Wednesday, April 9, 2008

ON THIS DAY: Wednesday, April 9, 1862

“Inexcusable Inefficiency?”

Today, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant sends his report of the battle of Pittsburg Landing (later to become known as the “battle of Shiloh”) to the St. Louis headquarters of his commander, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck. (Grant’s statement in his Memoirs that he never made “a full official report” of Shiloh is misleading.)

Grant’s account of the battle itself is technically correct, if brief. More than half his report is devoted instead to praising various members of his command, most of all for Brig. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, “a gallant and able officer [who] displayed great judgment and skill.” Grant does not say his army was surprised, nor how far back it was driven, nor how thousands of men—“skulkers”—deserted the battlefield for the shelter of the bluff by the river. And, though he gives Don Carlos Buell some words of praise, he does not--nor ever will--say Buell's Army of the Ohio made the critical difference on the second day of the battle.

When, in days to come, criticism of Grant rings out in northern newspapers, Sherman will stoutly defend him. To the end of their days, Grant and Sherman will deny they were surprised at Shiloh.

Others will be less generous. Within a few days, Capt. Emerson Opdycke, who served as acting major of the 41st Ohio during the second day’s battle, will write his wife a withering assessment of Grant.

“Such inexcusable inefficiency ought to cost Gen. Grant his office if not his life,” wrote Opdycke. “No good officer need ever be surprised to the extend he was if he but regard the plainest rules of war.”

Opydcke’s forthrightness emulates that of his immediate commander, Col. William B. Hazen, who was never one to mince words. In his post-war memoir, Hazen was tart about whether Grant was surprised at Shiloh.

“The question whether our men were surprised seems scarcely to merit attention,” Hazen will write. “The facts covering this point are well known, and all that remains is to define the military meaning of ‘a surprise’…If a hostile force secretly places itself where it can force a battle before this [preparation of defensive forces] can be done and the troops can in all respects make themselves ready, then a surprise is effected.”

Among the evidences of the surprise, according to Hazen, were that the enemy captured Union officers’ horses at the picket line and took their blankets, and that civilian sutlers’ supplies—which would have been long gone if a battle had been anticipated—remained to tempt the Confederates.

Grant will pay a price for having been surprised, but will recover and go on to great success. Journalist Whitelaw Reid, one of the general’s critics immediately after the battle, will later recall how Grant remained calm and optimistic after the first day’s battle, telling Sherman, “Lick ‘em tomorrow, though.” From Shiloh, Reid wrote, “I date, in my own case at least, the beginnings of any belief in Grant’s greatness.”

IT’S COMING SOONER THAN YOU THINK: April 12, 2011—less than 3½ years from now!—will be the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1861, April 12 was the day Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

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