Once Upon a Time

Gen. Prentiss: Quincy's slandered Hero of Shiloh

Gen. Benjamin Prentiss of Quincy, shown here in an undated photo, has been accused of lying about his role in the Civil War Battle of Shiloh, but those claims do not stand up to scrutiny. | Photo courtesy of Hank Koopman
By HANK KOOPMAN
Posted: Jul. 10, 2016 12:01 am Updated: Jul. 10, 2016 12:17 am

Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mayberry Prentiss of Quincy commanded the 6th Division of Ulysses S. Grant's Army of the Tennessee as a brigadier general at the battle of Shiloh on April 6, 1862.

Prentiss' division consisted of two brigades totaling approximately 5,400 men at the southwest corner of what became a 20-square-mile Shiloh battlefield. The first brigade was commanded by Col. Everett Peabody and the second brigade by Col. Madison Miller.

On the morning of April 6, the Confederate army was poised to launch a surprise attack on Union forces. Prentiss' new division was camped closest to the enemy.

Confederate cavalry had harassed Union pickets on April 4 and 5, resulting in alarms cascading through Union camps. Prentiss responded by adding pickets and sending patrols to the front. The patrols were looking for enemy cavalry, and the Union commanders had no suspicion that the 44,000-man Confederate Army of the Mississippi was ready to strike.

The patrols were from the camps of Peabody's brigade because they were nearest the Rebel battle line. On April 5, Prentiss ordered Col. David Moore to lead three companies from the 21st Missouri on a patrol that left camp about 4 a.m. and returned about 7 p.m. Evidence of Rebel cavalry was found.

Peabody, unbeknownst to Prentiss, ordered Maj. James E. Powell to take a patrol at 3 a.m. and advance past the pickets. Powell found the Rebel picket line in Fraley field at 4:55 a.m. and the battle of Shiloh was on. Powell's patrol gave at least two hours of warning for the Union army and prevented a total surprise. Union divisions formed battle lines in front of their camps and slowed the Rebel attack.

As Powell's patrol retreated, Peabody ordered to reinforce the patrol with five companies of the 21st Missouri. Moore sent word to Prentiss to forward the remaining five companies of the 21st Missouri because the Rebels were out there and he would "lick them."

Prentiss complied and rode into Peabody's camp as Peabody was forming the 25th Missouri to also aid the patrol. Orders were to avoid a general engagement, and when Prentiss saw that two regiments were heading to the front, he accosted Peabody with the charge that he would hold Peabody personally responsible for bringing on an engagement.

William Sherman's division on the western side of the battlefield was struck about an hour after Prentiss.' Requests for assistance were sent to the divisions of John McClernand, Stephan Hurlbut and William H.L. Wallace. Prentiss defended his two camps until about 9 a.m. when a retreat was ordered. Prentiss' division disintegrated, but Prentiss rallied about 500 men to stand with him in the Hornet's Nest along the Sunken Road where they were joined with 575 men of the 23rd Missouri. Peabody and Powell were counted among the slain.

Prentiss held the Hornet's Nest for seven hours against repeated Rebel assaults. Then, as the Union flanks fell back, Prentiss and Wallace tried to hold the center and fought on for another hour with a "final stand." Wallace was mortally wounded, and Prentiss was captured.

The first published reports of the battle falsely maligned Prentiss and the men captured with him as cowards for having surrendered in the morning rather than in the evening. This injustice was repeated in many histories and stuck in the public's memory for nearly 20 years, during which time Prentiss remained silent because he knew what he and his men had done, and the critics were not worthy of a response.

The tide turned with the publication of Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston's biography written by his son in 1879. Johnston had led the Confederate army and died in the battle.

The book christened the area where Wallace and Prentiss held the line as the Hornets' Nest.

Over the next 20 years Prentiss spoke of the battle and the role he and his men played in it. With the founding of the Shiloh National Military Park in 1895, the story of the Hornet's Nest became lore, and Prentiss died in 1901 with the sobriquet of the "Hero of Shiloh."

But it is déjà vu for Prentiss. Shiloh revisionist historians now claim that Prentiss exaggerated his role at Shiloh and stole glory from Wallace and Peabody.

Some claim Prentiss took credit for sending the army-saving 3 a.m. patrol when it was Peabody who did it. Others claim it was Wallace who defended the Hornets' Nest and that Prentiss was inconsequential but talked himself up to being the "Hero of Shiloh."

These claims do not stand up to scrutiny, but they have taken root in some circles to the point that recently published Shiloh works by revisionists contain statements against Prentiss that are not true.

Prentiss is accused of lying about his role at Shiloh in order to line his pockets.

Shiloh revisionism commenced in the early 1970s and continues. It is time to challenge revisionists to defend their statements and prove their allegations against Prentiss. Competent research will show that the truth lies with Prentiss.

Hank Koopman is a retired civil engineer living in Denver. His great-great-grandfather was captured with Gen. Prentiss in the Hornets' Nest at Shiloh. His research shows an injustice is served upon Prentiss and the men who fought with him by current revisionist Shiloh history.

Sources:

Cunningham, O. Edward. "Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862." Edited by Gary D. Joiner and Timothy B. Smith. New York, N.Y: Savas Beatie LLC, 2007.

Daniel, Larry J. "Shiloh -- The Battle That Changed the Civil War." New York, N.Y.: First Touchstone Edition, 1998.

Johnston, Col. William Preston. "The Life of General Albert Sidney Johnston." New York, N.Y.: Da Capo Press, 1997. Originally published 1879.

McDonough, James Lee. "Shiloh -- in Hell before Night." Knoxville, Tenn.: The University of Tennessee Press, 1977.

Orville, Victor J. "Beadle's American Battles, Pittsburg Landing, (Shiloh) and the Investment of Corinth." New York, N.Y.: Beadle and Co., 1862.

Smith, Timothy B. "Rethinking Shiloh -- Myth and Memory." Knoxville, Tenn: The University of Tennessee, 2013.

"Shiloh's False Hero." Civil War Times, Vol. 47, no. 6, Dec. 5, 2008, 28-35.

"The Untold Story of Shiloh -- The Battle and the Battlefield." Knoxville, Tenn.: The University of Tennessee Press, 2006.

"This Great Battlefield of Shiloh -- History, Memory, and the Establishment of a Civil War National Military Park." Knoxville, Tenn.: The University of Tennessee Press, 2004.

Sword, Wiley. "Shiloh: Bloody April." Dayton, Ohio: Morningside, corrected edition 2001.

Woodworth, Steven. "Shiloh -- Confederate High Tide in the Heartland." Santa Barbara, Calif.: Praeger, 2013.