Thursday, October 12, 2006

Mad Freak of Heroic Incompetence

"The dense forests wholly or partly in which were fought so many battles of the Civil War, lay upon the earth in each autumn a thick deposit of dead leaves and stems, the decay of which forms a soil of surprising depth and richness. In dry weather the upper stratum is as inflammable as tinder. A fire once kindled in it will spread with a slow, persistent advance as far as local conditions permit, leaving a bed of light ashes beneath which the less combustible accretions of previous years will smolder until extinguished by rains. In many of the engagements of the war the fallen leaves took fire and roasted the fallen men. At Shiloh, during the first day's fighting, wide tracts of woodland were burned over in this way and scores of wounded who might have recovered perished in slow torture. I remember a deep ravine a little to the left and rear of the field I have described, in which, by some mad freak of heroic incompetence, a part of an Illinois regiment had been surrounded, and refusing to surrender was destroyed, as it very well deserved. My regiment having at last been relieved at the guns and moved over to the heights above this ravine for no obvious purpose, I obtained leave to go down into the valley of death and gratify a reprehensible curiosity."

from "What I Saw of Shiloh," by Ambrose Bierce

Shiloh is among my favorite Civil War battlefields to visit, for a number of reasons. There are familial connections, on my wife's side; the Western Theater aspect, involving troops from states in which I lived (North and South); and perhaps most of all, the pristine condition of the battlefield, situated as it is far from urban en
croachment (not that it isn't threatened by development, particularly in the area of power production on the Tennessee River).

On my first visit to Shiloh, I drove several hours to fit it in to the one free day of a business trip to Little Rock. I arrived around noon, and had four or five hours to tour the field before my return trip. For most of the afternoon, there were no other visitors in sight. My second visit was with the Civil War Forum, a two-day, intensive tour with Stacy Allen, and talks by Larry Daniel and Wiley Sword (who laid out his theory of where A. S. Johnston really fell, outlined in the revised edition of his Morningside classic, Shiloh, Bloody April).

Even then, the field was empty, and peaceful.
It's a complicated battle, and the Park Service has done an admirable job of delineating, with coded markers, two days of overlapping action on the same ground. Even so, the movement of opposing troops over the battlefield is a confusing morass.

As a Civil War buff, and someone intimately involved in Civil War publishing, I have taken a particular interest in battlefield guides, whether NPS brochures, USMA staff rides, or the "General's Tour" feature of Blue & Gray magazine. And I was especially excited to see the publication of modern guides written by some of our best Civil War historians today, Shiloh, A Battlefield Guide, by Mark Grimsley and Steven Woodworth, and Gettysburg, A Battlefield Guide, by Grimsley, and Brooks Simpson.

Mark Grimsley will be the guest in the next live Q&A session in The Civil War Forum, October 21, at 4:00 p.m. EST, to discuss what goes in to creating a worthwhile battlefield
guide, how to "read a battlefield" (the subject of one of his presentations), and to field questions about his other books, and his ground-breaking military history blogs, Blog Them Out of the Stone Age, and Civil Warriors.

Above: top of Iowa monument at Shiloh; at right, Professor Grimsley, and Jethro.


Drew W. said...

Do you think there is enough new information/corrections(?) in the revised edition of Sword's book to justify its purchase (I've read the first edition a few times)? I've been debating whether to pick it up for quite a while.


dw said...


Good question. I don't think there are major corrections to the original text (though he had 20-some years to collect typos and errors). It's alternately referred to as an "expanded edition" and a "revision," but as far as I can tell, the main difference is the added material at the end, putting forth Sword’s theory that Johnson died quite a ways away from where the Park Service placed the marker. The only thing I’ve read in the new book is this appendix, and it’s been so long since I read the rest, I would be challenged to notice any changes.

I would guess that if you’ve read the original multiple times, nothing about the new edition will change or enhance your understanding of the battle.

After our conference at Shiloh, Sword graciously met 4 of us out at the battlefield on Sunday morning, and walked us into the woods to make his case for the why the Park Service should build a path and erect a marker to the “real” death site (they won’t do it). He was pretty convincing, and the lay of the land dovetails nicely with his myriad sources, but ultimately it’s just a footnote to the fighting there.

Drew W. said...

It's probably unfair to ask, unless someone has read both at the same time or was involved in publication. I remember when I asked Bob Younger about it around the time the revised edition first came out, he gave me a decidedly unhelpful single sentence answer...LOL..typical Bob.

dw said...

Oops, meant to write JohnsTon on that last comment -- I especially hate it when people refer to the Johnstons as Johnson.

Undoubtedly, if Bob were alive today and somehow learned of my less than enthusiastic endorsement of the new edition, he would count it a personal betrayal and hold it against me forever. (g)