Streetwise Professor

April 14, 2023

Albert Sidney Johnston At Shiloh: Man With a (Better) Plan? Probably Not.

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military — cpirrong @ 6:02 pm

Last week was the 161st anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh, and fortuitously saw the delivery of David Powell’s Decisions at Shiloh.

Dave is a prolific author, especially of Western Theater subjects, most notably Chickamauga (the subject of his three volume trilogy, as well as a book on the Tullahoma Campaign that preceded Chickamauga). He is also author of Failure in the Saddle, a devastating critique of Confederate cavalry performance in the Chickamauga campaign: Nathan Bedford Forrest is not spared! Thus, Dave is not shy to criticize and challenge.

It was therefore surprising to me to see him accept uncritically conventional wisdom about the Confederate deployment at Shiloh. In a nutshell, under a plan developed by second-in-command P. G. T. Beauregard’s chief of staff Thomas Jordan, the Confederate Army of Mississippi attacked Grant’s Army of the Tennessee with a formation of three successive lines: Hardee’s corps in front, followed by Bragg’s, followed by Polk’s, all supported by Breckenridge’s Reserve Corps. This allegedly led to command confusion as once contact was made with the enemy, as units from different corps were intermingled, thereby preventing corps commanders from controlling their troops. Eventually, Hardee, Bragg, and Polk agreed on an ad hoc arrangement whereby each would command units in a particular sector, regardless of the corps to which the units belonged.

The alternative, according to Powell and numerous others stretching back decades (e.g., Wiley Sword–yes, his real name–in Shiloh: Bloody April from 1974) was the plan allegedly conceived by Confederate commander Albert Sidney Johnston, whereby the three Confederate corps would be arrayed in separate columns attacking in line, rather than successive lines, with with Polk on the left, Hardee in the center, Bragg on the right, with Breckinridge in reserve.

The basis for this assertion is thin indeed. In a letter to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Johnston wrote:

Confederate forces, 40,000, ordered forward to offer battle near Pittsburg [Landing]. . . Beauregard, second in command; Polk, left; Hardee, center; Bragg, right wing; Breckenridge reserve.

That’s it. The entire basis for the supposed alternative (and supposedly superior) plan.

So many issues. Most importantly, Powell (and many predecessors) seem to be reading way too much into this. Is it the barest sketch of an operational plan designating a deployment of troops, or is it merely a description of the organization of Johnston’s army?

A fair reading supports the latter interpretation. First, the mention of “Beauregard, second in command” suggests organization, not operation. Second, the use of the word “wing” is clearly ambiguous, especially in the context of early-1862.

Specifically, in this period, the word “wing” was used to describe a multi-division organization: it was essentially a synonym for “corps.” Army corps were not officially recognized by the Confederacy until 18 September, 1862: recall that in August, 1862 at Second Manassas Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was organized into a Left Wing (under Jackson) and a Right Wing (under Longstreet). In Johnston’s army, the three corps were designated as such only 5 days before Johnston’s letter to Davis, and prior to that were referred to as “Grand Divisions”.

It is therefore not clear whether the reference to “wings” in Johnston’s obviously clipped (for telegraphing) missive to Davis represented an operational plan, or a mere description of the forces at Johnston’s command, and who commanded the basic units of maneuver.

Further, if this was Johnston’s operational plan, why did he abandon it in favor of Beauregard/Jordan’s supposedly inferior one? He was the army commander, after all.

But beyond the very thin evidence that Johnston envisioned an attack by three corps in separate columns rather than in successive lines is the issue of whether such a three column attack was even feasible, given the road net and terrain of the battlefield. I seriously doubt that it was.

The optimal conditions for a three column attack required three parallel roads, one for each corps. But no such roads existed.

The Confederates marched from their camp at Corinth, MS to the battlefield on two parallel roads that converged at a place called “Mickey’s” (or Mitchie’s). From there, only a single road led to the Union cantonment.

Indeed, quite predictably there was a confused traffic jam at the road junction that required some time to sort out, which contributed to the delay in the Confederate attack. Due to the necessity of marching northwards on a single road to get at Grant, the four corps of Johnston’s army were necessarily arrayed one after the other.

So how would they have deployed from this line of march into the (allegedly) preferred (and superior) Polk left; Hardee center; Bragg right formation? Not easily, that’s for sure. They could not magically appear in that formation: they had to get there. But how?–and Powell and his predecessors don’t say.

There was a single road leading towards the Confederate right north of the Mickey’s intersection: the Bark Road. (Johnston wanted to place the weight of his attack on his right to drive Grant away from the Tennessee River and into the bottoms of Snake Creek.). Theoretically, once Hardee’s corps had passed that intersection, Bragg’s could have turned right along the road, marched until it’s left was clear of Hardee’s right, then moved onto line with Hardee. Or eschewing the road, Bragg’s corps could have marched by the flank through the woods south of the Bark Road and then advanced to line up with Hardee.

All of this would have taken time. Hours, given the rawness of the Confederate troops and their commanders, and the nasty terrain. During which time the element of surprise would have almost certainly been lost. (Grant and Sherman would have been most appreciative, given the intense criticism directed at them for being surprised.)

The movement of Polk’s corps/wing to the left would have been even more problematic. There was no road along which it could have moved. A cross country march through the woods cut by ravines and bounded by Winningham Branch and Shiloh Branch would have been confused, time confusing, and noisy.

Given the limitations of the road net and the nasty terrain, a set piece deployment as envisioned by the critics of the Beauregard/Jordan plan was wildly impractical, and wildly unlikely. The advance of the subsequent lines into open spaces uncovered when Hardee attacked from his lead position astride the Corinth road was probably the best, and certainly the fastest, way to bring Bragg’s and Polk’s units into contact with the scrambling Federal defenders.

Yes, it led to a jumbling of units, and the devolution of the battle into a series of attacks by brigades operating largely independently of one another, and under no central command. But this would have almost certainly occurred even under the hypothetical alternative plan (even assuming that it was feasible). Ultimately the battle by brigades was dictated by the exigencies of terrain and the rather haphazard deployment of the Union brigades, which was driven by where they were camped and their extemporized response to surprise.

And note well that the planners of even well-organized Civil War assaults exercised little control once battle was joined. Think of Jackson at Chancellorsville or Longstreet at Chickamauga. In the latter case, Bushrod Johnson’s division attacked straight ahead, Hindman veered to the left, and Law wheeled to the right, each in response to immediate threats posed by the Union forces. Naturally units oriented towards the threat, not according to some pre-ordained plan, and the planner could do nothing about it.

One must also consider the specific corps commanders who were supposedly going to exercise control.

Polk? Ha! Look at Chickamauga, where he was formally in command of two army corps, but did not orchestrate the ordered attack on time, and when it did occur, exercised virtually no control over it.

Hardee, later reputed to be the best Confederate corps commander in the west? At Peachtree Creek and Atlanta in 1864 he launched attacks with far more experienced troops. In each case, these attacks splintered into independent actions by individual brigades, again due to the exigencies of terrain (wooded, cut by ravines–like at Shilho) and an unknown and irregular deployment of the Union troops (again like at Shiloh). There is little indication that Hardee exercised any command once his troops stepped off in either of these battles.

Bragg? Another guffaw. At Shiloh itself his tactics were clumsy, consisting mainly of ordering uncoordinated piecemeal assaults on the Hornet’s Nest.

Raw troops. Inexperienced commanders at every level. Rough terrain. A primitive road net. A determined foe. These are what ultimately dictated the course of the battle. It probably would have played out in much the same way in the end regardless of the formation in which the Confederates started.

In sum, I think that the controversy over the Confederate battle plan at Shiloh is a red herring. The evidence that Johnston seriously considered an alternative is wafer-thin: and if he did consider it, he obviously was not strongly committed to it, else he would not have deferred to Beauregard. More importantly, the feasibility of the plan is highly doubtful, given the reality that the Confederates had to approach the Union camps over a single road and there were no easy ways to deploy from a column of corps on that road into a line of corps abreast. And perhaps most importantly, the friction of battle and the reality of no-plan-survives-contact-with-the-enemy meant that regardless of how they were lined up to begin with, the Confederate brigades would have almost certainly operated largely independently as dictated by the terrain and the deployment of Union troops.

The outcome at Shiloh was not dictated by the Confederate battle plan. In fact, that plan arguably had little or no influence on how events played out on 6 April 1862. It was a matter of roads and terrain, and given those constraints it is likely that putting the Confederate troops as they were worked as well or better than any alternative would have.

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1 Comment »

  1. No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.
    No computer model survives contact with reality.
    Plus ca change.

    Comment by philip — April 15, 2023 @ 6:30 pm

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