‘Shiloh’ brisk account of brutal battle

SHILOH, 1862. By Winston Groom. National Geographic. 446 pages. $30.

At the end of the first week of April, 150 years ago, one of the decisive and bloody clashes of the War Between the States took place over the passage of two days above the high bluffs of the Tennessee River on a rolling, wooded landscape periodically accented by ravines and creeks.

This scene was marked by the simple log-built Shiloh Methodist Church, ironically named for the Hebrew word for “place of peace.”

The story is written by Alabama’s Winston Groom, author of a 18 excellently written books, almost equally divided between histories and novels, not least the best-selling “Forrest Gump.”

All of the author’s fine story-telling abilities are on display here.

The fight, waged by such luminaries as Ulysses S. Grant, Albert Sidney Johnston, Don Carlos Buell, Pierre Beauregard, Leonidas Polk and William T. Sherman, shattered the commonly held illusion that one great battle would decide the outcome of the war.

The intensity of fighting was unexpected and the huge casualties on either side were shocking. It presaged the terrible and bloody three years that followed.

As in the tactics employed in just about any great conflict, mistakes were made. The author does not indulge himself as an armchair general or speculate on what might have happened had Grant fortified his riverside encampment or if Beauregard, who took over near the end of the first day after Johnston was killed, had continued to maintain the pressure on the Union lines when they were clearly in retreat.

Groom briskly relates the course of the actions and allows the reader to draw his own conclusions.

The Battle of Shiloh, similar to the Battle of Waterloo, has been the subject of much study and analysis. The battlefield terrain was mostly won or lost by a series of smaller than regimental units doing the fighting. The “fog of war,” literally and figuratively, played a large part in determining who was in control, or not.

The outcomes of Shiloh and Waterloo eventually derailed the larger political visions of the assailants.

The author’s fine historical perspective and excellent narrative skills give an interesting and complete account of this brutal two-day mauling as well as a good survey of the warriors who led and the soldiers who followed.

Reviewer Ben McC. Moise, an author and freelance writer based in Charleston