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JimG

General Benjamin Prentiss

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There is an article in the latest issue of Civil War Times. The "Shiloh's False Hero" and is by a former park ranger named Timothy B. Smith. I found it very interesting and can't find any real argument the refutes his findings. I did wish the article was a little more detailed about Prentiss' actions during the battle. there is alos an excellent detailed map of the Hornet Nest with the article. Like to know what other's think about it.

Jim G

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Jim,

Thanks for the heads-up. I'll certainly have to get that issue, as Prentiss and Peabody are of special interest to me. Tim Smith included the Hornet's Nest, and the idea that this is where the battle was decided, in his list of ten 'myths' from the battle in one of his books on Shiloh. Can't remember what he said about Prentiss there per say, but I don't think there's any question that Prentiss' role in the battle has been overstated over the years. But I'll check out that article. Thanks again.

Perry

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Hello Everybody;

I also believe that Brigadier General Benjamin Prentiss is overstated in his role at the Battle of Shiloh.  Firstly, don't forget that Prentiss was a newly appointed brigadier general just assigned to a division command.  Also, he was a volunteer officer appointed because of political connections.  Secondly, he refused to send troops forward to establish proper outposts.  He may have sent a few forward to scout around but these were ordered to do nothing to cause an engagement.  He rebuffed Colonel Peabody in that officers requests to send scouts forward despite early warnings. Thirdly, the record indicates that Prentiss was just as surprised as Sherman was when the confederates attacked.  Fourthly, he did not effectively command his division when it was on the firing line.  He did little to support Peabody's brigade and spent most of his time with Colonel Madison Miller's brigade in the Spain Field fight.  Fifthly, it was Prentiss that ordered Miller's brigade forward into the middle of the Spain field where it had no cover against the attackers rebels.  The brigade had been under cover in the tree line along the northern edge of the Spain field and when it moved forward, it took heavy casualties in the Spain field and the retreat back to the tree line.  They accomplished nothing in this move forward.  Sixthly, Prentiss acted in a confused manner during the fighting in the Spain Field and the fighting for Peabody's camps. 

Next (I lost count),  Prentiss was in the rout of his division back to the sunken road but this move was not by his orders.  It was a rout.  The remaining survivors of his division fell into line at the sunken road purely by accident.  It must have seemed a place of safety because of the cover of trees and underbrush, and the folds in the ground.  A big reason why this position developed was the arrival of Wallace's division.  Wallace was coming down the Eastern Corinth road, the same road that Prentiss was retreating on.  The combination of fresh troops and the defeated troops meeting in good defensive position resulted in the sunken road position.  It was purely by accident and not to any wisdom of Prentiss. 

I do give him credit for his conduct in the sunken road fighting but I feel he had to fight there as few options were available to him to do other wise.  He was right to surrender and to halt the fighting when he did as it had become hopeless by then.  However, his conduct after surrendering was deplorable because he talked with confederate officers and thereby gave them information they did not know, mainly the arrival of Buell and Lew Wallace. 

His later career in the civil war seems to indicate union leaders had the same opinoin as he held only backwater commands until he left the service.  On Ron's Rating Scale, he is a 3 out of 10.  

Ron

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Ron,

Good overview. I'm still undecided about how to judge Prentiss' post-battle statements though. I've been that way for a long time, even though my overall opinion of Prentiss isn't all that high.  But I base that only in part on his stretching of the truth where his performance at Shiloh is concerned - he would hardly be the only person ever to do something like that - and also on his complete slighting of Peabody. That's one I can't quite get around.

But I think there's a chance that his post-battle statements to his captors might have been an attempt to mislead them, or possibly cause them to second-guess pressing the attack. I'm not certain of that, but I think it's a possibility. In fact, I think I read in Cunningham's book where Prentiss claimed that his statements to Beauregard are what caused that general to call off the attack on the night of the 6th. Something to that effect. Might have read that elsewhere, I can't recall at the moment. But I think that's the way Prentiss would have wanted to sell it, whether he said as much or not.

I think I may have said this before, but to me, there is something just a bit sad about Prentiss after the war. The image that is painted for me is one of a man who spends most of the rest of his life clinging to an event that proved to me his one shining moment, in his country's most cataclysmic war. And I have to wonder if, deep down, a part of him knew that the story as he repeatedly told it wasn't quite the story as it really happened. I just wonder if he ever settled accounts with his own conscience about it. I suspect he didn't. In fact, even though I don't know, I rather doubt he ever faced up to it.

Anyway, I still haven't picked up that copy of CWT, but I'll try and do so here in the next couple of days.

Perry

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Perry;

Check the timing.  Prentiss surrendered about 5:30 or at least after 5 pm.  Beauregard called off the attack about 5:45 pm for the order to reach the front lines about 6 pm.  There was not enough time for Prentiss to be presented to Beauregard and for them to discuss the events of the day.  I doubt that Beauregard even knew that Prentiss had been captured before he issued the order to stop the fighting.

Prentiss completely ignored the role of Colonel Edward Peabody in his (Prentiss) official report of the battle.  Now, I must agree with mny others that Colonel Peabody was the unsung hero of the Battle of Shiloh.

Ron

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I just wanted to tell everyone about the article not start a discussion on Prentiss. I did that awhile ago in the battle section. He is interesting but I think most of us agree that he wasn't the saviour of the Union Army that some thought.

 

Jim G

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Jim - What issue of Civil War Times is the article in? I found a copy at a local Barnes & Noble, but I couldn't find the article by Tim Smith. Can't remember what the issue was, but it was the only one they had on the shelf.

Ron - Hey, it's Prentiss's claim about influencing Beauregard, not mine! :) I did find a reference to Prentiss' exchange with Beauregard in Daniel's book though, on pages 251 & 252. Haven't checked Sword or Cunningham yet. On page 252 of his book, Daniel says that Prentiss gave an interview in June of 1862, in which he claimed that Beauregard stopped the attack based on faulty information that he, Prentiss, had given him. According to the footnote reference (#53, page 370), the interview was for the Georgia Weekly Sun, and Daniel lists the reporter as Peter Alexander. Interesting in that Prentiss was still a prisoner at the time, I think in Libby Prison, so the interview must have taken place there. For whatever it's worth, Beauregard hotly contested Prentiss' claim.

As to whether there was time for Beauregard to have taken Prentiss' statement into consideration in time, I think it was probably possible. Prentiss was captured only about a mile from Beauregard's headquarters near Shiloh Church, so it wouldn't have taken that long to get there. Sunset was apparently somewhere between 6:00 and 6:30, and Withers' division made its final attack around 6:00. According to Daniel, Beauregard sent word to stop the attack "shortly before sunset" (page 250). That's kind of vague, but the timing could probably work to fit in a conversation with Prentiss.

I have no idea how much influence, if any, Prentiss had on Beauregard's thinking, but I guess my main point was that the statements he made to his captors could be open to interpretation. In fact, it appears there is some question about exactly what he may have said. But it's an interesting issue.

Perry

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Thanks Jim. Looks like the December issue isn't in the stores yet, at least not around here. But I'll keep an eye out for it.

On a side note, does anyone else have trouble not calling it Civil War Times Illustrated? That's the only way I knew it for years, and I keep catching myself starting to call it that. I know the original name didn't have the "Illustrated" part, but it did when I first saw it.

Perry

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I remember both with the Illustrated and without it. I also remember when it was the ONLY civil war magazine there was around. I know I am aging myself but I am old.

It is hearting to see Shiloh featured in a magazine. I do get tired of all the eastern theater stuff and the later war campaigns in the west.

Personal opinion on my part!

Jim G

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Jim

I do think you are right Prentiss was not the real hero of Shiloh imo it was Peabody by a mere gut feeling he sent out that dawn patrol that ran into the Confederate attack had he not done that i believe the south would have succeeded in defeating the Union army before dark a great topic.

your friend

perry neal

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Perry

Thanks. I see by the picture accompaning your posting you like Forrest. I would like to read more about him. Can you recommend a good biography?

 

Jim

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I finally found a copy of the Civil War Times article that Jim told us about. I'll post more about it later, but for now, I would recommend that everyone pick up a copy if they can. As Jim said, it's the December issue, and has a big, colorized picture of Benjamin Prentiss on the cover. The article by Tim Smith is very good, as is the accompanying map. There is much about it all that is worth discussing.

Perry

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Guest 23rd tenn

Prentiss never intended anything he told Beauregard to be a deception. He stated the truth as to Wallace and Buell. Why Beauregard failed to act is because of a captured transmission saying that Buell was heading toward Decatur, when instead it was only a brigade. This is straight out of Sword's book. I'm in the middle of rereading it at this time, so I have this fresh in my memory.

I read where someone thinks Peabody is one of the unsung heros, IMO he is. If not for him disobeying orders the battle most probably wouldn't have developed the way it did. I have no doubt that if Peabody would have survived he would have been court martialed by Peabody.

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You know, that's an interesting point about Prentiss possibly leveling charges at Peabody had he lived. I've often wondered what must have been going through Peabody's mind about that, as he rode out to his line that morning after his heated exchange with Prentiss.

But all things considered, my guess is that if Peabody had lived, Prentiss would have been quite happy to just let the whole thing quietly go away. By then it was crystal clear that Peabody had been right about the army being in danger, and Prentiss wrong. And that undoubtedly would have come out in any court martial. Or at the least, Peabody would have called attention to it, loud and long. From what I've learned of him, he does not appear to have been someone to back away from a challenge, especially if he felt he had been wronged somehow.

It's very interesting though, because had Peabody lived - or for that matter if William H. Wallace had lived - Prentiss' post-war reputation might have been quite different where Shiloh was concerned. It appears he was very willing to completely forget about Peabody as it was - as we've talked about, in his report of the battle he didn't even mention that Peabody had been killed, which is stunning all by itself - and I think it would have been no different with that officer still alive. But he might have had a harder time of it. Peabody was no shrinking violet.

As to exactly what Prentiss' motives were when he spoke to his captors, I've never been able to decide for sure what I think about that. The surprising thing is how much information he apparently did give to Beauregard and his officers. But why he did so, I'm still uncertain.

There are some other things from Tim Smith's article that I'd like to get into, but I'll have to save it for later.

Perry

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Looky at what I found: http://www.historynet.com/shilohs-false-hero.htm

Shiloh's False Hero

By Timothy B. Smith

For the better part of that bloody April 6 at the Battle of Shiloh, Union Brigadier General W.H.L. Wallace and his embattled troops in the Army of the Tennessee's 2nd Division had held their own in the Hornets' Nest. Time after time they managed to shoot up, beat down and turn back the onrushing Confederate columns. But as dusk approached, the regiments on their flanks crumpled, and Southern fury raged unabated in the center of the Union line. Having surrounded the exposed Federals in the Hornets' Nest, the Rebels laid down a murderous crossfire on any who tried to flee.

The Federal situation had worsened when, about 5 p.m., a Confederate bullet plowed into the head of Wallace, the primary organizer of the Hornets' Nest defense. Wallace lived for a time—he would finally succumb on April 12, 1862—but at that point he was incapable of further command. Brigadier General Benjamin Prentiss was the only general left standing by virtue of the gory process of elimination that had taken place within the battered Union position.

Prentiss was actually a Southerner fighting for the North. He was born in Virginia in 1819, but his family soon moved west, and he grew up in Missouri and Illinois. While serving in the Illinois militia in the 1840s, he fought against Mexicans and Mormons. He eventually started practicing as an at­torney, but remained a militia colonel.

His Civil War career began in 1861 when he was named colonel of the 10th Illinois, and by August he had been promoted to brigadier general and sent to Missouri to combat irregu­lar Confederate operations. On April 1, just days before the Battle of Shiloh, Prentiss joined Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's Army of the Tennessee as commander of the 6th Division. With the army camped around Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River, Prentiss and his men took up an exposed position near Barnes Field, about two miles from the landing, and he set about organizing and getting to know his 5,400 mostly untested charges.

Early on the morning of April 6, General Albert Sidney Johnston's Rebel army burst forth from the Tennessee woodlands and headed straight for Prentiss' overwhelmed greenhorns. By 9 a.m., most of the rookies had broken under the Confederate on­slaught, but the general managed to rally about 500 soldiers and at 9:30 planted his ragged force along a section of a "sunken" farm road that ran through a dense forest in the Union center. Wallace's men were already there, fighting hard to hold onto a key swatch of land that would eventually be known to history as the Hornets' Nest. Prentiss set up on Wallace's left and was soon reinforced by roughly 575 men of the 23rd Missouri arriving from Pittsburg Landing. That put Prentiss in command of about 1,100 soldiers, a relatively small chunk (12 percent) of the approximately 8,850 Federals currently in the Hornets' Nest.

When Wallace was mortally wounded at 5 p.m. while leading a retreat to Pittsburg Landing near a deadly stretch of land known as "Hell's Hollow," Prentiss was left as the senior commander in the Hornets' Nest. Earlier in the day, General Grant had personally instructed him to hold his position "at all hazards," but by 5:30 Prentiss could see he had no alternative save outright slaughter. He raised a white flag and surrendered the 2,250 soldiers who remained in his charge.

As the conquering Confederates shouted in triumph, Prentiss quickly bellowed, "Yell, boys, you have a right to shout, for you have captured the bravest brigade in the U.S. Army." With those two acts—the reluctant surrender and his decision to make that boastful retort—Benjamin Mayberry Prentiss was on his way to undeservedly earning the weighty sobriquet "Hero of Shiloh."

Every war produces its false heroes, men who claim they did much more than the actual records validate. Stories have recently popped up in the news about Vietnam veterans wearing medals they bought at surplus stores, for example, unscrupulous behavior that insults the soldiers, sailors and Marines who have put forth the true measure of heroism. Sometimes these frauds are found out, but it seems just as often they manage to get away with their deceit.

As awareness of the determined defense of the Hornets' Nest grew in the decades after the war, Prentiss' fame increased by leaps and bounds. He was helped considerably, of course, by the fact that Wallace was dead and unable to vouch for himself. For Wallace there would in fact be no martyrdom like that accorded Albert Sidney Johnston, struck down at Shiloh, or Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, mortally wounded at Chancellorsville. In the case of the Hornets' Nest, selective memory would side with Prentiss.

When it comes to Civil War history—or any history for that matter—there is often a vast difference between what actually happened and what people believe happened. In the case of Shiloh, Prentiss has received great praise for holding the Hornets' Nest long enough to allow Grant to patch together a defensive line at Pittsburg Landing, which ultimately allowed his army to win the battle on April 7.

Historians have also given star treatment to Prentiss and have typically ignored Wallace. No fewer than 15 major Civil War authors credit only Prentiss with having defended the Hornets' Nest (a few mention W.H.L. Wallace in passing, but the emphasis is clearly on Prentiss). In Battle Cry of Freedom, for instance, James McPherson never even mentions Wallace in conjunction with the Hornets' Nest, writing: "Although 18,000 Confederates closed in on Prentiss' 4,500 men….Prentiss surrendered his 2,200 survivors at 5:30, an hour before sunset. Their gritty stand had bought time for Grant."

Bruce Catton states in Grant Moves South that "Prentiss had done precisely what he had been told to do—hold on at all hazards—and so had his men." Most tellingly, in P.G.T. Beauregard: Napoleon in Gray, T. Harry Williams wrote: "Prentiss, under orders from Grant to hold to the last, fought on with 2,200 men….If any one man saved the Federal army at Shiloh, Prentiss was the man." In reality, Wallace was in the Hornets' Nest the whole time, longer than Prentiss, commanding his division from 8:30 a.m. until he was mortally wounded.

The early historiography of Shiloh sheds critical light on how and why historians have wrongly shaped the story of the Hornets' Nest. In the years immediately after the war, Prentiss and the Hornets' Nest were not the focus in accounts of the battle. When early authors did deal with the action in the center of the battlefield, they gave credit to Wallace. That view began to change in the mid-1880s.

Prentiss himself had a lot to do with the shift in public opinion about Shiloh, and he played a major role in swaying later historians into inaccurately chronicling what had occurred during the battle. Not long after being released from Confederate custody in October 1862, he wrote an after-action report that provided a fairly accurate representation of the events in the Hornets' Nest; he even gave Wallace full credit for his actions. During a subsequent round of speaking engagements, however, the gen­eral began making more grandiose claims about his own role.

On his way back home to Quincy, Ill., following his release, Prentiss spoke in Washington, D.C., Chicago and many other cities, always to huge crowds that hung on his every word. In a number of essentially similar speeches, Prentiss recounted his capture and captivity, and was extremely critical of the treatment he and his men received in Confederate custody.

Playing on the emotions of the crowd, Prentiss began a speech in Chicago with, "My friends, I feel free to-night; I am at home in Illinois." Near the end of his oration, Prentiss spoke of meeting with Wallace. "We had determined to hold our position," he thundered, "We determined to sustain our government; we determined there to save the army of Gen. Grant. I think we did it." Loud applause filled the building.

Prentiss gained even more adulation as time wore on and the story of the Hornets' Nest became the centerpiece of the battle, thanks in large part to several famous paintings. In 1885 artist Theophile Poilpot and 12 assistants produced a Hornets' Nest panorama in Chicago that prominently featured Prentiss, and the general himself gave lectures there. An accompanying publication, Manual of the Panorama of the Battle of Shiloh, testified that the Hornets' Nest was "The Thermopylae of modern times…the turning point in the battle."

The inclusion of several panels of the painting as illustrations in Century Magazine made Prentiss' name familiar to even more Americans, and Thure de Thulstrup's 1888 L. Prang and Company lithograph centered on the Hornets' Nest, with Prentiss an obvious focal point. That brought the general additional attention.

W.H.L. Wallace was not prominently featured in the Poilpot panorama, and he was not even included in the Thulstrup painting. By the 1890s, Prentiss was well on his way to being viewed as the key defender of the Hornets' Nest.

In 1900 the Shiloh National Military Park gave another boost to the general's inflated reputation by placing an iron marker that read, "Brig. Gen. B.M. Prentiss surrendered here at 5:30 p.m., April 6, 1862."

When Prentiss died in February 1901, the Washington Post headline on his obituary read "Hero of Shiloh Passes Away." Later that year the Missouri legislature passed a resolution stating, "On the pages of history his name will appear as one on whose bravery and indomitable courage hung the fate of Shiloh battle field and perhaps the fate of a nation." Prentiss apparently had saved more than just the Union army at Shiloh.

Many later authors simply picked up and continued the Prentiss myth. For example, in The Story of Shiloh (1946), Otto Eisenschiml wrote, "For hour on hour, Prentiss here held up the bulk of the Confederate army; when he finally did surrender, he had saved the day for Grant." He later added more detail, stating that Grant "owed his own military survival and subsequent Presidential honors to Prentiss' stubborn and sacrificial resistance."

After the National Park Service took control of the Shiloh battlefield in 1933, the agency's historians institutionalized Prentiss' supposed heroics. The text on the park's visitors brochure mentioned Prentiss but not Wallace, and the Thulstrup painting showing Prentiss in the Hornets' Nest was later used as the brochure's cover image. Likewise, the park's 1954 film Shiloh: Portrait of a Battle heavily concentrated on Prentiss in the Hornets' Nest, leaving other significant actions relatively untouched. At one point, after only mentioning Prentiss, the film's narrator states, "The troops in the Sunken Road held the key to the battlefield." Later the narrator notes that "Prentiss' sacrifice had indeed not been in vain," that his stand had allowed Grant time to build a last line of defense. At another point the narrator refers to veterans who claim they would never be ashamed to say, "I fought with Prentiss in the Sunken Road at Shiloh."

The film, still being shown at the Shiloh visitor center, never mentions that 75 percent of the troops Prentiss surrendered were not under his command when the battle began.

Prentiss' overblown reputation sim­ply does not fit with the facts. His postwar heroic status is demonstrably the result not of heroic action at the Hornets' Nest or anywhere else, but of battlefield my­thology—hype or spin, as we would call it today. And while the general himself was not solely responsible for mistakes propagated in the early historiography of the conflict, we can see that Prentiss took advantage of those skewed reports to enhance his status as well as his income.

Benjamin Prentiss' courage in helping Wallace to defend the Hornets' Nest cannot be debated. But perhaps Prentiss' honor as an officer and a gentleman should rightfully be questioned when we come to examine the battle's storied aftermath.

Jim

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Talking about Prentiss - I find it quite interesting that after he was exchanged he was appointed to the court that tried Fitz John Porter for charges brought up by John Pope relating to the Battle of 2nd Manassas. Porter was convicted by what I perceive to be a stacked court.

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That last paragraph by Tim Smith in his article largely touches on how I've come to feel about Prentiss. It's necessary to separate what he did during the battle from what he did later on. On the whole, I think he did pretty well at Shiloh once the battle began, and we can't really question his personal courage. But suffice to say he overstated his case as time went by.

I think I've said this before, but I believe that Prentiss was fortunate in two respects, where his reputation at Shiloh is concerned. First, the early claims of his division being caught so completely unaware that they were overrun while still in their tents, was patently false, and it gave Prentiss an opportunity to focus attention on just how false it was. He was able to focus on countering such an obvious lie, and in doing so avoid any discussion about the full truth. Which was, of course, that he himself had been caught off-guard.

In other words, had it not been for Peabody's alertness, Prentiss's division may indeed have been caught that unaware.

Second, all the attention later focused on the Hornet's Nest meant that much less attention focused on his actions the night before and the morning of the battle. This obviously works in Prentiss's favor. The less attention focused on the fact that he, like Sherman, had ignored warnings about any potential danger, the better.

What I don't think any of us can ever know about that though, is how much conscious thought Prentiss gave to that idea. I strongly suspect that he simply avoided it as much as possible, even in his own mind. Too unpleasant a subject to deal with. So, I'm guessing he quite simply didn't.

I personally believe that there were some rather deep, mortifying issues lurking in the corners of Prentiss's mind where Shiloh was concerned. Including that, first, he had not been ready for the attack, second, that his division had almost literally been shattered, and third, that he held on too long in the Hornet's Nest and was forced to surrender when he should have fallen back.

I think he dealt with these things in two ways. By re-framing some of it in his own mind, and by ignoring the rest. It's a guess on my part. Can't support it with concrete proof, even though I do think there are clues. But at this point, it's what I think probably happened.

Put another way, I'm not convinced he was consciously trying to cover up his inattentiveness prior to the battle, or the fact (as I view it) that he held out too long in the Hornet's Nest. He was covering it up, yes, but I'm not fully sold on the idea that he was doing so on purpose. I think he may simply have gotten to the point in his own mind where the story as he repeated it was the way it really happened.

When something gets too unpleasant to face, sometimes we just flat don't want to face it.

Perry

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It's possible he thought later about his actions and orders early in the battle and the impact they may have had, but I guess it's hard to say. Like a lot of things where Prentiss is concerned. But as I think we've talked about, I do believe his OMG moment came after ordering your ancestor's regiment and Hickenlooper's battery to swing around toward Shaver, when Gladden suddenly re-appeared and brought company along. That's when I think Prentiss understood that he was up against more than just an isolated enemy force. And by then it was way past too late.

Perry

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yes i do think Prentiss did not do well at the beginning of the battle but did do well as it progressed he did hold the hornests nest line for 5plus hours which i think saved the Union army and i go out on a limb here and say won the war for the Union itself but were i think he failed is later in life he did not pay tribute to Peabody which he shud have done as well as an apology for the thrashing he gave him as the fight started

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