Apr 5

Remembering the Navy at Shiloh

Monday, April 5, 2010 2:54 PM

In the scope of Civil War scholarship, naval operations remain a minority (Please see Civil War Navy 150 posting here). Although recent articles point to the lack of attention on Union and Confederate navies, there is still much work to be done. As we approach the 148th anniversary of the Shiloh Campaign tomorrow, it is poignant to point to both topics under the lens of the Civil War Navy. 

Federal timberclads USS Lexington and USS Tylerwere essential in the April 1862 Shiloh Campaign. Both vessels protected Union Army transports on the way to Shiloh along the Tennessee River. Indeed, protection of rivers like the Tennessee during the Civil War became one of the most important war aims of Federal Forces (Think Anaconda Plan, Mississippi River, Red River, Vicksburg Campaign, etc.). Both ships engaged at Pittsburg Landing a month before the famous battle occurred (1 March 1862), landing Federal infantry while returning fire to those Confederates witnessing the first engagement of the campaign ashore. During the engagement in April, gunfire from the river aided in Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard’s decision to call off a final southern push to break through the Union line in the evening hours of the 6th

Although one may argue Confederate success on the first day of battle, the ultimate victory went to Union forces on 7 April. We will never know what might have happened if the Lexington and Tyler were not part of the Union defensive line that first day, but it is foolish to assume naval assistance played anything less than a fundamental role in the battle. 

Shiloh is merely one example of combined Army-Navy cooperation often overlooked in the scope of eastern and western theater operations. These kinds of topics of contention involving the role of the Union and Confederate navies exist to this day. On the Battle of Shiloh Blogspot page, the blogger reviews Timothy B. Smith’s 2006 study, The Untold Story of Shiloh: The Battle and the Battlefield. Smith’s worked is well received, both by historians and the internet population (i.e. Amazon). The blogger offers readers 10 myths surrounding the Battle of Shiloh based on the facts and interpretation of Smith’s work. Of these myths, the only one which the reviewer “did not agree with” was the fifth myth: The Navy was not important. As a response to this argument, the reviewer wrote: 

“I don’t think the Navy contributed much in the way of firepower but completely agree with Smith that the Navy did a ton of logistical work [. . .] I’m not sure if that’s because its a somewhat dry topic or if the source material is thinner, but it is generally an overlooked part of battles. So I guess on that myth I only think of the Navy doing little when it came time to expend powder.”

This is not a way to offend or admonish the work of the individual posting the above quote. It does, however, warrant discussion. Upon further insight into the book itself, you see an entire chapter of Smith’s work devoted to the role of the US Navy during Shiloh. As quoted in the fourth chapter, Smith states:

“Historians rarely give full credit to the navy’s role in the Shiloh campaign, except simply to cite the activity of the two gunboats, the Lexington and Tyler, on the afternoon of April 6, 1862, when they helped repel the last Confederate assaults of the day. Such a narrow view does not do the navy justice, however. While Shiloh was primarily an infantryman’s fight, the navy did play a critical role in the campaign and battle. The use of waterborne craft to transport the army and its immense amount of supplies and equipment was extremely vital to the Northern army’s success [. . .] the Confederates feared the gunboats.” (pg. 53-54)

Smith is correct to note the same “relatively unaided” Federal Navy captured Forts Henry and Donelson on the Tennessee River just months before. This all plays into a larger five month naval offensive by the US Navy, beginning with the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson in February and ending with the decisive naval battle of Memphis, 6 June 1862. Far more than simply firepower and logistics, the Federal Navy was a source of psychological torment for Confederates on land. At a time when the Union Army under General George B. McClellan failed in the 1862 Peninsula campaign, the Navy achieved great success. If this argument is too audacious, then another one championing the success of the western theater of combined operations in early 1862 might suffice. Regardless, success in 1862, if not the entire war, was aided and won with the help of the Union Navy. Shiloh is no different. As we begin to commemorate the brave men who fought on land tomorrow, remember and honor those sailors in “Mr. Lincoln’s Navy.”

The naval role in the Civil War does not tarnish the heroics and embattled courage of opposing armies on land. It can stand as a compliment to the myriad campaigns waged during the Civil War. When you think of General Bernard Bee’s exclamation, “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall,” remember Admiral David G. Farragut’s famous exclamation, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” 

It is the hope of the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial Commission that more scholarship will surface in the upcoming years. Recent research like Naval Academy Professor Emeritus Craig Symonds’ Lincoln and His Admirals helps foment discussion in both lay and academic circles. Yet Dr. Symonds’ work will hopefully be the start of a long series of new research and interpretation during the sesquicentennial years.

Yes, land offensives outweigh those on water. Yes, it may be too bold to suggest the “road” to Appomattox was paved through naval operations. It is safe, however, to assume that the war was won with the help of the fleet. And for that, we must consider and commemorate those brave sailors who fought on both sides nearly 150 years ago. 

The Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial (2011-2015) will be posting interesting and informative articles to this blog in an effort to expand scholarship and discussion on the role of both Union and Confederate navies during the American Civil War. If you have any questions, please feel free to email the Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial Commission coordinator, Matthew Eng, at matthew.t.eng@navy.mil or visit the blog at http://www.civilwarnavy150.blogspot.com.

 
 
 
  • http://hgworld.blogspot.com Historyguy99

    Excellent post, CWR.

    The story of the Navy in the Western Theatre is filled with examples of bravery and innovation. I just finished re-reading Steven Woodworth’s Nothing But Victory: The Army of Tennessee. Grant could not have done it without the support of Porter and Foote. Hope you do a post about the Navy running the guns at Vicksburg to make the siege possible.

  • http://www.vision-strike-wear.com Todd

    Enjoyed visiting this blog site. Naval history is a fascinating subject as is the opinions and ideas of others.

  • Jim Dolbow

    Great post! Another great book is Stephen Taaffe’s Commanding Lincoln’s Navy: Union Naval Leadership During the Civil War. My interview with him over at USNI Blog can be found at:

    http://blog.usni.org/2009/10/05/commanding-lincolns-navy-union-naval-leadership-during-the-civil-war-by-stephen-r-taaffe/

 
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