Shiloh's Significance

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Shiloh's Significance Shiloh, 1862. Winston Groom. The National Geographic Society. 446 pages; black-and-white photographs; maps; notes; index; bibliography; $30.00. www.nationalgeographic.com/ books.

In considering the Battle of Shiloh on April 6-7, 1862, historian Otto Eisenschiml wrote, "I consider Shiloh the most dramatic battle ever fought on American soil. . . . True, Gettysburg was bigger; Vicksburg was more decisive; Antietam even more bloody, but no other battle was interwoven with so many momentous ifs. If any of these ifs had gone the other way, it would have had incalculable consequences."

To commemorate the sesquicentennial of the first great and terrible battle of the Civil War, Winston Groom has produced a masterful account of the battle that served as a harbinger for engagements that produced far greater casualties and more wholesale slaughter in the most devastating conflict in American history.

More widely known for writing Forrest Gump, Groom brings a unique perspective to Shiloh, 1862. The author of Vicksburg, 1863; Kearny's March: The Epic Creation of the American West, 1846-1847; and Shrouds of Glory: From Atlanta to Nashville: The Last Great Campaign of the Civil War, Groom relates a good part of this story through the eyes of just a score of the combatants. These participants include Ambrose Bierce, one of America's most wellread authors, and Henry Morton Stanley, a Confederate soldier in the Dixie Grays who was later celebrated worldwide for his exploration of Africa. Union LTC James B. McPherson, whom both Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman predicted would one day command all the Union armies, and Confederate PVT Samuel R. Watkins of the First Tennessee Regiment, whose Company Aytch is often cited as the finest memoir of the war written by an individual soldier, add their personal recollections of the climactic battle.

Written more for the general reader than the military historian, Shiloh, 1862 contains excellent maps through which the reader can easily follow the conduct of the battle. A detailed appendix that portrays the order of battle by both organizations and commanders further enhances the text. Through its compelling narrative, Groom's Shiloh, 1862 serves as a fitting complement to his Vicksburg, 1863.

What makes Groom's account so gripping is his ability to place Shiloh in historical context and his development of the principal combatants. In the spring of 1862, most Americans hoped that the war would be over by late summer. Though the Battle of Bull Run had shocked the public with its 5,000 casualties the previous year, news of the two-day battle in southern Tennessee and its 23,741 casualties altered the course of the war. More soldiers fell at Shiloh than all the United States' previous wars combined.

No soldier who experienced Shiloh would ever be the same. The vast majority of combatants had never heard a shot fired in anger. Thousands of previously untested soldiers "had now seen the elephant." Immediately following the engagement, then-COL Thomas Jordan, GEN Pierre G. T. Beauregard's chief of staff who planned the battle, compared the current state of the southern army to "a lump of sugar, thoroughly soaked with water, yet preserving its original shape, though ready to dissolve. …