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Shiloh:  A Novel
A Review
By Jerad W. Alexander
Oct. 26, 2011

 Of American Civil War novels there seems to be little that gets behind the eyes of rank-and-file soldiers to depict the war as close to realistic as possible.  Novels set in during the war deal with either the commanders, such as with Micheal and Jeff Shaara’s trilogy, or with the rewriting of history such as the works produced by the Newt Gingrich/William R. Forstchen team.  There are also novels of the more romantic, epic variety such as Bernard Cornwell’s Nathaniel Starbuck Chronicles and John Jakes North and South trilogy.  Novels of literary realism that depict the common soldier in action, such as Stephen Crane’s ever-present The Red Badge of Courage, are far less common.  Shelby Foote’s Shiloh: A Novel, however, fits in this category while including gems for fans of history. 

Unlike Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, which places the reader behind the eyes of the pivotal characters of the Battle of Gettysburg such as Lee, Longstreet, Buford and Chamberlain among others, Noted Civil War historian Shelby Foote’s work instead views the central characters and events of the two day battle through the eyes of fictional characters in an episodic fashion.  A staff officer under Albert Sydney Johnston spends a restless evening in preparation for battle.  A Union regimental adjutant feels the shock of the lead regiments of advancing Rebel infantry.  A wounded Confederate private comes under the grip of fear, heat of battle, and witnesses the death of a beloved commander.  A stampeded Federal artilleryman huddles on the bank of the Tennessee River with thousands of others and attempts to rationalize his own cowardice.  A Confederate cavalry sergeant rides on a night recon to witness Union reinforcements coming ashore at Pittsburg Landing, and wayward Union squad with a late division feels the wrath of their compatriots for their tardiness before going on to counterattack the Confederates. 

Figures of the battle and American Civil War history such Nathan Bedford Forrest, Don Carlos Buell, P.G.T. Beauregard, John C. Breckinridge, Lew Wallace and Ulysses S. Grant all dot the landscape of the prose.  Their traditional voice is heard through the ears of the principle characters.  Foote delicately introduces them in a way that manages to avoid a tongue-in-cheek, or worse, a forced feel.  Scenes involving Grant and Johnston are particularly touching while scenes involving Forrest are poignant and telling as to the true precarious disposition of the Army of Mississippi on the night of April 6 and late April 7.  Foote, who was an admitted fan of Nathan Bedford Forrest, spends a fair amount of time in his company in the latter half of the novel, including recounting his dramatic interaction with Sherman’s infantry at the Rebel rearguard action at Fallen Timbers.

Though the novel offers an incredible amount of detail as to the actions of soldiers on both sides of the line, a reader uninitiated to the Battle of Shiloh could find themselves somewhat lost.  There is a hand-drawn map at the beginning of the novel that identifies the location and movements of the various characters throughout the novel, but it does little to illustrate the general path of the armies and is even a little hard to read in some areas.  The episodic nature of the work does not help to engender empathy toward the characters. 

Despite this, the Vintage Books edition of the novel is a fast, entertaining read, clocking in at 226 pages with large font.  A steady reader could cut through it over a long weekend.  Unfortunately, it seems Foote’s venerable trilogy has arguably slid the novel, which incidentally prompted Random House to give Foote the contract for The Civil War: A Narrative trilogy, into the back-matter of his works on the American Civil War and the dark halls of semi-forgotten Civil War novels.  The book is worth the read, however, and stands on its own as a crucial piece of Civil War literature.