After Shiloh, Grant was vilified in the press with a fury that surprised him. He was shocked that the northern press construed the battle as a Union loss. Never before had he faced such national scrutiny or virulent attacks. As the war of words grew fierce, Grant was traumatized. Union camps swarmed with correspondents who wrote for partisan papers and weren’t overly scrupulous in their methods. They trafficked in rumors that quickly found their way into print. In the absence of any public relations machinery in the field, legends sprang up overnight, filling entire newspaper columns. With few exceptions, Grant adopted a sensible policy on censorship, giving reporters the liberty to report on past actions while preventing statements about future troop movements. In areas conquered by the Union army, he shut down pro-Confederate papers hawking treasonous views.
In the press Grant was faulted for being caught off guard by the Confederate attack, arriving late at the battle, and failing to chase Beauregard back to Corinth. He was made to seem inept and insensitive to the massive slaughter of his men. The most savage denunciations issued from politicians in Ohio and Iowa, home states to many victims. Grant and his staff suspected that these stories originated with craven soldiers who had fled the front lines on the first day at Shiloh, taking shelter beneath the bluff. Governor David Tod of Ohio was especially irate at such insinuations, portraying these skulkers as victims of criminal negligence by the high command. To prove his point, he sent Lieutenant Governor Benjamin Stanton to talk to Ohio soldiers near Shiloh and the latter claimed in a diatribe that there was “a general feeling among the most intelligent men that Grant and Prentiss ought to be court-martialed or shot.” It was now open season on Grant, with a chorus of voices calling for his removal. Senator James Harlan of Iowa insisted that “those who continue General Grant in active command will in my opinion carry on their skirts the blood of thousands of their slaughtered countrymen.”
Grant received his most damaging coverage when twenty-four-year-old Whitelaw Reid weighed in under the pen name AGATE in the Cincinnati Gazette. An Ohio native, slender and urbane, Reid had studied at Miami University where he absorbed a love of literature and philosophy. His voluminous Shiloh account ran to 19,500 words, occupying thirteen newspaper columns; widely reprinted elsewhere, it became the most influential account of the battle. Brilliant as a piece of narrative prose, it left much to be desired as a first draft of history. Reid took at face value myths peddled by disaffected soldiers. He gave birth to the canard that Union soldiers, caught unawares by rebels swooping down on their camps the first morning of Shiloh, were trapped in their tents and bayoneted in bed. He also falsely pictured Grant as arriving late on the scene from luxurious quarters in Savannah. In fact, Grant had galloped tirelessly across the battlefield that day, exhorting his commanders from early morning. He blamed Grant for not summoning Lew Wallace earlier and loaded Buell with praise for the second-day turnaround. There was more than a germ of truth to what Reid wrote—Grant had been caught by surprise at Shiloh, he had failed to fortify his position—but the bogus, misleading details marred the genuine reporting.
In light of this calumny, it was predictable that Grant would be accused of drinking at Shiloh. So widespread were these allegations that he told Julia, “We are all well and me as sober as a deacon no matter what is said to the contrary.” One Grant supporter told Washburne he was asked “twenty times a day” whether Grant was intemperate. “The public seem disposed to give Grant full credit for ability and bravery but seem to think it ‘a pity he drinks.’” The documentary record makes clear that Grant was sober during the battle. Jacob Ammen, who was with Grant the day before the battle and on its first day, jotted in his diary: “Note—I am satisfied that General Grant was not under the influence of liquor, either of the times I saw him.” Colonel Joseph Webster wrote of Grant: “He was perfectly sober and self-possessed during the day and the entire battle.” William Rowley disabused Washburne of any notion of Grant drinking at Shiloh and added that “the man who fabricated the story is an infamous liar.”
16 April 2019
Northern Reaction to Shiloh, 1862
From Grant, by Ron Chernow (Penguin, 2018), Kindle pp. 208-209: