Conference Program

85th Annual Meeting of the Society for Military History

 Landscapes of War and Peace

April 5 - 8, 2018, Louisville, Kentucky

Title: The Good, the Bad, and the Misunderstood: Profiles of Civil War Leadership
Abstract: This panel examines the challenges of military leadership and success across three eclectic Civil War battlefields: Braxton Bragg and a specific engagement in a small northwest corner of Georgia; the challenges of administration and foreign policy faced by Edmund Kirby Smith in the vast expanses of the Department of the Trans-Mississippi; and the persistent struggle within and between Civil War historiography and memory with regard to the "hero" of Shiloh, Benjamin Mayberry Prentiss. Dr. Andrew S. Bledsoe examines Bragg's battlefield leadership at the September 1863 Battle of Davis's Cross Roads. The Confederate officer's haphazard approach to communication highlighted the complexity and confusion of battle, the larger pitfalls of officer culture, the difficulty of achieving military cohesion, and the role of contingency in military success. Dr. Jeff Prushankin observes that Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith initially chafed at his March 1863 administrative appointment to the geographically expansive Department of the Trans-Mississippi. Nevertheless, Prushankin makes the case for reevaluating the general's leadership in light of his administrative and foreign policy achievements that surpassed those of the Confederate government that he served. Finally, Dr. Toby Bates investigates the well-known "Prentiss: hero of Shiloh" narrative, noting that it did not find prominence until twenty years after the April 1862 battle. He reveals that Prentiss's story contains important details long ignored and provides a cautionary tale to contemporary scholars wrestling with history, memory and reputation. Collectively, the panel shows that Bragg, Smith, and Prentiss, while all fighting very different battles, often faced similar leadership challenges and even utilized comparable methods in seeking victory. Each of the three papers makes a strong case for a reexamination of particular narratives and suggests ways for future scholars to grapple with the complex nature of leadership in the context of the American Civil War.
Toby Bates, Mississippi State University - Meridian
Participant's Paper Title: "Maintain that position at all hazards": General Benjamin Mayberry Prentiss and a Hazardous Position in Civil War Historiography
Participant's Paper Abstract: Union General Benjamin Mayberry Prentiss currently possesses an important, yet, singular place in Civil War history: a heroic "Hornet's Nest" stand versus overwhelming Confederate numbers during the April 6-7, 1862 battle of Shiloh, Tennessee. Well-documented today, his heroic actions remained virtually unrecognized in his lifetime. Until Civil War scholars include the proud officer's just-as-valiant 1862-1901 personal battle to repair his reputation, a historiographical-hole will remain around a key participant in one of the war's significant battles.
Surprised on the first day of battle, he retreated from his camp, reorganized, returned to the lines, and fought for over six hours, surrendered just as the sun began to set. The tenacity of Prentiss and others allowed a first-day stalemate, and reinforced Federal men claimed victory within 24 hours. Prentiss's sacrifices arguably saved the Union's Army of the Tennessee, and quite possibly the careers of men named Grant and Sherman.
Contemporary newspapers recorded a different story, combining the early-morning destruction of Prentiss's camp with his late-evening surrender. A comedy of errors allowed the false-narrative to find a home in the first histories of the conflict. Until his 1901 death, Prentiss fought to correct the historical record.
The nation just celebrated the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, with dozens of new manuscripts and articles finding print. However, there is still no scholarship focusing exclusively on Prentiss. With decades of mostly incorrect histories influenced by an early inaccurate collective memory, the general remains even more difficult to obtain. Thus, he exists as a ghost, appearing and disappearing quickly throughout Civil War histories and college classes. Prentiss so deserves a more prominent place.
Jeffery Prushankin, Millersville University
Participant's Paper Title: Leadership and Statesmanship: Edmund Kirby Smith in the Trans-Mississippi
Participant's Paper Abstract: In March 1863, Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith arrived in Louisiana to take command of the Department of the Trans-Mississippi, the largest in the Confederacy. Smith was a West Point graduate and a veteran of the antebellum army. In the early months of the Civil War, he helped organize Confederate forces in Virginia and later served as commander of the Department of East Tennessee, an assignment that required him to rebuild the military there and secure control over the civilian infrastructure. After the 1862 Kentucky campaign, the War Department again promoted Smith and sent him across the Mississippi. Despite the advancement, Smith chafed at an assignment to an administrative position, particularly one in the far reaches of the Confederacy.
The unintended consequences of war put Smith in a position that facilitated the development of his leadership skills that extended beyond the battlefield. By the end of 1863, he had assumed "extraordinary powers" in a department that covered over 600,000 square miles, contained 20 percent of the Confederate population, and included the Confederacy's only international border. Smith's power in the Trans-Mississippi encompassed a multitude of spheres most notably, the arenas of politics and foreign policy.
This paper will demonstrate that Smith emerged as political and diplomatic leader in terms of conceptualizing and advancing ground-breaking directions in Confederate foreign policy. The necessities of war compelled him to venture into sensitive areas of Confederate diplomacy including foreign recognition, foreign intervention, and emancipation. While Smith's efforts ultimately failed, they were equal to, if not ahead of, those of the government in Richmond.
Andrew Bledsoe, Lee University
Participant's Paper Title: "The Farce Was Complete": Braxton Bragg, Field Orders, and the Language of Command at McLemore's Cove
Participant's Paper Abstract: The Affair at McLemore's Cove, also known as the Battle of Davis's Cross Roads or the Battle of Dug Gap, occurred on September 9-11, 1863 in northwestern Georgia as part of the American Civil War's Chickamauga Campaign. At McLemore's Cove, Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg and his Army of Tennessee permitted two vulnerable Federal divisions to escape entrapment and possible defeat, thus altering the opening sequence of the entire campaign.

A breakdown in the use of written words is at the core of the fiasco, and this moment reveal an unfolding debacle that forced Bragg and his subordinates into a torpor of muddled thinking, indecision, insubordination, and inaction. Bragg failed to apprise his subordinates of the "intimation of the end in view," or of his overarching operational objectives, in writing. Bragg also sent too many messages that did too little to accomplish the goals of the operation, and in fact, exacerbated existing problems.

By integrating various methods of analyses of the art of command with the historian's embrace of context, language, setting, human interaction, and perspective, we see that the failure at McLemore's Cove was a failure in the lines of communication. This resulted from Bragg's inability to conceive, create, and promulgate field orders suitable to fulfill his operational objectives. Moreover, the unreliable and haphazard command and control methods customary to Civil War armies served as subtext to these mistakes, and amplified the existing problems with the Army of Tennessee's leadership.

Understanding how words failed Bragg during these early days of the Chickamauga Campaign has the potential to open new vistas into difficult personalities, thorny relationship dynamics, daunting tactical, operational, and strategic problems, leadership, causation, and contingency in war.
Terry Beckenbaugh, Air Command and Staff College
David Fitzpatrick, Washtenaw Community College

College of Arts and Sciences

Gottschalk Hall
University of Louisville
Louisville, Kentucky 40292

Office Hours

M-F 8:00am to 5:00 pm


tel (502) 852-6817

fax (502) 852-0770

Social Media