He felt a quiet manhood, nonassertive but of sturdy and strong blood. He knew that he would no more quail before his guides wherever they should point. He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man.
– Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage
War is hell.
War is personal.
These two points hit you like a sledge hammer in Jeff Shaara’s novel, A Blaze of Glory: A Novel of the Battle of Shiloh (Random House, 2012). A Blaze of Glory is to the battle of Shiloh what Saving Private Ryan is to D-Day—a shocking dose of reality for anyone who clings to romantic notions about war in any age.
It began 2 months after the union army and navy under General Ulysses S. Grant took out Forts Henry and Donelson, thus opening up Tennessee to northern armies and driving confederate forces to the south. General Albert Sydney Johnston took his army south towards Corinth, Mississippi. Grant’s army moved south, intent on besieging the rebels there. But General Johnston had other plans.
Johnston was one of the South’s most lauded generals, and historians to this day debate what might have been the outcome had he and General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson not died early in the war. Our country might be a very different place today.
Johnston wasn’t going to wait for the union army to hit him in Corinth. Instead, he marched some fifty thousand of his men north and surprised about the same number of Grant’s men while they were camped around a little building known as Shiloh Church, a few miles from the Tennessee River and a place called Pittsburg Landing.
The attack caught the union completely by surprise, and during the first day soldiers under Generals Sherman and Grant were brutally driven back to the river and nearly overcome. It was only the death of General Johnston that saved them: his successor in the field, Pierre Beauregard—the “hero” of Fort Sumter—decided as dusk fell that he could rest his men, so certain was he of victory. He was reviled ever after for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. During the night, union forces were reorganized and reinforcements arrived. The following day, the rebels were driven back to Corinth over the remains of the thousands who died the day before.
To say “war is hell” is almost a cliché . We know that already, right? No. We think we do—but unless you have been there you can’t possibly understand. The American civil war is one of those engagements we think of as shoot ‘em up Westerns on television—exciting, romantic, colorful, and filled with adventure. Every summer, hundreds of civil war re-enactors in their blue or grey wool uniforms, accompanied by a bevy of belles in their hoop skirts, travel around calling forth the atmosphere of the 19th century. Even central Illinois, where there was never a battle fought during the war, is host every year to Civil War encampments such as General Grierson Days in Jacksonville, which feature mock battles with deafening cannon, cavalry charges, and infantry engagements. All in good fun.
But as Shaara clearly conveys, there was nothing fun about it. Nothing Dante conjured in his Inferno could approach the horror of Shiloh.
About one hundred thousand Americans faced off along the Tennessee River on April 6-7, 1862. The battle moved towards the river on day one, and then on day two the union drove back against the confederates. Body parts lay in the field, men lay screaming and moaning. On the second day, soldiers were forced to walk over the dead and dying, and the smell made many retch as they walked on piled up corpses, slippery adipose tissue, and insect-covered carcasses to kill even more men. When the smoke cleared, about four thousand were dead, sixteen thousand had been wounded (horrifically, many with the loss of limbs), and several thousand were simply unaccounted for (a good number skedaddled!). In all, one quarter of the armies was dead, mutilated, or missing.
There were not a lot of photographers there to capture what took place at Shiloh: had there been, readers around the country would likely have clamored for an end to it the way we did when we saw pictures of what was occurring in Vietnam. As it was, the horror became little more than headlines for most of the country—so mothers never pictured what their children went through and the slaughter continued for three more years. By the time it ended, about six hundred thousand Americans would be dead.
Shaara makes this hell personal.As he did with Gods and Generals,Shaara tells the story from the point of view of the participants—among them Generals Grant, Sherman, and Johnston, a cavalryman who rode with Nathan Bedford Forrest, and an infantryman with the union army. Each man could only see a small part of the battlefield, could only see the man or men immediately in front of him, men who threatened, men they shot or sliced with bayonet or saber. The omniscient view of battle was for Gods and generals alone—but even the generals couldn’t fathom what was going on in time to stop one of the most horrific slaughters in American warfare up to that time.
In the people whose points of view we encounter we sense fear, confusion, rage, hunger, and an idealism that is hard for us to understand today. An idealism that would allow men to march into fusillades that would decimate their lines, only to line up again and continue on. The stakes were of the most radical and epoch changing. North and South were, truly, two different cultures and the civil war was, in the eyes of many in the South, a battle to see which culture would survive. Shaara sums up this attitude in a speech by an officer named Isham Harris, formerly Tennessee governor and, at Shiloh, an officer in the confederate army:
The South is one nation. We share so much, our beliefs, our culture, and we are willing to wage war for the right to hold to that, to preserve everything that we are. The North . . . they are mixed breeds, a mongrel dog beside a purebred hound. They share nothing that we share, no identity, no culture. They farm in Illinois and they run factories in Boston. If I go to Charleston or Atlanta, I know what I will find, how the people will regard me. I am the same as the man I see. But if a man in Minnesota travels to New York or Boston, he is in another world, isolated. What cause do they share? It is not possible they have a common bond. And now, because they outnumber us, they elect a president who does not represent anything of the South, and instead of reaching out and finding common ground . . . instead of being a leader, he orders his generals to bring their soldiers to our towns, to force us to become . . . them.
It has been a while since I have read four hundred plus pages with such intensity, and I can’t recall reading a book that made me cringe over descriptions of the horrors of the battlefield as this one does. But along with the horror, we witness the humanity. We are touched by these young men who launch headlong into fire and smoke, touched when they turn in terror and run, touched when they are forced to kill and then regret having done so. When Albert Sydney Johnston falls from his horse and exsanguinates from a wound that a tourniquet could have prevented, his aides find in his pocket a half-eaten sandwich that had been fixed for him by a woman in Nashville who admired him as a Southern gentleman. We sense the panic as soldiers from Sherman’s divisions drop their weapons and flee for the river, some never to be seen again. And we look on with admiration as Nathan Bedford Forrest leads a cavalry charge to stop pursuing Yankees, only to find that he is suddenly alone facing several thousand infantrymen. Still, he rides on—and lives to talk about it.
Some might complain that this isn’t history–it is fiction. Perhaps. Shaara’s voluminous research notwithstanding, one has to admit that the dialogue is the stuff of imagination. But it is plausible. It is grounded in original sources. History only tells us the facts. For the humanity of it all, fiction is the most viable vehicle.
A Blaze of Glory is to be the first in a trilogy. I eagerly await the next installment.
Copyright Isaac Morris 2012