nest on both flanks nearly complete and the Union supporting divisions heading toward the rear, the grave state of affairs should have been obvious, and Grant would have been even more culpable—if he actually had been present—for not ordering a hasty retreat. In all probability, he was not there at that time. Prentiss, in a speech that the General’s Memoirs vouched for as a “correct report,” remarked that “Gen. Grant knows that I communicated to him at 4 o’clock at the landing, and tried to get re-inforcements, and received orders to hold on. I held.” Responsibility for Prentiss’ maintaining his place at all hazards, which resulted in his capitulation, belonged entirely with General Grant. And Grant’s phraseology, “one of the backward moves,” further implied that coordinated withdrawals took place throughout the day. Instead, the repeated retreats by Stuart, McArthur, Hurlbut, McClernand, and Sherman happened unsystematically and without any coordination by Grant. That commander, however, refused to acknowledge his culpability for the mass surrender of Prentiss’ and Wallace’s men.

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8 thoughts on “Who’s to blame for the Hornets’ Nest surrender at Shiloh?

  • Phil Leigh

    Thanks for sharing.

    Do you know if the narrative of the Shiloh Battlefield Park Rangers is consistent with yours? Is your book available at the Shiloh Battlefield book store or the one at Corinth?

  • Mike Maxwell

    The Hornet’s Nest/Sunken Road Line developed and evolved from where the last line of withdrawal of the Union left (Prentiss) met the initial surge of reinforcements thrown forward (two brigades under Hurlbut.) Tuttle brought WHL Wallace’s infantry forward and took position to the right of Prentiss, as WHL Wallace placed his division’s artillery.

    By the time General Grant arrived, the Hurlbut/Prentiss/Wallace defensive line was well established, and only required reinforcements (23rd Missouri sent to Prentiss from the landing), ammunition, and Hope to sustain it. Once Grant directed Prentiss to ‘hold the position at all hazards,’ it was the hoped-for arrival of Lew Wallace that sustained the defenders. If Lew Wallace had arrived before 3pm there would have been sufficient reinforcements to sustain the position, and maintain connection with the Landing until nightfall.

    • Joseph Rose Post author

      I would agree with everything you wrote, with the possible exception of Lew Wallace being able to sustain the Hornets’ Nest defenders in time. Coming in where he did, Wallace would have been in a perfect position to support McClernand, and thus prevent the need for a withdrawal on the right side of the Hornets’ Nest position. But maybe that wouldn’t have been in time to stop Hurlbut’s 4 o’clock withdrawal on the left. And if the Confederates could outflank the Nest on that end, Prentiss still might have had to retreat.

      Was the information about Prentiss being told to hold on by Grant around 4:00 pm something you’ve heard about before? Does it change the way you look at the first day’s fight? I think that it puts the final nail in the coffin for Grant’s story in the Memoirs about visiting Prentiss around 4:30 (although that seemed pretty improbable already).

      • Mike Maxwell

        My thinking comes down to four separate messages, delivered by Baxter, Bennett, Rowley, Rawlins-with-McPherson; illustrating how desperate was US Grant to get Lew Wallace onto the battlefield. I have encountered comments made by participants at the Hornet’s Nest, who indicate belief that Lew Wallace was coming ‘for them.’ And I believe that Grant relied on this ‘Plan A’ until it was overtaken by events. He had no ‘Plan B’ for the Hornet’s Nest.

        As for Grant’s first message to Lew Wallace, delivered by Baxter, I have an expectation that it mentioned: ‘Come at once to the right of Smith’s Division; and leave only sufficient force to guard the stores at Crump’s Landing; come at right angles and form columns at right angles to the river, in rear of the camps, and parallel; and await further orders.’ No mention of ‘Pittsburg Landing’ and no mention of the ‘River Road’ (Grant says in his Memoirs that he never saw a need to specify the road to be taken, and I believe that recollection of Grant’s.) The pity is that Grant sent a second, third and fourth message, and interrupted Lew Wallace’s progress along the Shunpike.

      • Mike Maxwell

        In response to your query IRT Prentiss being told to ‘Maintain that position at all Hazards.’ In Prentiss’ Report on Shiloh, submitted in November 1862 after his release from six-and one-half months in captivity, he indicates that ‘Grant visited my position after 10am (after I’d repulsed an attempt by the enemy to assail my position), and he expressed satisfaction with the way I’d arrayed my force. It was then that I received my Final Orders: ‘Maintain that position at all Hazards.’ Prentiss does not indicate that he saw Grant any more that day (although Prentiss apparently sent a messenger (Lieutenant Edwin Moore), requesting reinforcements in the late afternoon. Prentiss also indicates that he had a conversation with WHL Wallace in the early afternoon, during which they BOTH agreed to hold their positions ‘at all Hazards.’

        • Joseph Rose Post author

          Mike, my conclusion is based on Prentiss, in a speech that the General’s Memoirs vouched for as a “correct report,” who remarked that “Gen. Grant knows that I communicated to him at 4 o’clock at the landing, and tried to get re-inforcements, and received orders to hold on. I held.”

          I think that this is what Prentiss meant by “final orders.” He got the order to hold the first time from Grant personally around 10:00 a.m.. He then received the same order six hours later from Grant (only this time, unfortunately, it was no longer appropriate, unless Grant was willing to sacrifice Prentiss to save the greater part of his army).

          Strangely, although this speech is mentioned in Grant’s Memoirs, it doesn’t seem to be widely known, even by the experts of the battle.

  • Joseph Rose Post author


    Concerning Edwin Moore, Prentiss’ aide-de-camp, it was reported that, in the Hornets’ Nest, Prentiss sent him to tell Andrew Hickenlooper to retire his battery, while he still had sufficient horses to pull the remaining three guns.

    Prentiss also referred to Edwin Moore in his official report: “Perceiving that I was about to be surrounded, and having dispatched my aide, Lieutenant Edwin Moore, for re-enforcements, I determined to assail the enemy, which had passed between me and the river, charging upon him with my entire force.” This helps to confirm Prentiss’ speech about Shiloh, vouched for by Grant, in which he recalled sending such a request: “Gen. Grant knows that I communicated to him at 4 o’clock at the landing, and tried to get re-inforcements, and received orders to hold on. I held.”

    What do you think about this episode?

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