Book Review: The Battle Of Shiloh

The Battle of Shiloh, by Joseph W. Rich

The reader who takes on this book should be forewarned that it is a very pro-Grant account of the Battle of Shiloh. I do not find this objectionable in the least, in that I am at least somewhat tolerable of revisionist works of history which do a good job at examining sources as well as what gaps are present in most narratives of a given historical event. And the Battle of Shiloh is certainly ripe for an account which revises the picture that many people have of Grant and his soldiers being surprised as well as the struggle that was faced by an army that was not really cohesive in obeying the orders placed on it not to provoke a general engagement as both the Union and Confederacy combined their forces in the area together for a decisive showdown. The author makes a compelling case as to the fact that the Union was not surprised even if some of the units, and the author names names, broke and ran, thus imperiling the Union defense. Similarly, the book can be said to be a revisionist account in that its defense of Beauregard’s unwillingness to order an attack on the evening of the first day of the battle hinges on the strength of the Union position, and thus Grant’s response and lack of panic.

This book is between 100 and 150 pages and conducts a very critical view of the Battle of Shiloh, from the dispositions of Union forces to the behavior of leaders on both sides to the thorny question of how many people were engaged in the battle. The editor’s introduction at the beginning of the book calls the book non-partisan, but this is not an entirely just description. The author of the book is a strong partisan of Grant’s perspective as opposed to those who would contradict him (be they soldiers loyal to Buell, for example), but at the same time the author does a fair amount of justice to both sources for the Union and Confederacy, which does elevate this book far above a narrowly partisan text. It is likely the fairness of the author towards both Grant and Beauregard, and both the Union and Confederacy, in praising both sides for making a strong defense when they were outnumbered, the Union in the first day and the Confederacy on the second day, and comes up with a casualty count that essentially agrees with contemporary estimates. This book is just about all I would want in a battle study given its close reading of primary sources and its willingness to tangle with historical debates.

Given that the book is a very pro-Grant account, it makes sense that this book tends to speak well of those who would be seen as pro-Grant (Sherman, for example, comes off particularly well here, and Prentiss and his division are seen as a sacrifice for the greater defensive effort). On the other hand, General Nelson’s negative views of Grant’s defensive disposition at Pittsburg Landing is viewed with considerable asperity and Lew Wallace’s rather aimless wandering, and his lack of awareness of the roads near his base location, do not come off well. The author gives at least some credit to Grant’s charity in allowing Wallace to maintain his dignity, in that it caused a massive conflict in the period after the Civil War, especially as Wallace viewed it as essential for his good name to not be seen as a total incompetent by someone as great as Grant had been, and Grant, at least towards the end of his life, allowed Lew Wallace to maintain his sense of honor, even if, as this book demonstrates, there are still many who are less charitable to the political general.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History. Bookmark the permalink.

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