© 2012 Winston Groom
Although I’ve been aware of the small Winston Groom collection of Civil War books in my home library for years, I’ve never thought to read them because I invariably associate Groom with Forrest Gump; not exactly the expected pedegree for an historian. But Friday afternoon I made a snap decision to visit the Shiloh battlefield, and Groom’s Shiloh 1862 seemed the best guide available. The book proved a pleasant surprise, with extensive background information and much drawing-from first hand resources. That’ll learn me to judge a book by its author, I suppose!
Shiloh 1862 proved extremely readable; it’s narrative-driven popular history, with lots of human interest stories (sourced from diaries of the time) and biographies of some of the more prominent generals. Groom first explores the background of the battle itself — why it was fought, and where. The ‘why’ begins before the conflict even starts, with Groom chronicling the sectional conflicts within the States , particularly the growing sense in the South that the north was out to ruin it with tariffs and attacks on the plantation-slavery system that controlled southern politics. Groom notes that in April 1862, the war was not quite a year old, and many still thought one good battle would end the conflict, as if it were a duel for honor, and the parties might retire once shots had been discharged. The Federal army in the west had already been successful in undermining the long-term success of the Confederacy by April 1862, in establishing control of the Tennessee River and sending the Confederate army in retreat from Kentucky as a consequence. Now, using the river, the Federal army moved to invade the deep south itself — by landing in southwestern Tennessee, 20 miles from a prominent rail intersection in Mississippi. A strike against the rails in Corinth would sever the South’s only complete east-west line, and make it easier for the Federal army to establish control of the Mississippi river, splitting the Confederacy in two. The Confederate army in the west moved to crush the growing Federal force before it grew larger and fortified. Thus the armies converged on the plains and hills around Pittsburg Landing, a site chosen by he Federals because the undulating terrain and marshy areas that greatly restricted avenues of attack. Perhaps because the terrain itself was so forboding, the Federal army’s masters did not bother to fortify — and they didn’t take seriously hints that the southerners were on the move.
The Confederate army, led by General Albert Sidney Johnson, aimed to strike hard and fast at the dozing Yanks, to push them away from their river-lifeline and into the swamps. Weather and logistical hiccoughs bogged the army down, though, by at least a full day – a ‘fatal’ delay, Groom notes for reasons we later understand. The terrain made it difficult to maintain reliable communications, and once a Union patrol encountered the marching force at Farley Field and the battle commenced, Johnston was forcibly reminded of Napoleon’s maxim: no plan survives contact with the enemy. The Confederates had intended to maximize pressure on the Union left, driving them away from the river — but through miscommunication, instead devoted most of their resources to the Union right. Once a massive artillery battery finally broke the Union center — after six hours of stolid defense by midwestern farmboys — the Federal army was pushed into a tight circle around the landing — and there, across the water in the late afternoon, were reinforcements from General Buell — and back at the hornet’s nest, the Confederate general lay dying. His successor, General Beauregard, believed the Yankees whipped — and, also believing that Buell had marched to Decatur (185 miles away), he was content to call it a day. The next morning. the enlarged and reinvigorated Union army launched a punishing counterattack that saw the Confederates pull back from their previous day’s gains. After two days of hard fighting, all that had been accomplished were thousands of deaths – – nearly 24,000 casualties.
Groom captures the chaos and desperation of the military aspect, but it’s not the only part of the story. He also covers the battle’s effects on the people who lived around the landing, the farmers whose livelihoods and homes were destroyed, whose children were at risk. So much firepower was active across those woods and plains that there was seemingly no safe place to be; one wounded man, trying to limp to the rear to be tended to, return to his captain and pled: “Cap, give me a rifle. This blamed battle ain’t got a rear!”. Another young soldier, helping his best friend off the field, was shocked to discover when they found shelter that his soon-to-perish friend had been shot seven times. A prevailing theme is that of confusion, which started as the armies tried to get into place and worsened as the action started: men fought in regiments that were not theirs, and often times officers would command makeshift brigades of whatever troops happened to be in the vicinity. The Hornet’s Nest defenders were a makeshift bunch: one Union participant wasn’t even a combatant, but in the initial southern move he’d been separated from his father — leading an Ohio unit — and the young musician quickly had to pick up a musket and fight for his life alongside men he’d never seen before. Perhaps no story captures the confusion better than one Union officer seeking out a major and pleading with him for direction — where are our men, where do we go — only to hear the major’s soft reply and realize: he was a Confederate officer, just as dazed and at a loss as his ‘enemy’. (This early, Confederate uniforms were varied and sometimes confusing: blue state militia uniforms might be mistaken as Federal uniforms, and get them fired on. One sad instance of that appears here, when regiments from Arkansas and Louisiana attacked one another.)
A joy to read despite its brutal subject, Shiloh 1862 has been a lesson for me in several ways. I’ll have to look into more of Groom’s work if my ACW mood persists! I actually read part of this book on the battlefield itself, though my progress in the book rarely aligned with my progress touring.