“Shiloh” by Shelby Foote – A United States Civil War Battle Re-enactment

“Shiloh” by Shelby Foote (1952)  –  226 pages

Shiloh, a two day battle which started on April 6, 1862, was one of the largest battles of the U. S. Civil War.  The North had had much success in early 1862, driving its army into southern Tennessee almost to Mississippi.  Before the Shiloh battle, the South saw an opportunity to attack and drive the Northern Army up against the Tennessee River and then destroy them.  Much of the fighting took place at Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River.

“Shiloh” by Shelby Foote is an account of the battle from the first person perspective of seven different characters who participated in the battle.  These seven characters are well-placed as adjutants, etc., so they can relate the back stories of the major generals who participated in the battle including Grant, Sherman, A.S. Johnston, Beauregard, and Forrest.   At the same time, they are out on the battlefield so they see the fighting, the twisted bodies of the dead soldiers lying in the fields and woods, the makeshift sawing off of legs and arms of wounded soldiers.   In one memorable scene in the novel, our observer sees the contorted bodies of a dead Union soldier and a dead Confederate soldier across a dirt road from each other.  Apparently they aimed and pulled the trigger on their guns at exactly the same moment shooting each other in the forehead.

Usually I don’t read too much war fiction, but even in such literary classics as ‘War and Peace’ and “A Farewell to Arms” large sections are devoted to battle scenes.  One of the innovations of Shelby Foote is to tell the story of the battle from the point of view of the soldiers on the ground rather than the grand strategies of the generals which usually don’t translate to the ground anyhow.  One of the major themes of “Shiloh” is the confusion about orders on the ground especially for the Confederate soldiers.  The Confederates’ top general A. S. Johnston was killed early in the battle.  His death caused those under him to not know for sure what to do next.  Thus Nathan Forrest, the Confederate cavalry officer, knew that Union re-enforcements were soon to arrive, and that the Confederates better attack quickly.  However he could not convince the other officers who had not received such orders to attack at night.

Foote does not question war, the usefulness or uselessness of two groups of men murdering and maiming each other.  He takes this for granted.  In the Shiloh battle, the North had 13,047 casualties (1,754 killed, 8,408 wounded, and 2,885 missing or captured) and the South had 10,699 casualties (1,728 killed, 8,012 wounded, and 959 missing or captured).

Shelby Foote is interested only in telling the real story of the “Shiloh” battle, not about any of the characters.  The characters are pretty much interchangeable voices, except the Southern soldiers talk with a southern accent, and the Northern soldiers talk with a northern accent.   I suppose there is also a tendency in war fiction for a soldier character to be ‘Every Soldier’ and thus have only minimal individual traits.  This lack of character individuality is carried to an extreme in “Shiloh”.  This book could almost be called a re-enactment rather than a novel.   I could see how groups doing actual re-enactments of Shiloh could use this book as a blueprint.

I probably would have preferred a novel with more individual characterization.  However for anyone who wants to get the full story of what happened in the battle of Shiloh, this book is an excellent source.

4 responses to this post.

  1. Thanks for this Tony. I probably won’t rush out to buy it … like you I like good characterisation, to get into people’s hearts and heads. The only war novels I read, really, are those that focus on character and mostly ones that deal with the ordinary man rather than the generals.

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  2. Hi WhisperingGums,
    ‘Shiloh’ is about as far removed as you can get from the people in Jane Austen, but I enjoy reading many different kinds of fiction and also have some interest in history.

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  3. Posted by joe sabbagh on October 6, 2011 at 2:11 AM

    The Rebel general killed at Shiloh was A. S. Johnston (Albert Sidney), not A. P. Johnston as in your text. Possible confusion with another secessionist officer, A. P. (Ambrose Powell) Hill…

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