Gettysburg has Pickett’s Charge. Antietam has its Bloody Lane. Picture Fredericksburg and you’ll probably think of the corpse-littered Sunken Road.
These portions of famous battlefields have become the symbols of the fiercest or most important fighting.
Shiloh has its own such mythical place: The Hornet’s Nest.
Visitors to the national military park in southern Tennessee are told in film and maps that the federal stand at this salient saved Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s army during the devastating Confederate attack on April 6, 1862. They’re told that the fighting was the principal factor that allowed Grant to regroup to fight the next day, when Union forces rallied and pushed their foes off the field.
Not so fast, says historian Timothy B. Smith.
“Was the Hornet’s Nest really that important?” Smith queried members of the Civil War Roundtable of Atlanta on Tuesday night. “It did not see the most vicious fighting.”
Smith, a faculty member at the University of Tennessee-Martin, is the author of “The Untold Story of Shiloh”, which fills in gaps on what is known about this important battle in the Western Theater.
Smith (right), who worked seven years at Shiloh, argued that the heaviest fighting came elsewhere at Shiloh, especially in the west. Confederate commanders Albert Sydney Johnston and P.G. Beauregard split their forces and mostly bypassed the center of the Union line in their primary effort to roll up the Union flank.
This left a vacuum in the center, known now as the Hornet’s Nest, which was named by Confederate troops who likened the sound of whistling bullets to a swarm of hornets.
Union troops retreated to the Hornet’s Nest during the furious assault to the west.
The divisions of Unions Gen. Benjamin Prentiss (left) and W.H.L. Wallace held the center of the line, withstanding a 50-piece artillery onslaught and at least seven or eight attacks before having to surrender late on the afternoon of April 6.
But Smith said there were higher casualties elsewhere, including Ray Field, Bloody Pond and the Peach Orchard. And although the Hornet’s Nest did buy Grant some time, it’s likely the Union commander could have rallied anyway. Smith doesn’t believe Confederates could have broken the last line of defense near the Tennessee River.
In fact, Smith said, Grant later wrote was unhappy that Prentiss and Wallace stayed too long and were captured.
“Maybe it was not the key to the battle as we have been led to believe,” the historian told the roundtable.
Smith says the term “Hornet’s Nest” wasn’t used in official records and didn’t become associated with Shiloh until nearly 20 years after the fighting, when veterans started talking up its importance, even forming the “Hornet’s Nest Brigade.” Reburial details in 1866 found fewer bodies around the Hornet’s Nest than in other parts of Shiloh.
Smith attributes a good bit of the lore to David W. Reed, the first historian at Shiloh National Military Park.
Reed was a veteran of the battle, serving with the 12th Iowa.
Which fought smack dab in the middle of the Hornet’s Nest.
It’s not that the Hornet’s Nest is not an important part of the Battle of Shiloh, Smith says.
It’s just that Reed, Prentiss and other veterans in that part of the battlefield did a better job of pitching their accounts than other Union survivors.
“In the film [at Shiloh] it’s Hornet’s Nest, Hornet’s Nest and only Hornet’s Nest,” said Smith.
Apparently, the Hornet’s Nest Brigade won the Battle of PR.