In 2016 yet another version of the book Ben Hur was made into a movie. For quite a few years, many people loved Charleton Heston’s portrayal of Judah Ben Hur, a man who was wronged by the Romans and betrayed by a friend. That version of the movie was not the first, however, but the third film adaptation of Lew Wallace’s novel which he called “A Tale of the Christ.”
In all of the acclaim and success of the various films and many reprints of the book, credit has not always been given where it is due. The author, actors, and directors should have all thanked the Battle of Shiloh for making the whole story possible.
Shiloh was an early battle of the Civil War that took place in southwestern Tennessee on April 6–7, 1862. The name came from a church meeting house, Shiloh Church, whose name in turn was based on the Bible reference found in Genesis 49:10.
Sometimes the battle is referred to as the Battle of Pittsburg Landing. On the Tennessee River, Pittsburg Landing was the main embarking point where Union troops landed on the west side of the river and entered the battle. Much of the battle itself took place between the church and the river landing.
Shiloh was the largest battle with the most casualties and the biggest impact of any battle in American history up to that point. It did not, on the one hand, become a turning point in the war, but it was a determining factor in the careers of many officers. It was a “who’s who” of officers who would eventually become the leading figures in the Western Theater of the Civil War.
Since the Civil War itself or the Western Theater of the war can be seen as a great drama, Shiloh can be viewed as the tryouts for the major roles that would be played in the upcoming three years. Careers were made and ended at Shiloh. Supporting actors there would become major actors later. Certain combinations on the battlefield foreshadowed future successes in some cases and failures in others.
The man who entered the battle with the most to gain, ended up being the one who lost the most. General Albert Sidney Johnston was an experienced fighting man with service in the Texas War for Independence and formal training at West Point. It was at West Point that he made a key connection that served him well: friendship with Jefferson Davis.
General Johnston was given command of the Western Military Department of the Confederacy and was advanced in rank to a full general. Before Shiloh, Johnston had not fared well in the war. The area he sought to defend was too vast, and the men under him were too few. With less than 40,000 men, Johnston attempted to stretch the southern defenses across Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri. When Union General U. S. Grant, an upstart compared to Johnston, honed in on the Forts Donelson and McHenry, the Confederate defense of the west collapsed. Abandoning Kentucky and western Tennessee, Johnston relocated his forces near Corinth, Mississippi.
The Battle of Shiloh gave Johnston the biggest break of his military career. His forces were still inadequate, but he had the advantages of numbers and surprise over the Union forces that began crossing the Tennessee River. Undetected and facing Union forces that were spread out, Johnston’s Sabbath sunrise attack caught the Union unawake and unprepared.
The night before, Grant said, “I have scarcely the faintest idea of an attack being made upon us,” while General William Sherman angrily rebuffed an officer’s warning of impending battle, saying, “Take your damned regiment back to Ohio. There are no Confederates closer than Corinth.”
As Confederate forces crossed the fields and wooded areas to hit the Union lines, the prospects for a major Southern victory loomed. But then reality intervened. Even with the advantage of surprise, Confederate forces were hampered by lack of organization and experience. Those problems ranged from the ill-equipped soldiers to the ranking officers, including General Johnston himself.
Day one of the Battle of Shiloh continued to favor the Confederates. All the while, Confederate units were worn down by battle, decimated by increasing resistance, and left confused by the haze of battle. Still, it was the Union forces, even with rallying points and reinforcements, that continued to pull back toward Pittsburg Landing itself.
Then the turning point occurred which changed the projected role of General Johnston’s career, and perhaps the whole war itself. Around 2:30pm, Johnston, close to the fighting, got shot in the right leg. Chivalrously, he told the doctors to temporarily bind him up and then attend to the wounded soldiers. The torn artery in his leg continued to bleed internally and soon Johnston was found slumping in the saddle. Before doctors could get to him, he bled to death.
In the world of historical “what if’s,” one can imagine Johnston winning at Shiloh, recapturing western Tennessee, changing the trajectory of the war, and eclipsing other generals, such as Robert E. Lee and Joseph Johnston (whose was no relation). Instead, the claim to fame of the man who was once hailed the “Savior of the Confederacy” became the fact that Johnston was the highest-ranking officer to be killed in battle in the Civil War.
Other men found themselves advancing in rank and roles at Shiloh due to Johnston’s death. Primarily, P. G. T. Beauregard and Braxton Bragg both became major players in the remaining battle, but neither at Shiloh or elsewhere did either man prove first-rate as generals.
In spite of Grant’s and Sherman’s initial blunders before the battle, both proved to be resourceful and resilient as the battle progressed. The later teamwork of Grant and Sherman at Vicksburg and across the west could be seen on this early occasion of fighting together.
But the other big loser at Shiloh is the man responsible for the multiple movie versions and still-popular print version of the fictional story of a Jewish man under Roman rule during the time of Christ. General Lew Wallace’s great contribution to the Battle of Shiloh was his missing the first day of the battle.
While the guns and artillery were filling the air on the west side of the Tennessee River, General Lew Wallace and the Third Division were tramping around, back and forth, and never getting into the action. Wallace blamed the verbal command, the poor conditions of the roads, and everything else but himself for his failure.
While he was able to join in on the second day of battle, the events of day one tarnished his record as a commander. Subsequent commands in the war were secondary positions, and Wallace never felt that he was able to overcome the stigma and shame of his failure. In part, that experience led him to begin a story about a Jew who likewise suffered under false charges and slanders. The story, set in the time of Christ with the climax of the story being the crucifixion of Jesus, bore no resemblance to the Civil War or the battle with a Bible-based name.
But just as surely as Shiloh changed the fates and fame of some men such as Albert Sidney Johnston, U. S. Grant, and William Sherman, it created the spark that created the greatest source of success for Lew Wallace.
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