The war between the states, as some prefer to call the U.S. Civil War, is what first comes to mind when I encounter George Santayana’s quip, “Those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it.” This applies to war in general. When each new one comes along we seem to be unaware of the carnage involved and skip gaily into the glorious fray sending the professionals along with the young and naïve as cannon fodder – being too busy, as Dick Cheney said about his failure to serve in Vietnam, to actually attend ourselves.
Another application of the phrase is to military strategy. Winston Groom mentions in his book on the battle of Shiloh (Shiloh, 1862) that toward the end of the war the military leadership began to realize that Napoleonic tactics were no longer appropriate, given advances in weaponry. Soldiers of both sides were marching smartly across open fields into the jaws of death, as it were. Unfortunately the lesson came less from revulsion at the cost in lives and limbs than from the realization, at least in the south, that they were running out of warm bodies to fling into the caldron.
When World War I. Raised its ugly head, it brought us carnage on an even grander scale. The great military minds had suffered yet another bout of amnesia, utilizing once again Napoleonic strategies, marching old-fashioned soft bodies into new fangled hard contraptions such as machine guns, poison gas and artillery of unprecedented size and capacity. One wonders what went on in the military colleges. Did they study dusty tomes from the ancient past, welcoming innovation of weaponry but punishing as heretical any corresponding innovations in strategy? Santayana suggests that this is to be expected even though West Point could not have been ignorant of history. Perhaps it is selective history that is the problem.
Then there are the politicians, the statesmen (mostly men, yeah) whose history reading is selective indeed, filtered through a fine screen of rosy if deadly patriotism and/or corruption… or sociopathic dysfunction.
So, enough editorializing. Groom’s book covers the battle, enlivening the chess analogy often employed in Civil War books, to tedious effect, by selecting characters of all ranks and following them through the battle, characters who left memoirs, letters, diaries and of course those who went on to become famous, failed business man Grant to General Grant to President Grant. Other notables in the battle were General Sherman of march-to-the-sea fame, Henry Stanley who later “found Doctor Livingston”, Ambrose Bierce, later a popular writer who disappeared in Mexico, and infamous calvary officer, Nathan Bedford Forest, whose name was removed from a street in Atlanta when finally black politicians came into prominence in the 1970s and resented his involvement with the Klu Klux Klan.
One anecdote illustrating Forest’s reputation: after the Confederate retreat Sherman proceeded to engage in a little harassment. He came upon Forest’s calvary unit who immediately attacked. Forest got out beyond his troops and suddenly was surrounded by Yankees trying to kill him. He reached down, scooped up a federal officer and using him as a shield, made his escape. The man was apparently fearless, a definite candidate to have a southern street named after him. In retrospect some offered that the war might have had a different outcome had Forest been given command.
Some ink is spent rehearsing the climate leading up to the war. There were heartless slavers and zealous abolitionists, anti-and pro-secessionists, slave and free states and territories. Gore Vidal, in his usual iconoclastic mischievousness, has suggested that many lives would have been saved and suffering averted had the North simply accepted secession, adding that slavery would have died out naturally. Grant called the Union the greatest form of government ever achieved and it was worth war, in his mind, to prevent its dissolution. He believed, or at least said, that democracy itself was at stake. I have heard more than one person invested in the “southern heritage,” claim that slaves enjoyed their position and were well treated. Others see the conflict as a clash between north and south ruling classes with the average person having little actual investment to defend. Quite a range of opinion on the subject.
Vidal was certainly correct that there was massive death and suffering. Groom depicts horrific stories, gleaned from his sources, of repeated withering assaults, obscene decapitations and carnage from the various, devilish creations of death machinery. Artillery of all kinds, sometimes balls and shot, sometimes nails and chains, thinned the ranks of attackers (thinning the ranks, now there’s a euphemism)… the rifles and pistols and bayonets, swords, and, whatever was at hand in a desperate horror show of close quarters combat. The author does a little macabre math, utilizing the fact that a soldier could fire three shots per minute so that the air on the battlefield would have been abuzz with deadly flying metal, 12,000 per minute per brigade… and there were 30 brigades.
Artillery batteries poured devastating fire on troops and attempted to silence each other so that in addition to the metal just mentioned in the air there were cannon balls also aloft. A strange phenomenon was noted that sometimes balls would come bouncing across a field seemingly in slow motion and you could step out of the way and watch it go by. But there were those who would see it coming and impulsively put up their boot to stop it and that miscalculation cost them a foot.
Speaking of limbs, the primitive nature of battlefield medicine meant that the surgeon’s saw was the most frequently used tool. Before antibiotics, the prospect of gangrene and death were treated with a liberally applied procedure called amputation. Outside hospital tents there were piles of limbs and hospital boats could be seen chugging downstream with legs and arms regularly being tossed overboard.
Other near unspeakable happenings were fires started by the constant barrage, trapping the screaming wounded in an inferno. On top of that, wild hogs would come foraging, not distinguishing between the dead and the merely wounded.
Not to put too fine a point on it but the soldier victims of foolish politicians were far from enjoying the glittering, honorable glories of combat but rather suffered what Sherman, who surely knew of what he spoke when he said, “War is Hell.”
So, in a nutshell, or a shell casing: a major force of Confederate troops, surprised an equal number of Union troops along the Tennessee River, at first light, June 6, 1862. In the course of a ferocious day of fighting, the Federals were pushed back into a precarious position, bounded by river and swampland. As in most military encounters, inexplicable flukes arose to now advantage once side, now the other. Acts of imbecilic stupidity and awesome bravery in turn had their stupendous effects on both sides. The Federals were certainly advantaged in equipment, having iron-sided boats from which to lob explosives, and heavier artillery but the chaos of a battlefield makes for unpredictable outcomes. The decisive advantage for the Union was probably a 25,000 soldier army which arrived late on the first of the two day battle, which provided fresh troops to fight an exhausted Confederate force.
Groom closes with a synopsis of the subsequent lives of the characters he selected, those who survived. Grant of course became President where a tendency to fall under the spell of charlatans undid him; Bierce disappeared, caught up in the 1913 Mexican revolution; Wallace became the bestselling novelist of the 19th century; Stanley found Livingston; Sherman fled politics for western military operations (another euphemism) and Nathan B. Forest survived to the ripe old age of 56, but not before rising to leadership in the KKK and dissolving it in disgust over its behavior (so claims Groom). It of course arose again when “needed,” like cancer or nuclear power, ever alert for the worst of human corruption to which it can embed and resurrect itself.