Shelby Foote (1916-2005) was a journalist, writer, and historian best known for his three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative, published between 1958 and 1974. His writings about the war and the South generally tilted in the direction of the Lost Cause, which means he’s as far out of favor with historians today as he can be. And yet his scholarship and depth of research were impressive.
Foote also wrote six novels, one of which was entitled Shiloh, published in 1952. As the title indicates, it was about the Battle of Shiloh, fought April 6-7, 1862, in southern Tennessee very close to the Mississippi border. It was something of a seesaw battle, in that the Confederates under Albert Sidney Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard clearly won the first day, only to see their victory turned into defeat the second day by the Union forces under Ulysses Grant and Don Carlos Buell. There were some 24,000 casualties, the total of both sides, and Shiloh has the dubious distinction of being one of the bloodiest battles of the war.
The name “Shiloh” came from Shiloh Church located near Pittsburgh Landing on the Tennessee River (the battle is also sometimes called the Battle of Pittsburgh Landing). “Shiloh,” interestingly enough, means “peace.”
Foote’s novel is less of a traditional novel and more like seven connected short stories, each with a different narrator. The story moves back and forth between Confederate and Union perspectives. It’s told by a lieutenant and aide-de-camp to General Johnston; a captain in the 53rd Ohio; a private and rifleman in the 6th Mississippi; a private and cannoneer for the 1st Minnesota; a scout in Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry; a squad with the 23rd Indiana; and then Johnston’s aide-de-camp again, listed as “unattached” because Johnston has been killed in battle.
These men, representing both sides, take the reader through the battle and its different aspects. Palmer Metcalfe, the aide-de-camp who provides the beginning and the ending entries, gives a more strategic, step-by-step description. In fact, the first chapter reads more like history than it does a novel. But we see the attacks, the movements, the deaths, the prisoners taken, and ultimately the general carnage that produced such a high casualty rate.
In Foote’s hands, it’s the battle itself that’s the main character and the main story. It’s less about the men who fought it and more about the inevitable turnings of a great wheel of death and destruction.
The Union dead were buried in individual graves; the Confederate dead were buried in several mass, and unmarked, graves. It was here that a tradition started sometime later. Confederate mothers and wives placed flowers on their sones’ and husbands’ graves. Seeing the bare Union graves, they placed flowers on those as well. When Northern mothers and wives heard the story, the reciprocated in likewise fashion. Some good and some understanding did come from that terrible conflict.
Battle at Shiloh: The Devil’s Own Two Days – Wide Awake Films.
Top illustration: Battle of Shiloh by Thure De Thulstrup for Harper’s Magazine, via Wikimedia Commons.