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.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

"Rebel" -- the saga of Loreta Velazquez airing May 24 on your local Public Broadcasting Station

The signature image for "REBEL" is a composite of two portraits of
Loreta Velazquez passing as Lieutenant Harry T. Buford, soldier and spy
of the American Civil War, played by actress Romi Dias.
Photo by Gerard Gaskin, graphic work by Hayley Parker.
I’ll be tuning in Friday night for the airing of an intriguing PBS documentary, Rebel, about the life of Loreta Velazquez. A Cuban immigrant who came to New Orleans as a young girl, Velazquez reputedly disguised herself as a man, took the name Harry T. Buford, and saw action as a Confederate soldier in a number of campaigns. If her published reminisces are to be believed, she was also wounded on multiple occasions – once at Shiloh -- and served as a double-agent for both the Union and the Confederacy.

Her story – relayed in her 1876 memoir, The Woman in Battle, The Civil War Narrative of Loreta Velazquez, Cuban Woman and Confederate Soldier  – is so incredible, historians for the most part have dismissed it as fictionalized, or exaggerated. More recent scholarship on the participation of women in the Civil War, however, has corroborated parts of Velazquez’s account, and makes revisiting her narrative especially tantalizing. The book is partially previewed on Google books, and the University of Wisconsin Press released a paperback in 2003 that is still in print.

Most interesting to me are the other ways in which Velazquez was a “rebel” – her book was scandalous for the time, denounced by Jubal Early as pure fabrication. Her version of events failed to adhere to the “Moonlight and Magnolias” construction of Lost Cause apologists, who sought to disassociate slavery from secession and war. Worse, she called into question the gentility of Southern women and the heroism of the Southern soldier. The fact that Jubal Early later engaged in a letter writing campaign to discredit Velazquez’s account suggests to me that she was cutting close to the bone in a way that Reconstruction-era former Confederates could not tolerate.

Even if some of her story is made up, or cannot be confirmed, it’s a story worth telling. According to the filmmaker, Maria Agui Carter, Velazquez was one of only two Latina authors published in the United States in the 19th century.  Said Carter in a blogged interview, “Her voice sounded so modern—here was a Victorian-era woman who made no apologies about breaking every gender, social, and ethnic boundary. There was something about her maverick nature and her constant reinvention that seemed quintessentially American to me."

Suffice it to say, if this program were airing on the History Channel, it would probably not bear watching. The dramatization alone would make it painful to behold. But PBS typically does a top notch job, and for this work Carter enlisted a host of venerable historians to weigh in -- people like Gary Gallagher at the University of Virginia, and DeAnne Blanton, the senior military archivist at the National Archives, as well numerous authorities on Latino Studies, Chicano Literature, and women in the war.

The Civil War Trust has a meaty sidebar on Valezquez here.  To watch a preview of Rebel, click here

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

150 years ago -- the May 22nd assaults at Vicksburg

Assault on the Great Redoubt
Ranger Will Wilson describes the Union position
at Battery de Golyer on the morning on May 22, 1863
More pictures here.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Andersonville National Historic Site

Bronze panel on the rear of the New York Monument.
I made my first visit to Andersonville National Historic Site a couple weeks ago, only 40 some years after my first attempt to read MacKinlay Kantor's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. My wife and I were attending the 26th annual meeting of the Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends. In all, 53 people attended the gathering, headquartered in Americus, Georgia. We spent one full day touring the prison site, the National Prisoner of War Museum, and the National Cemetery. 

Alan Huffman wrote an excellent
book chronicling, in part, the Civil
War saga of Anne's great grandfather.

Interpreting the site for us was historian Kevin Frye, who has devoted countless hours to helping people research the prisoners, and guards, assigned to Camp Sumter. A considerable number of passengers on the Sultana had been held at Andersonville. Anne's ancestor, who survived the disaster, was held at Cahaba prison in Alabama, though apparently some records do list him as spending time at Andersonville (we think erroneously). 

Like so many battlefields, the pastoral scene at Andersonville today, a rural expanse of green, with birds chirping in the pleasant spring weather, presents the visitor with little sense of the abject misery and horrors of the Civil War-era stockade.

One of Thomas O'Dea's drawings of the prison in 1864.
See a full set of his prison drawings here
Issuing rations, Andersonville Prison, Georgia, August 17, 1864.
Photo by A. J. Riddle (click to enlarge)
Below are a few images I took on April 27 (the anniversary of the Sultana explosion). To see a few dozen more photos, visit my Flickr set here
Kevin Frye telling the story of the prison 
Partial reconstruction of the stockade
The "Sinks" — downstream end of Stockade Branch
For reasons lost to history, the stone of Sgt. L. S. Tuttle
of Maine has a stone dove affixed to it, the only grave
in the National Cemetery with a special adornment. 

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Dave the Slave, up close and personal

Back in November of 2009, I posted an interview with author Leonard Todd, discussing the subject of his book, Carolina Clay, the Life and Legend of Slave Potter Dave. The book is a fascinating account of Todd's discovery that one particularly skilled South Carolina potter was a slave owned by members of his family. He did not know that when he first read about an exhibition of Dave's work in a New York Times article in January of 2000. 

From the interview, which can be read here, Todd explained:
That moment of discovery was like finding a door flung wide to the past: Through it, I could glimpse a complex world of clay and kilns and pottery workersthat I had known nothing of. I was pleased to find that I was linked to Dave, one of the south's great artisans, yet dismayed that slavery was the mechanism that connected us. 
Flash forward to the year 2013. I had forgotten that certain examples of Dave's pottery were on display in select museums. At the time I read Todd's book, and interviewed him, I had no plans to travel to South Carolina, a state I had never visited until last month when the Civil War Forum held its 17th Battlefield Conference in Charleston. One of the stops on the first day of our gathering was a tour of the Civil War collection at the Charleston Museum, the oldest museum in America. 

It was tremendously exciting to turn a corner and see a display of local pottery, inscribed by the potters. I was hoping Dave's work would be featured, and sure enough, it was.  .  .  It's a great museum—set aside some time to visit, if you have the opportunity.