In the Spring of 1862 Americans were still relatively naïve regarding the true nature of war. While battles had been fought in western Virginia, at Bull Run, and in the increasing unruly western border states, large-scale combat such as would become all too deadly and familiar to American citizens had not yet reared its bloody head. All of that changed in two short days along the Tennessee River when the armies of Ulysses S. Grant and Albert Sydney Johnston met at a small village near Shiloh Meeting House. There, on April 6-7, 1862, a battle was fought that claimed over 23,000 casualties, an amount greater than those suffered by American soldiers in all the nation’s prior wars combined. Shiloh was a dreadful wakeup call to the divided nation and is the subject of Winston Groom’s latest Civil War history.
As renowned novelist and popular historian Winston Groom points out Shiloh, “was the first great and terrible battle of the Civil War and the one that set the stage for those to come.” Shiloh surpassed not only all prior Civil War battles in terms of ferocity and human cost but also shook the foundational belief held by both sides that the war would be sift, relatively bloodless, and glorious. Soldiers who fought at Shiloh were disabused of all these false beliefs and used words to describe at least a part of what they had seen that were guaranteed to help those back home to prepare for a long war as well. One soldier wrote home after the battle and stated, “I cannot bring myself to tell you of the things I saw upon yesterday.” Another veteran of Shiloh noted, “The scenes of the past few days beggar description.”
This powerful effect not only on the men who fought at Shiloh but upon the nation at large led historian Otto Eisenschimel, one of the earliest chroniclers Shiloh, to state, “I consider Shiloh the most dramatic battle ever fought in American soil; if not the most dramatic battle ever fought anywhere. True, Gettysburg was bigger; Vicksburg was more decisive; Antietam even more bloody, but no other battle was interwoven with so many momentous ifs. If any of these ifs had gone the other way, it would have had incalculable consequences.”
In Shiloh 1862 Winston Groom adds his perspective to the historical research and writing that has already been done regarding this Civil War battle. As is the case with other historical works created by Groom, the author takes a personality based approach. First, Groom focuses about half the book on reconstructing the lives, character, and experiences of leaders who played a significant role at Shiloh. In this vein, readers are provided biographical sketches of men such as Grant, Johnston, Sherman, and Beauregard.
In each instance, Groom is meticulous in crafting a personalized look at these men who came together at Shiloh and made history. Groom is very effective at bringing to life these men and does so through utilizing contemporary accounts, memoirs, letters and other primary sources. Groom also relies fairly heavily on creditable secondary sources and in this way helps his readers better understand the personalities that had so great an effect on the course of events at Shiloh. At his best, Groom is able to compare and contrast Grant and Johnson as men who came from very different backgrounds an whose lives were changed or ended near the shores of the Tennessee.
The Grant that Groom presents is one that should be familiar to students of Civil War history. Grant was a man who ably served in the pre-war army, lost his way, struggled financially, limped back into military service at the war’s outset, experienced successes, and very nearly lost his career at Shiloh. Albert Sydney was once considered the foremost soldier in America. A brilliant military career led President Jefferson Davis to see Johnston as a pillar with which the Southern Confederacy could be supported. Early war setbacks led to a public erosion of confidence in Johnston and motivated him to be penultimately aggressive at Shiloh. Groom includes the famous Johnston quote of, “I would fight them if they were a million” as an example of this spirit. In the end Grant would prevail and Johnston would die but the results of Shiloh certainly could have been much different.
In telling the story of the battle itself, Groom includes numerous observations drawn from the writings of Civil War veterans. Readers will fully realize just how brutal, chaotic, and nearly decisive Shiloh was. However, in the end the Confederates were defeated, the northern spirit of elation over early successes in the western theater was blunted, and the pathway to a long and destructive war was laid.
In this fine book Winston Groom tells the story of this historic battle in a way that should be very approachable to his readers. Groom also captures the pathos of an event that fundamentally changed the American psyche. In Groom’s own words, “All battles are tragic. The larger the battle, the greater the tragedy. And Shiloh ranks high on the list of the largest Civil War engagements. In human suffering it left many widows and orphans and mothers to weep. It almost on its own account changed the mind-set of the military, the politicians, and the American people-North and South-regarding what they had unleashed by creating a civil war.”
Title: Shiloh, 1862
Author: Winston Groom
Publisher: National Geographic
-Book review by Greg M. Romaneck
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