Shiloh 1862 – Book Review
Shiloh 1862. Book review. Winston Groom. National Geographic Society, 2012. 448 pages, 44 photographs, 10 maps. Hardback. $30.00
Shiloh 1862, by Winston Groom, focuses on the events leading up to the Battle of Shiloh, giving the background of both sides by putting the reader into the mindset of the participants as they marched inexorably toward their showdown in southern Tennessee, April 1862. Groom, best known for his novel, Forrest Gump, takes us back in time to Shiloh, which at the time was the largest battle ever fought on the American continent; more American casualties were suffered in those two days than "during the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War combined." This is Groom’s third book on the American Civil War, following Shrouds of Glory, about the battle of Nashville, and Vicksburg 1863.
In the first half of the book, Groom focuses his narrative on the lead-up to Shiloh, describing the successful Union campaigns that resulted in the capture of Ft. Henry and Ft. Donelson near the Tennessee–Kentucky border and the subsequent advance of the Army of the Tennessee into the Mississippi Valley. Groom’s previous two Civil War books also focused on the Western theater.
In Shiloh, which is set earlier in Civil War than are his previous books, Groom shows the relative inexperience of both sides, with many soldiers who were untried in combat, and many generals new to commanding men in such large numbers. All of the major characters are less experienced than in Groom’s other Civil War books
As characters are introduced, he goes into detail about their pre-war careers, paying particular attention to Union generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman and Confederate generals Albert Sidney Johnston and Pierre G. T. Beauregard. This is typical of much Civil War writing, and it gives insight into the idiosyncrasies, backgrounds and personalities that guided the actions of these men on the battlefield. It was at Shiloh where Grant and Sherman cemented the partnership that would bring victory to the Union and weathered the criticism of jealous superiors like the commander of the Department of the Mississippi, Major General Henry W. Halleck, and of peers like Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand.
On the Confederate side, the failure of the Confederate attacks and subsequent loss of the battle resulted in acrimony that poisoned relationships in the Confederate high command for the rest of the war. Confederate general Beauregard lamented, "I thought I had Grant just where I wanted him, and could finish him up next day."
Basing his book on primary accounts, Groom has culled telling anecdotes from many participants, with viewpoints as varied as privates on the front line to civilian diarists like nine-year-old Elsie Duncan Hurt, to the recollections of noted explorer, Henry Morton Stanley, who fought for the Confederacy and later famously found explorer and medical missionary Dr. David Livingston, who had gone missing in Africa.
Accounts such as Stanley’s are amply supported by Groom’s prose, which starkly details the valor shown by both sides and the terrible carnage of industrial warfare in a time where battlefield medicine was rudimentary:
Stanley and the rest of Shaver’s brigade were undergoing one of the most vexing of infantry predicaments – a large body of men exposed and pinned down by enemy fire, with casualties mounting. To remain there was suicide, to retreat unthinkable. There was but one choice and the difficulty of executing it was testimony to the valor necessary among the officers and noncommissioned officers of that day and time.
Shiloh was the battle that showed that the Civil War would not end quickly and that much bloodshed still lay ahead. Groom shows in broad detail the ebb and flow of the battle and how the Union was able to weather initial setbacks, while the Confederates were not able to capitalize on their early advantage and, because of disorganization and inexperience, could not get the victory that was so needed by their side.
As befitting a book published by National Geographic, 10 maps are provided, with six of them focusing on the battlefield itself from 5am on the first day, April 6, to the end of the second day. Scaled at one inch to a mile, the maps show the major terrain features and directions of attack and the front lines. Though in grayscale, the maps are eminently serviceable and help the reader visualize the changing front lines and the general topography of the battlefield. Forty-four black-and-white photographs include the key general officers of both sides, pictures of the Union gunboats that were at the battle, some illustrations of key moments of the battle, and the monuments erected to memorialize the battlefield.
Completing this book is a list of the units involved from corps down to regiments with their commanding officers, adjutants, and principal aides, and their fate during the battle. At the beginning of the book is a brief primer on Civil War terminology, explaining military units, weapons, and tactics of 1862.
Shiloh 1862 will appeal both to readers who are unfamiliar with the battle or the American Civil War and to those who are well versed. Endnotes provided after each chapter help clarify historical circumstances and explain unfamiliar terms, making this book well suited as an introduction to the Civil War itself through the microcosm of one of its earliest major battles. Groom’s elegant prose helps bring this time in history to life, and his ability to tell a story makes this book eminently readable. For those who are well read on Shiloh, Groom’s book can provide a fresh take on the battle itself with some new sources, such as Elsie Hurt’s unpublished diary. The thorough bibliography also provides many further sources for those wishing to delve deeper into the subject. As a non-fiction depiction of the battle, Shiloh 1862 immerses you into a climactic moment in American history with no need for dramatic embellishment.
Tim Tow writes about history, technology, and civil-military relationships.