Jeff Shaara and his father, Michael Shaara, gave us a wonderful trilogy of historical novels on the Eastern Campaigns in the Civil War. Now Jeff is working on a series on the Western Theater, beginning with this volume on the battle of Shiloh.
Shaara unfolds the battle for us in understandable terms. The Confederates have been driven out of Tennessee by Grant, who, for all his mistakes, fights to win. Albert Sidney Johnston has gathered the forces in Corinth, Mississippi, for what seems to be a defense of this key rail center, except for the fact that Grant and his troops are not moving from Pittsburg Landing. They are forced to wait for Don Carlos Buell’s troops to join him. In this, Johnston sees a chance to strike Grant while Grant’s back is to a river, and where he is unprepared for battle.
And so it comes about. Despite infuriating delays in movement and a change in strategy proposed by Colonel Jordan, a staff member loyal to Beauregard, he achieves more or less total surprise against the Union troops, driving them back toward the river, first in frantic retreat, and then as Union lines are restored to better defensive positions, against increasing resistance resulting in horrific losses for both sides. Shaara gets us into the mind of Johnston, as he sees troops being fed into the battle piecemeal as a result of Jordan’s strategy, and yet senses the wavering resistance of the Union and the key opportunity on his right to get between the Union and the river and roll up the Union lines. Not being able to sufficiently rouse the troops through his field commanders, he leads the charge himself, resulting in his tragic death.
Still, this charge and Ruggles’ artillery lead to the surrender of Prentiss and a general retreat to Pittsburgh landing. The Union is on the ropes as Beauregard takes command, and yet with an hour of daylight, he calls a cease fire and declares a victory! This allows Grant the time he needs to be reinforced by Lew Wallace and Buell. Grant, ever the fighter, turns the tables and with his now-superior forces, routs the Confederates, who retreat to Corinth.
Shaara leaves us wondering about the “what-ifs”. What if they had attacked in a broad arc of lines rather than columns? What if they had fought that crucial hour longer on the first day? Would they have broken Grant, or been repulsed by his concentrated forces? And the biggest “what if” is what if Johnston had lived and how might the Western campaigns been different?
The novel also explores the political intrigue among both Union and Confederate generals, and the experience of battle from front line troops. We experience the terror of Private Bauer during the initial onslaught, the restored courage as he fights alongside his friend Willis during the Union resistance, the horrors of battle that cannot be washed away from body or mind, and the dawning realization that this is only the first of many fights. We also see the jealousies between Grant and Buell, the impatience and inner uncertainties of Sherman, and the corresponding tension between Johnston and Beauregard. And we glimpse the figures behind the scenes that drive these rivalries, Halleck for the Union and Davis with the Confederacy.
This novel has me in eager anticipation of the rest of the series. The next installment, A Chain of Thunder, on the battle for Vicksburg, is sitting on my “to be read” pile.
I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher as part of a “First reads” contest sponsored by Goodreads.