Friday, February 25, 2011

Shiloh: Battlefield, Books and Ghosts

As part of an ongoing long-term research project I am reading various books pertaining to the Civil War. Of particular interest to me is the battle at Shiloh in Tennessee on April 6th and 7th, 1862.

The best book I have read about Shiloh (and I have read a great deal) is James Lee McDonough’s Shiloh – In Hell Before Night. Originally published in 1977, a reprint is currently available from The University of Tennessee Press. At a sparse 260 pages including footnotes, bibliography and index, McDonough’s book manages to clarify brigade and army movements in a concise and understandable fashion. Most Books about this pivotal battle get bogged down with facts and lose sight of the riveting personal accounts that have helped make this battle one of the most studied in American military history.

The logistics, blunders, victories and tragedies that combined to make Shiloh so fascinating are clearly delineated here: Grant and Sherman’s overconfidence, Beauregard’s alleged blunder that cost the Confederates a victory, Buell’s late but still timely arrival to save the Union forces, the peach orchard, the bloody pond, the sunken road and the Shiloh Church are all as clear to the discerning reader as if photographed today. The ebb and flow of battle has never been more clear than it is in McDonough’s excellent book.

Also of interest, and for comparison purposes, I recommend Shiloh: The Battle that Changed the Civil War (1997) by Larry J. Daniel. A much longer, detailed work, the Daniel book takes a slightly different approach which is not unusual for scholars of the Civil War. Each student of history invariably arrives at a different conclusion when speculating on the battle’s dynamics, but speculation doesn’t change the outcome. Maybe that’s part of the fascination – the disparate opinions and passionate arguments over Beauregard’s reasoning and Grant’s lackadaisical attitude toward the enemy all serve to highlight a ferocious but ultimately tragic chapter in American history.

In relation to Shiloh, I recommend Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War edited by William McCann. Bierce served with the Union Army and wrote several firsthand accounts which are included here along with his fictional pieces such as the famous “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” His short non-fiction piece, “What I Saw of Shiloh” makes for compelling reading.

Meanwhile, the research continues involving my great, great, great grandfather who fought with Wisconsin’s famed “Iron Brigade” until he lost a leg at the battle of South Mountain. That story, and those of other ghosts, will be told here on another day….

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