Objective History, Part I

Most readers (all eight of you) should be familiar with the oft-told story of Grant and Sherman on the night after the first day of Shiloh.  On that night–so the story goes–General WIlliam Tecumseh Sherman found General Ulysses Simpson Grant on that bloody field during that long night.  Grant was dejected and long faced, smoking a cigar.  Sherman, carrying a lantern, is trying to be cheerful.  “Well, Grant,” says Sherman, “we’ve had the devil’s own day.”

“Yes,” Grant replies. “We’ll whip them tomorrow, though.”

What an exchange between two titans of American Civil War history.  Grant mumbling defiance in the midst of the greatest carnage of the war–indeed, of American history–so far, reassuring his principal lieutenant that everything would be all right.

What courage. What fortitude in the face of such great adversity.

What a load of bunk…probably

Yes, the tale has been told often enough, so often that it is no longer questioned.  Every history of the battle, from macro to micro, and nearly every biography and examination of the generalship of Grant and Sherman speaks of it.  But, if we look at this tableau objectively, it starts to come apart.

First, the scene.  It was raining, and by most accounts pretty steadily, from about 9 PM to just before 4 AM; it had been raining nearly every day around Pittsburg Landing for nearly a week.  But Sunday 6 April 1862 was dry, and fairly hot by most accounts, with small fires breaking out in several places in the piney woods and the clearings.  The woods and bottoms, especially around the creeks that split the area and along the Tennessee River behind the battlefield, were filled with smoke and fog.  Lost and wounded men, dying and frightened men, and the camp followers and assorted other civilians were scattered through the woods and every source of water in the area.  Travel around these areas would have been treacherous at best and dangerous at worst.

Sherman had had three horses shot out from under him that day.  He himself was grazed by at least three somethings hard enough to draw blood or cut uniform parts, lost a bodyguard/escort next to him by decapitation just as soon as he realized he was really, really being attacked, as he had admonished several officers before the battle (one hours before) was simply not possible.  He had lost a good portion of his division (dead, wounded, missing and captured) over the course of about 11 hours of intensive movement and combat.  A horrible insomniac who suffered from allergies most of his life, Sherman was by most accounts tirelessly working all that night to get his division ready for the next morning, and to tie in with Lew Wallace’s arriving division.

Grant, for his part, had greeted WIlliam Nelson’s arriving division at about 4:30 PM, had met with his Chief of Staff WIlliam Webster at about dusk (6:15 or so) and scribbled a note to be sent to Henry Halleck, his boss in St. Louis, by way of the nearest telegraph key (probably at Ft Henry, about three hours downstream), which likely went via Grant’s headquarters steamboat Tigress.  He had been hobbling around on a crude Army crutch for nearly three weeks after hurting himself in an incident with his normally surefooted horse.  At least one other officer reports Grant saying he was evicted from the cabin he was using for a headquarters at the Landing because the sight of the wounded sickened him, as did the sight of any blood. By his own account, he caught a few minutes of sleep under a tree somewhere.

The relationship between Grant and Sherman up to that point in the war had been cordial, but this was their first real battle together.  Sherman was three years Grant’s senior in service, but had agreed to serve under Grant because it meant getting him away from administrative duties.  He was terrified of being set on a shelf, as was Grant, though for different reasons.  Halleck trusted neither officer, and the press had had a merry time just months before ridiculing Sherman’s predictions for the requirements to win the war (hundreds of thousands of men and several years) as being the ravings of a madman.

The area around the Landing must have seemed like a Chinese fire drill that night.  Steamboats were coming in about every few minutes, with more and more of Don. C Buell’s men marching up the muddy ramp.  Initially, by most accounts, they had to work their way through thousands of stragglers that clustered by the river, but that was probably over by 9 that night: no one spoke of this after Nelson’s division had fully arrived.  The two Navy gunboats out in the river fired a round into the Confederate rear about every fifteen minutes from dark until just after sunrise (about 6 AM).  All the while, men were repairing cannons, finding ammunition, and sorting discarded weapons into compatible calibers for the hundreds who lost theirs in their hasty withdrawal to the Landing.  The wounded were legion; the officers and NCOs sorting out the men under the bluffs, who were frustrated by the cold rain but helped by the occasional coffee urn and cookpot, hearing their limits of endurance, many having been on their feet since before daybreak.  More, at least one battery of six guns made its way into the Landing and up the bluffs after dark, which would have required a monumental effort and several hundred horses.

Grant was never much of a detail-dictating general; his idol Zachary Taylor infrequently met with his juniors and Grant usually followed his example.  Grant met with Lew Wallace near dawn, but only because Wallace sought him out.  Grant met with Sherman twice during the battle, but being satisfied with his performance, not after 10:30 in the morning.  He met with Benjamin Prentiss, William HL Wallace and Stephen A Hurlbut at least three times (they were the hardest pressed), and with John A McClernand only once (they disliked each other).  Grant met with his fellow army commander Buell only once, and that only briefly (Buell hated Grant).

Give all the above, much of which is verified by multiple sources, when and where would Grant and Sherman have gotten together that night?  What’s more, why?  There was no council of war convened (Grant would do this only rarely throughout the war).  Both men were busy.  Further, and most crucial, who would have recorded such an exchange?  Neither man mentioned the meeting in their memoirs or in any correspondence known.  None of the several versions (which often exchange Grant’s “whip” with “beat” and Sherman’s “we’ve had” with “it’s been”) say anything beyond those few words.  Would these two very busy and weary men have gotten together for just that?  And, obviously, there were no recording devices at the time.  How could we know who said what?  There’s more holes here than there is story.

But why does this legend exist?  If most legends have some grounding in fact, what are the facts here?  The answer, I believe, is that this Grant/Sherman meeting with a sound bite is a parable, set on a horrid battlefield under miserable conditions: a oft-told tale repeated until it became the stuff of history, repeated in every book because everyone else does.  It may or may not have taken place; it may have been short; it may have been longer and had many witnesses, but there is no real evidence for it.

This is a somewhat long-winded introduction to what I’m calling “objective history,” a point-of-view, not a discipline, that examines the record and the sources (primary and secondary, physical and documentary and passed from mouth to mouth) of these oft-told stories.  Think about the long-winded Shakespearean oratories of worthies, malcontents and blowhards before even mechanical recording was available (like Pericles before a battle), and their shorter-version cousins: how plausible are they?  Every source, every artifact, every note and letter and report, compared to every other of their kind, tells a story.  Do all these stories add up?

Objective history takes a skeptical view of the historical record (when it’s there) and the evidence (especially, as in this case, it isn’t there and does not seem likely to have happened) and at the histories that are accepted as “true” and wonders how we think we know that.  It looks at pleasant and popular parks and sites and presidential libraries and museums and says “wait a minute: something doesn’t add up,“ especially when it does not.  It also says “traditionally” a great deal, and “according to one source” in excess.  What it does not say is “this is what really happened,” because such a statement is not possible without a time machine.

So: how objective is your view of the sources?  What oft-told tales are you suspicious of?

Next time, we’ll look at another famous (supposed) meeting, just before Shiloh.  If you want an objective view of Shiloh, I’d suggest The Devil’s Own Day by yours truly.

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