Thursday, May 30, 2013

Book Review: Shiloh, 1862, by Winston Groom

Though Winston Groom’s latest contribution to the Civil War bookshelf is well written and engaging, I am hard-pressed to think of a reader to whom I would recommend it. I hope my critique doesn’t come across as nitpickingI’ve seen other reviews of this book that found it perfectly satisfactory. When one jumps into the Civil War arena, there is a lot of literature that one must necessarily stack up against, whatever the particular subject. I promised to review this book and am finally making good.

Groom, best known as the author of Forrest Gump, is a skilled story-teller, and the clash of armies in southwestern Tennessee in April, 1862officered by a host of major figures in the Civil War—provides much fodder to tell a tale. But the audience for this type of work is difficult for me to pin down.

Many students of the Civil War began to develop their interests in the subject matter through exposure to the captivating prose of amateur historians Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote. Those two icons of Civil War historiography are given a pass for writing "popular" history—particularly Foote, when it comes to the lack of citations—because their contribution to the literature is historic and pervasive, and beautifully written (that’s how I rationalize it). Groom, who has also written on the Vicksburg Campaign, Hood’s final campaign in Tennessee, and other American history topics (none of which I have or will now read), has chosen, like Foote, to forego citations as well, and though his work appears to be generally accurate, and his research not inconsiderable, the lack of sources takes away the book’s usefulness. I guess I’m saying that Catton and Foote got the last two passes on the popular history front.

To many readers, that quality of usefulness is the only reason to invest time in reading another book on Shiloh. Compounding the problem is the author’s decision to remove ellipses and alter punctuation from certain direct quotes in order to make the language more “readable” (which specific quotes and what specific punctuation is unknown). I’m sure these were harmless changes, and he assures us that he did not change the meaning of any quote, but in nonfiction, can’t we just agree to stick to accepted conventions? Aren’t you obligated to do so when you put quotation marks in your text?

Groom’s effort to place the battle of Shiloh in context is admirable, but overreaching. Background on the war and secession, and biographies of major players, takes up the first 200 pages of the book before the battle is joined. The first day’s fighting is then detailed in about 140 pages, while the second day is dispatched in under 10 (all Shiloh authors seem to hurry through the second day, but Groom treats it like a footnote. Or he would, if he used footnotes). 

There are some quirky aspects to the text that I would describe as editorial lapses. For instance, in summarizing the combat significance of Shiloh, Groom tells us of men such as Grant, Sherman, McPherson, and Forrest, “each got his start at Shiloh” (p. 12), yet the book's biographical sketches of those same officers outline their earlier exposures to combat, Sherman at First Bull Run, the rest at Fort Donelson and other battles. Virtually all authors writing on Shiloh will point out the shocking fact that the casualties in that battle alone exceeded the total of all previous American wars combined, going back to the Revolution. Groom likes that observation so much he offered it twice—at the beginning, and at the end—both times italicizing the word “combined” for emphasis. In one instance Groom proclaims that the Union scored victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg on the same "day" [emphasis by Groom], July 4, while later pointing out, correctly, that Gettysburg ended on July 3.

Of Grant, Groom comments that Shiloh was the “first, and essentially, the last time Grant was ever surprised in battle,” but I would argue that the earlier Confederate counterattack at Belmont counts. Likewise, I’d wager that Grant was a little surprised by the initial assault in the Wilderness in May of 1864, and at Fort Stedman a year later.

Distractions like thatpassing comments that caused me to pause and think, “huh?”made this book disappointing and difficult to finish. After the 9-page accounting of the April 7 fighting, Groom tackles the April 8 Battle of Fallen Timbers (the other Battle of Fallen Timbers), really a skirmish, when Sherman made a reconnaissance to determine whether the Confederates had really retreated, or were reassembling to continue the fight. The way Groom relates the story, after the fighting at Shiloh, Grant was “content to pant and bleed and lick his wounds,” and happy to “let the loser slink off. . .” But Sherman, he says, “wasn’t buying it,” and put together a force to pursue the enemy. Groom seems unaware that Sherman was acting under orders from Grant. Or, if aware, made misleading intimations for dramatic effect. [Fascinating interview with Shiloh historian Stacy Allen on Fallen Timbers] It also bears mentioning that Grant was under orders from Halleck not to bring on another general engagement, but rather to stand pat and await instructions.

Groom wrote about Grant being called east by Lincoln, saying that after that, “It took nearly two more bloodstained years, but Grant finally laid siege to and subdued the Rebel army near Richmond.” Of course, in actuality, Grant wasn’t called east until March of 1864 and laid siege to Lee’s army around three months later. Lee surrendered barely more than one year after Grant’s arrival in Virginia.

In a peculiar admission, the author tells us that a description of Grant that he published in his Vicksburg book was so apt, he recycled it word-for-word in his Shiloh book. I suppose that kind of self-plagiarism would be considered Fair Use, though he’s not quoting his earlier work, he’s literally reusing a sentence from another publisher’s book. [A quick glance at the biographical passages on Grant and Sherman in Groom’s Vicksburg book reveals that Groom borrowed liberally from that earlier work when introducing some of the same figures, with some rearranging or minor modification of phrases.]

Happily, Groom included an Order of Battle, and a bibliography, making it seem like a book that wants to be taken seriously. The bibliography is respectable, though lacking in manuscript collections, and in his “Notes on Sources”, Groom rightfully holds up the Official Records as the backbone of his research. I was surprised to see a couple books that one wouldn’t ordinarily find listed in a Civil War bibliography (padding?): Burke Davis’s, The Civil War: Strange and Fascinating Facts, and Web Garrison’s, Curiosities of the Civil War: Strange Stories, Infamous Characters, and Bizarre Events. And though Groom lists works by Tim Smith, including an “America’s Civil War” article on “Battle of Shiloh: Shattering Myths,” it doesn’t appear that he consulted it, or took it to heart. One of the foremost Shiloh “myths” dispelled by Smith, a historian and former staff member at Shiloh National Military Park, is the notion that when Grant first arrived at Pittsburg Landing, having steamed up river from his Savannah headquarters, thousands of Union troopsrouted on the battlefieldwere seeking refuge under the banks of the river (according to Smith, Prentiss's and Sherman's divisions frontline divisions did not break until after 9:00 a.m., around the time Grant arrived at the landing—read about that and other Shiloh "myths" here). Groom perpetuates that idea: “the entire slope from brow to basin was thronged with thousands of panic-stricken shirkers and stragglers who were cowering beneath the cover of the bluff. . .” Groom even muses that Grant “seemed to exhibit a rare sort of sympathy toward them. . .” Would love to see the cite for that one. [Historian Larry Daniel reports in his history of Shiloh that around 3,000 routed soldiers were at the landing when Grant arrived; Wiley Sword makes no mention of it. Both Daniel and Sword estimate Grant arrived at Pittsburg Landing around 9:00 a.m., while Grant's Chief-of-Staff John Rawlins, wrote that he arrived at 8:00 a.m. General Prentiss reported that his division did not begin to fall back from its initial position until 9:05, which squares with Sherman's report as well.]

Near the end of Groom's Shiloh study, he indulges in a few counterfactual musings just as, he oddly asserts, most professional historians do: "it is interesting to play the 'what-if' game, which most trained historians scoff at as a nonhistorical pursuit, usually just before they indulge in it themselves." For Groom, Shiloh may be most significant because if Beauregard had won the battle, Grant and Sherman would not have ascended as they did, and Lincoln would have had to find someone else to oppose Robert E. Lee in the East, someone who would invariably make a colossal mistake, leading to Lincoln's defeat in the 1864 election. I'm trying to think of some trained historians who go to such lengths. This kind of conjecture is utterly pointless, of course, but perhaps the natural domain of a novelist.  

One thing I do appreciate about Groom is his focus on the Western Theatre. The wide distribution of his published works may serve to inform the public at-large that the war didn’t just occur in Virginia and Pennsylvania. For readers with a serious interest, however, it’s best to stick with the more reliable books on the subject, all thoroughly documented: Wiley Sword’s, Shiloh: Bloody April (Groom lists the 1974 first edition, not Sword's revised and improved 2001 edition), Larry Daniel’s, Shiloh: The Battle that Changed the Civil War, Cunningham’s, Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862, Tim Smith’s, The Untold Story of Shiloh: the Battle and the Battlefield, D. W. Reed’s, The Battle of Shiloh and the Organizations Engaged, and Mark Grimsley’s and Steven Woodworth’s, Shiloh, A Battlefield Guide—to name a handful.


Chris Evans said...

Excellent review.

I agree about your views of Groom's 'Shiloh' book.

I think I'll still be sticking with Sword, Cunningham, and Daniels. McDonough writes well and a reader would do well to read him than Groom, really.

Too bad Cozzens quit his Shiloh book. That could have been awesome.

Chris Evans said...

I also wanted to mention that I was very surprised to see his list of sources and see that Woodworth's excellent book on the Army of the Tennessee was missing from his list Groom should have consulted it as it has a wonderful description of the events leading up to and the battle itself.


dw said...

Hi Chris,

Thanks for reading, and thanks for the comments. I was trying to say it's not necessarily a "bad" book -- though there are some problems. It just doesn't bring anything new to the story of Shiloh, and the lack of citations renders it useless.

By the way, I accidentally deleted the comment you left about the Andersonville post, while I was trying to publish it. Damn trackpad.


Robert Raines said...

I really liked your point about Catton and Foote being the last two authors to get passes for the lack of footnotes. But didn't James McPherson sort of do the same with Battle Cry of Freedom? Its been years, but I think I remember lists of sources, as opposed to detailed footnotes.

dw said...


Battle Cry of Freedom was heavily footnoted in its original (Oxford University Press) incarnation. In a subsequent 2003 "Illustrated" edition, Oxford reduced the text by 20 percent and removed the footnotes, but said readers interested in documentation should consult the original edition.


Chris Evans said...

I have to say though Catton did footnote his Grant books ('Grant Moves South' and 'Grant Takes Command') quite well and the notes contain some fascinating information.

I love Catton's Army of the Potomac books so much I cannot really look at them objectively with regards to footnoting and whatnot.

Now Lloyd Lewis really didn't footnote until 'Captain Sam Grant' but his three Civil War related books 'Captain Sam Grant', 'Sherman, Fighting Propet' and 'Myths After Lincoln' are about as awesome as Civil War writing gets.

I don't think Groom is in the class of Foote, Catton, and Lewis and doesn't earn any passes.


dw said...

Hi Chris,

You're right -- I've been looking back at some Catton books and it appears that, in most cases, he actually did use citations, usually endnotes, if I'm not mistaken.

I'm going to amend my review to take out the impression that Catton didn't show his sources in that fashion (that was my memory from oh so many years ago).