All Things Shiloh (in Words)
Next Friday is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh fought on April 6-7, 1862 in a remote area of Tennessee about 20 miles northeast of Corinth, Mississippi. Confederate forces under Albert Sydney Johnston made a Sunday morning surprise attack against the Federal troops led by General Ulysses S. Grant. At the time, it was the bloodiest engagement fought on the North American continent with nearly 25,000 casualties, exceeding the combined casualties of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War.
I just finished reading an advance copy of Winston Groom’s latest book, Shiloh, 1862 (he’s appearing in Atlanta, April 11) and it has prodded me to revisit many of the books and stories I’ve read about Shiloh over the years. Here’s a list:
The battle was named after the little Shiloh church where at sunrise, swarming butternut-clad troops overran the Union camps and nearly drove Grant’s soldiers into the Tennessee River. Shiloh was an ancient city in present day Israel and is mentioned in the Bible:
“And the whole congregation of the children of Israel assembled together at Shiloh, and set up the tabernacle of the congregation there. And the land was subdued before them.” (Joshua 18:1)
Heroes in Blue and Gray, by Robert E. Alter (1965); Chapter 3: The Slaughter at Shiloh
This book accompanied me when my parents took my brother and me on a trip to Shiloh shortly after the 1961-65 Civil War Centennial. The chapter ends with Grant’s superior commander Henry “Old Brains” Halleck accusing Grant of drunkenness in his report to President Abraham Lincoln.
“You don’t say!” replied Lincoln with a twinkle in his eye, “What brand does he drink? I’d like to send a barrel to my other generals.”
In his new book, Winston Groom writes there is no evidence that Lincoln ever said this. Probably no twinkle either.
The Civil War: A Narrative. Fort Sumter to Perryville, by Shelby Foote (1958)
This first book of Foote’s 2000 page trilogy covers the actual battle, but not in great detail. Before this magnum opus, Foote wrote a work of fiction in 1952 called Shiloh, which tells the story of the battle from the viewpoint of several characters.
“What I Saw of Shiloh,” by Ambrose Bierce (1881)
Bierce is the only major 19th century American writer who saw extensive combat in the Civil War. Bierce wrote about the experiences extensively, trying in vain to assuage his nightmares and survivor’s guilt. Many of Bierce’s stories like “Shiloh” describe the carnage in extremely graphic terms, which combined with his cutting wit, led to his nickname of “Bitter” Bierce. “Shiloh” showcases Bierce’s wit and cynicism, especially when he writes about the battle’s namesake:
“This humble edifice, centrally situated in the heart of a solitude, and conveniently accessible to the super sylvan crow, had been christened Shiloh Church, whence the name of the battle. The fact of a Christian church – assuming it to have been a Christian church – giving name to a wholesale cutting of Christian throats by Christian hands need not be dwelt on here; the frequency of its recurrence in the history of our species has somewhat abated the moral interest that would otherwise attach it it.”
Co. Aytch: Or, A Side Show of the Big Show, by Sam R. Watkins (1962)
Originally published as a newspaper serial in the 1880s, Watkins served with the same Tennessee regiment from May 1861 to April 1865 and wrote about the life of the common Confederate soldier. On the second day of the battle, a reinforced Grant attacks the Rebel positions. Watkins writes,
“We made a good fight on Monday morning and I was taken by surprise when the order came for us to retreat instead of advance. But as I said before, reader, a private soldier is nothing but an automaton…”
Shiloh and Other Stories, by Bobbie Ann Mason (1982)
In the title story of this collection, Leroy and Norma Jean Moffitt try to reconcile their marriage while picnicking in the Shiloh National Military Cemetery. Mason writes that “the cemetery, a green slope dotted with white markers, looks like a subdivision site.” The view distracts Leroy, who can’t comprehend why Norma Jean wants to leave him. The story is as haunting as a visit to the battlefield at dawn.
Paddling the Tennessee River: A Voyage on Easy Water, by Kim Trevathan (2001)
In 1998, Trevathan and his dog Jasper took a canoe trip from the headwaters of the Tennessee River near Knoxville to where it empties into the Ohio River near Paducah, Kentucky. On a warm summer morning they came ashore near Pittsburg Landing to pay their respects to the fallen of Shiloh. Trevathan writes:
“Like a couple of pickets, Jasper and I crept along a swampy trail through the woods. The river was far below us, just visible through the thick forest. After a half a mile of stepping carefully through knee-deep grass looking for snakes, I emerged onto the manicured lawn of the national park and wiped the spider webs from my eyes…We paused at the tombstones of the Union soldiers in the shade of oaks, and Jasper sniffed as if he could still smell the twenty thousand corpses that once lay in the vicinity. He knew enough not to raise his leg here, even if he was from Alabama.”
No doubt my trip to Shiloh National Battlefield Park almost a half century ago is still cemented in my memory – like a granite monument covered with pyramids of cannonballs – and it led to my becoming an amateur Civil War buff. Even though such knowledge won’t win you any bar bets, (though it once proved useful during a job interview) it still remains a lifelong interest that never seems to go away.
Editor’s note: this post was updated 04/04/12 at 8:54 am est to change/correct 25th anniversary to 150th.
- Photo credits: National Park Service (battlefield photos), Shiloh book cover comes courtesy of National Geographic, which also provided a reviewer’s copy of the book.