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A Blaze of Glory: A Novel of the Battle of Shiloh

Jeff Shaara;  Ballentine

Jeff Shaara’s new novel about the Battle of Shiloh, Glory, is the first offering in A Blaze of a new trilogy focusing on the war’s Western Theater, a complement to the Michael Shaara/Jeff Shaara father-son team’s previous trilogy The Killer Angels, Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure. That Shaara chose the April 1862 battle to kick off this trilogy is fortunate in more ways than one. Shiloh was the war’s first massive slaughter (more casualties in two days than the accumulated war dead in the history of the republic to that time). It also is usually portrayed as one of the most dramatic showdowns, one that has inspired fully as much fiction, legend, poetry, music and art as Gettysburg.

It is the second factor that benefits Shaara the most, since he eschews the romantic memories of a legendary Shiloh in favor of grim views of terror and suffering. As he does in other novels, Shaara mixes historical and invented characters to tell the story while also delving into the participants’ psychology. He’s such a good writer that one would have to do deep reading on the battle to identify which characters are invented.

An intriguing challenge in such works is how to portray well-known historical figures. Men like Albert Sidney Johnston, P.G.T. Beauregard, Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman will be so familiar to most readers that small choices in phrasing or action can easily verify or suspend belief. Shaara’s Johnston is a noble character facing frustrations— sometimes petty—that he cannot overcome. He must take desperate chances with an army that is new, ill-trained, disorganized and hamstrung with quarrelsome and sometimes deceptive subordinates. Johnston’s problems with getting his army to the battlefield and then moving it into battle provide Shaara with some of his best material.

The portraits of Union commanders are sometimes less convincing, although the characterization of Sherman, the most prominent Union character, as a furious professional among amateurs rings true. Shaara’s Grant, however, is very concerned with status, and a keen follower of professional politics. This Grant will startle followers of the general’s biography as a characterization at odds with the legend in its modern form. The famous encounter between Grant and Sherman at the end of the first day will surely rub Grant aficionados the wrong way, since the army commander comes off as obsessed with the possible blow the battle will inflict upon his career but apathetic about the operations of the coming day.

Those who have studied Shiloh will be bothered by Shaara’s adherence to popular narratives that have fallen apart under modern scrutiny. For Shaara, charging Confederates catch Union soldiers totally unaware at the beginning of the battle—the old “bayonetted in their tents” trope. In this Shiloh a triumphant Confederate army is ordered to retreat from victory at the end of the first day of fighting by a self-satisfied Beauregard, as opposed to the wasted force that tried and failed to overcome Grant’s last position on April 6. And here the second day of fighting is disposed of quickly, as a sort of afterthought.

The fact that Shaara’s version of Shiloh works from what modern historians consider an outdated narrative should not discourage readers seeking a thrilling story featuring richly drawn characters. An expert on the battle should not hesitate to recommend it as a fine novel that represents a valuable addition to the body of art inspired by a fascinating struggle.


Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.