Friday, November 7, 2008

Book Review: "Shiloh: Bloody April"

In writing a campaign history about the Battle of Shiloh, author Wiley Sword, in "Shiloh: Bloody April" has tackled an incredibly complex battle that took place on a massive scale with far-reaching repercussions. The primary one being the fact, because of the nearly 24,000 casualties and savage nature of the fighting, forever changed the way this nation looked at war.
Sword has done an excellent, though not flawless job of presenting this campaign to the reader. We get a solid introduction to the events preceding the battle and the how and why the opposing forces came together as they did. Each of the primary officers involved; Johnson, Bragg, Beauregard, Grant, Sherman, Buell, get an adequate treatment that is clearly foreshortened for the sake of brevity. The text is well-balanced and liberally sprinkled with references from both sides of the battle lines. There is a wonderful grasp of the themes surrounding the campaign, and they are laid out in a clear and concise fashion.
The book ended with a series of individual questions that address all of the important issues: Beauregard's withdrawal order the night of April 6th, the death of General Albert Johnson, who was the commanding officer for the South at Shiloh, with both the short and long-term consequences addressed, the fighting at the Hornet's Nest and the possibility of a Confederate breakthrough, Grant's attack order of April 7th, and, interestingly, a section entitled "Tactical Lessons of the Battlefield." This last one was truly unique, and left me wanting a much longer treatment of this issue.
The strength of the book, and the reason it is regarded as a classic treatment of the Battle of Shiloh, is Sword's ability to put the reader right in the midst of the battle amidst the noise, chaos, and violence. We vividly see how the troops were by-in-large inexperienced, the terrain was by turns rocky, swampy, flat, forest, shrub-covered, all the while split by ravines, the weather was marked by torrential rain, and the fighting was up close, personal, and particularly savage. Sword does not sanitize the battle and does not shy away from the blood and death, with the effect of reminding us, over and over again, that there is no glory in such destruction and that what the troops had to go through is just unforgettably horrible.
Shiloh was a hellish place, and the battlefield was unbelievably confused. In order to follow such a battle, the text is not enough. All of the names, terrain points, regiments, etc get jumbled together without a frame of reference. The solution is to have accurate, consistent, and plentiful maps. The maps in this book, however, are its biggest weakness. First, there is no single battlefield reference map with all of the locations and initial troop dispositions available to look back at. There is a map at the beginning, but it's totally incomplete. The maps are inconsistent, ie, the notations change from division to brigade to regimental level. Also, when looking at different parts of the lines on a map, everything else is excluded, so it looks like the action is happening in a vacuum.It takes a bit of flipping back and forth, which is at times frustrating, but the ebb and flow of the battle can be followed.
This battle was a national catastrophe that shocked the people of both North and South, both in its scale and its brutality. After Shiloh, there was no argument that this was going to be a long and difficult war. Sword's effort does a fantastic job of capturing the broad scale of the campaign, as well as the horror of the fighting at its most basic level. This is not a flawless regimental history, but "Shiloh: Bloody April" gets a strong recommendation. You will come away not only with a greatly enhanced fund of knowledge about this campaign, but also with a heavy heart.

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