Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862 by O. Edward Cunningham

Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862 by O. Edward Cunningham and edited by Gary D. Joiner and Timothy B. Smith is an excellent scholarly work about the pivotal Shiloh Campaign.


Here is an overview of the book from the publisher’s website:

The bloody and decisive two-day battle of Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862) changed the entire course of the American Civil War. The stunning Northern victory thrust Union commander Ulysses S. Grant into the national spotlight, claimed the life of Confederate commander Albert S. Johnston, and forever buried the notion that the Civil War would be a short conflict.

The conflagration at Shiloh had its roots in the strong Union advance during the winter of 1861-1862 that resulted in the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee. The offensive collapsed General Albert S. Johnston advanced line in Kentucky and forced him to withdraw all the way to northern Mississippi. Anxious to attack the enemy, Johnston began concentrating Southern forces at Corinth, a major railroad center just below the Tennessee border. His bold plan called for his Army of the Mississippi to march north and destroy General Grant’s Army of the Tennessee before it could link up with another Union army on the way to join him.

On the morning of April 6, Johnston boasted to his subordinates, “Tonight we will water our horses in the Tennessee!” They nearly did so. Johnston’s sweeping attack hit the unsuspecting Federal camps at Pittsburg Landing and routed the enemy from position after position as they fell back toward the Tennessee River. Johnston’s sudden death in the Peach Orchard, however, coupled with stubborn Federal resistance, widespread confusion, and Grant’s dogged determination to hold the field, saved the Union army from destruction. The arrival of General Don C. Buell’s reinforcements that night turned the tide of battle. The next day, Grant seized the initiative and attacked the Confederates, driving them from the field. Shiloh was one of the bloodiest battles of the entire war, with nearly 24,000 men killed, wounded, and missing.

Before discussing the book, I need to mention one item about it.  The book was written in 1966 and was never published prior to this edition.  According to the book’s website, although unpublished, many experts feel that the book is the best-written account of the Battle of Shiloh.  Cunningham died in 1997 and the editors thought it was too good to not be published.  I am very glad that this excellent work is being shared with the broader public.


Shiloh is a real gem.  Cunningham (with key additions by the editors) was a great writer.  Although an academic, Cunningham writes without the boring and tedious style of many in this field.  The writing flows and the characters come back to life.


Since I have not read much about this battle, the introduction by Joiner and Smith is excellent for those who are not familiar with the historiography of the Battle of Shiloh.  They succinctly compare the various books that have been written on the battle.  They praise, rightly so, Cunningham’s views that are just now being accepted.


I appreciate the detail that Cunningham goes into when describing the training for both armies (almost non-existent for some of the units) and the various firearms that were used by both armies.  On that note about the detail, at the end of the book is an itemized listing of the units involved in the battle and the casualties they took.  Looking at the lists, you can better understand how much punishment the units that were in the thick of the fighting endured. 


Cunningham spends a good deal of time giving brief synopses of each of the major commanders present at the battle.  For example, I never knew that Confederate General Albert S. Johnston was so highly regarded by his contemporaries and historians.  In addition, although Union General William Sherman became one of the best generals on the Union side later in the war, he cut his teeth at the Battle of Shiloh and made several mistakes that could have cost the Union a major defeat.


Cunningham discusses the battle in the context of the entire campaign leading up to Shiloh.  As mentioned above, the campaign begins with the assaults on Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee and ends with the Confederate evacuation of Corinth, Mississippi.  Some of the Union units engaged at Shiloh cut their teeth in the initial battles of the campaign.


Finally, I need to mention the abundant use of maps throughout the book.  As many of you know, a good history of a battle is subpar if it does not include maps of the progression of a battle.  The book includes an abundant amount of maps so that you can closely follow the battle on the maps.


This is an excellent book for anyone looking for a wonderful narrative and analysis of the Battle of Shiloh and the campaign of 1862.

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