I’ve never had the same fascination with the American Civil War that many historians, professional or otherwise, share, but I do have fond memories of visiting the Shiloh National Military Park several times over the course of my thirty-one (and counting) years. My dad took me to the site of the battle for the first time when I was three, or so I’m told, and we’ve been back a few times since then. I also went twice on high school field trips and have done my share of reading on the battle, probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 3-4 books and a smattering of articles. I’m not an expert, necessarily, but not a complete novice, either.
My primary area of research as a historian is the history and theology of the Stone-Campbell Movement, and my first major research undertaking was an article on T.B. Larimore, which was eventually published in Restoration Quarterly back in 2016. (1) My fascination with Larimore stems in part from my thirteen years at Mars Hill Bible School (kindergarten through twelfth grade) but also from a copy of Life, Letters, and Sermons of T.B. Larimore that my better half gifted me back in 2013. At that point, I was just beginning my master’s degree in history and wasn’t sure what kind of research I wanted to pursue. The timely, perhaps even providential, gift steered me toward SCM history and the rest, well, was history.
Life, Letters, and Sermons obviously proved to be a work of great importance for my career, but I was always a bit perplexed by an anecdote related early in the book by the author, Emma Page Larimore. T.B. served as a scout in the Confederate army, though he was eventually captured in 1863 and was sent back home after taking the noncombatant oath. Prior to that time, however, Larimore saw action at the Battle of Shiloh, and on that topic, Emma Page writes:
The memory of those war experiences was very vivid in his mind. He was with the army at the battle of Shiloh, the duty assigned to him being to watch the Tennessee River for the appearance of Federal gunboats; and he wrote the dispatch that informed General Albert Sydney Johnston of the presence on the river of two gunboats convoying a fleet of transports up the river–a dispatch that General Johnston pronounced “a model military document.” When we visited Shiloh National Park a few years ago, Mr. Larimore searched for, and, with the help of a citizen of that community, found the spot on the river where he caught his first glimpse of the gunboats. He said there was a house just behind him on the high bluff on which he was lying as he watched the river, and in a thicket of berry vines we found the remains of the chimneys of the house that stood just where he remembered it to have been.” (2)
Several details of the above story can be easily confirmed. As noted already, Larimore was a Confederate scout, so this type of assignment would not have been unusual for him. (3) The gunboats mentioned in the quotation were an important part of the Shiloh battle, providing important covering fire which prevented the Federal position from being overrun at the end of a disastrous first day. (4) And, as one historian has written, “Johnston’s scouts had notified him of the Union troops’ location beside the Tennessee River at Pittsburg Landing”–not quite the information mentioned above, but closely related to it. (5)
However, a feasible timeline for the story is harder to identify, as Johnston’s death in the early afternoon of the first day of battle considerably shortens the window in which he could have read a message from Larimore. Johnston was shot in the leg around 2:10pm, but he seemed generally unconcerned about the incident and did not seek treatment for what likely would have been a survivable wound–with a doctor’s assistance. In the end, he was declared dead around 2:30pm, leaving P.G.T. Beauregard as the ranking officer for the remainder of the battle. (6)
Further complicating the timeline is that the two gunboats–the Lexington and the Tyler–had been effectively out of the battle for most of the day because of a lack of clear orders from on high. “After listening to the sounds of battle for a good while,” one historian notes, the commanding officer of the Tyler started to move into position to support a possible Federal retreat, while the Lexington moved back to the location where it had started the day. “Occasionally Confederate overshots splashed water around” the Tyler, but even with its closer position, it was simply sitting still on the water, and it was not clear that any Confederates were aware of its location at that time. Finally, around 1:25pm, the commanding officer sent a subordinate ashore to find some updated orders for the ship, and after his return, the Tyler started shelling the Confederate army around 2:50pm, almost half an hour after Johnston’s death. (7) By the time the first of the gunboats entered the fray, then, Johnston was no longer around to read any dispatches.
This is far from a thorough debunking of the story, but it does raise some questions as to whether a message about the gunboats’ entry into the battle could have been delivered on the day of battle in time for Johnston to compliment Larimore on his writing. To be sure, reconstructing timelines for battles is always a tricky business, and there is the possibility that Larimore’s missive related to an earlier Confederate encounter with the Lexington and Tyler a few days before the start of the battle proper. (8)
A similar interpretation is supported by a slightly different account of Larimore’s involvement at Shiloh, also written by Emma Page Larimore but published nearly twenty years earlier:
He was at the battle of Shiloh, but was in command of a special picket detachment detailed to watch the river above Pittsburg Landing and report all movements of the Federals that might be observed. He wrote the dispatch that informed Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston of the arrival and presence of the first Federal gunboats and transports above Pittsburg Landing, where the Federals who fought at Shiloh landed… (9)
This version places T.B. on the scene prior to the battle, observing the Federal troops arriving at Pittsburg Landing in advance of the main conflict, which would have given plenty of time for him to write a noteworthy dispatch to his general. This, to me, seems to be the most likely version of events, but the question still remains: is there any evidence that Johnston spoke so highly of his scout’s writing?
My initial guess had been that Larimore’s memory had gotten a bit foggy with age and that the anecdote from Life, Letters, and Sermons might have been an embellishment of an actual, original event made grander by time. That volume, after all, was not published until 1931, nearly seventy years after the events of the battle. The other quotation cited above was published in 1910, closing the gap somewhat, but still leaving nearly fifty years for the story to have developed or changed.
Another find moves the date for the anecdote much closer to the purported event, though there is still no evidence cited for the source. In his 1889 work Smiles and Tears: Or, Larimore and His Boys, F.D. Srygley offers the following version of events, much closer in substance to the earlier of the two Emma Page Larimore recountings:
He was at the battle of Shiloh, and was put in command of special picket squad to guard the river above Pittsburg, to prevent a flank movement by Federals landing at a point higher up the river. He wrote the dispatch which gave Johnson [sic] notice of the passage of the first Federal gun-boat above Pittsburg. Johnson is said to have remarked that the dispatch was a model military document. (10)
Although Srygley’s account doesn’t establish a timeline, the substance of Larimore’s orders seems to fit well with the version offered two decades later by Emma Page, and again seems to confirm that his message was related to events prior to, rather than from, the battle proper. Yet we have no source for the Johnston remark, and this is, as best as I can tell, the earliest version of the story in print–over two and a half decades after the fact. Srygley simply tells us that Johnston “is said to have remarked,” but the vague, passive nature of the sentence does little to indicate how Larimore, or Srygley for that matter, might have heard the remark. Perhaps Larimore delivered the missive himself, or a courier brought word back to him later on. We simply don’t know.
In the end, then, we have a plausible set of circumstances for Larimore to have written a “model military document” a few days prior to the battle itself, but no clear way to establish how the compliment might have gotten back around to him. Sometimes, as historians, our sources don’t provide us everything we might hope for, and that seems to be the case this time.
(1) John Young, “Dixieland’s Demise: T.B. Larimore’s Dixieland College and the Tenuous Position of Christian Colleges within the Churches of Christ,” Restoration Quarterly 58, no. 3 (2016): 143-159.
(2) Mrs. T.B. (Emma Page) Larimore, Life, Letters, and Sermons of T.B. Larimore (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate Company, 1931), 12.
(3) Douglas A. Foster, “Larimore, Theophilus Brown (1843-1929),” in The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, eds. Douglas A. Foster, Paul M. Blowers, Anthony L. Dunnavant, and D. Newell Williams (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 452-453.
(4) The presence of the gunboats is mentioned in numerous histories of the Shiloh battle, but they also made the cut for the relevant volume of the Oxford History of the United States. See James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 412.
(5) Kayla Scott, “The Battle of Shiloh: Triumph, Tragedy, and the High Cost of War,” North Alabama Historical Review 4 (2014). https://ir.una.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1067&context=nahr
(6) O. Edward Cunningham, Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862, edited by Gary D. Joiner and Timothy B. Smith (New York: Savas Beatie LLC, 2007), 273-276.
(7) Cunningham, Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862, 312-313.
(8) Cunningham, Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862, 116.
(9) Emma Page (Larimore), Letters and Sermons of T.B. Larimore, vol. 3 (McQuiddy Printing Company, 1910), 286-287.
(10) F.D. Srygley, Smiles and Tears: Or, Larimore and His Boys (F.D. Srygley, 1889), 72.