Thursday, February 03, 2011

Stephens: "SHADOW OF SHILOH: Major General Lew Wallace in the Civil War"

[Shadow of Shiloh: Major General Lew Wallace in the Civil War by Gail Stephens (Indiana Historical Society Press, 2010).  Hardcover, maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:252/314. ISBN:978-0-87195-287-5  $27.95]

In current discussions of the best Civil War political generals the Union army had to offer, Lew Wallace's name is rarely raised, although he compiled a record that would be the envy of many. Gail Stephens's Shadow of Shiloh is an impressively deep military biography of Wallace, full of well formulated analysis (much of it in the Indianan's favor). Even so, there will probably remain a disconnect between the thoughts of popular history Civil War readers on the one side and historians and serious students on the other, the former likely never to read this book and forever boiling Wallace's career down to being "lost" or "late" at Shiloh.

Understandably, many of Shadow of Shiloh's chapters are devoted to Shiloh and the 1864 Battle of Monocacy, but a multitude of other military and administrative exploits are recounted, often in great detail. By most definitions a political general, Wallace did serve in Mexico as a company officer and was not a complete military novice when the Civil War erupted. Taking advantage of his Indiana connections, Wallace was an important figure in the raising and training of state volunteers. Taking a field command, he led the 11th regiment into western Virginia in 1861, launching a successful surprise attack on Romney. The general's impressive stand on the Union right center at Fort Donelson in February 1862 is retold in minute fashion, as is his important, but far less heralded, feat organizing the defenses of Cincinnati during the 1862 Kentucky Campaign. After that, Wallace, due to the Shiloh controversy and his outspokenness, found himself sidelined. He unhappily managed Camp Chase in Ohio and, though he did not prefer the legal arena, served on the Buell Commission [and after the fighting ended, the Lincoln conspirator and Wirz trials].

Wallace's role at Shiloh and the controversies that ensued are exhaustively examined. Generally sympathetic to the general, the author does not avoid highlighting the man's faults, all of which contributed mightily to his negative image among his superiors (most notably Grant and Halleck). Stephens has offered her views on Shiloh before, and this book does not contain reams of fresh information or startling new interpretations, but what she does do here is meticulously present her case that Wallace was neither unconscionably late at Shiloh nor lost on the way to the battlefield. Along the way, opposing arguments are effectively refuted.

The author does a fine job of linking the general's character flaws to how his conduct at Shiloh would be perceived by others. Wallace's pre-Shiloh penchants for ignoring chain of command, exceeding or disregarding orders, and inhibiting staff cooperation all ensured he would not have a friend in Grant or in Grant's staff. At Shiloh, a lack of communication between Wallace and Grant (for which both are responsible) led to false expectations as to which route to the battlefield would be employed. Wallace had improved the Shunpike and notified other colleagues, but not apparently Grant.

It is clear from the evidence that Wallace did not receive the order to join the rest of the army until after 11 am on the 6th, rendering the charges that he was outrageously late.  Those that would question why the general did not 'march to the sound of the guns' on the 6th should be reminded that Wallace's division occupied an important post in the Union rear that saw Confederate forces hovering nearby for some time prior to the battle. Stephens demonstrates that the pace of the march was not exceedingly slow, but does question (perhaps not forcefully enough) the wisdom of backtracking the lead brigade to also head the countermarch. The author also argues, rather successfully, that Wallace's Day 2 attack on the Union right was not excessively cautious, as many of his critics maintain.

Much of the second half of Shadow of Shiloh is devoted to Wallace's appointment to command the Middle Department and his leadership during the Battle of Monocacy.  The author's account of Monocacy, though quite detailed, is pretty standard, with Wallace's battlefield management of a very difficult situation much praised. However, it is a bit unfortunate that Stephens joins others in viewing Wallace's defeat as a foregone conclusion, as the war offers up a host of examples of successful defenders occupying strong positions while outnumbered two to one or worse. But that is a niggling complaint. The battle does demonstrate how quickly a commander can go from goat to hero in the minds of the military, government, and popular press.

Book presentation and materials are top notch, although some readers might feel that the 9" x 11+" dimensions can be a little awkward for casual use. With oversize double-columned pages, the book is even more substantial in length than it appears on paper. Maps are large, plentiful, and convey the right amount of information for a work of this type.

With Shadow of Shiloh, Gail Stephens has created one of the better examples of Civil War military biography in the literature.  Students of Shiloh historiography will perhaps benefit most from owning this fine book, but broader interest enthusiasts of the campaigns and battles covered will also find much to appreciate.

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