Share This Article

Shiloh, 1862

 Winston Groom; National Geographic

We should be grateful that Winston Groom is passionate about the Civil War. Thanks to his masterful handling and lively style, readers will find Shiloh, 1862, his new analysis of the conflict’s first battle with horrific casualties, fast-paced and rewarding reading throughout.

Groom deftly recounts the oft-told story of the incompetence displayed by the Confederate high command as it planned and executed maneuvers prior to the morning of April 6, 1862, as well as its failings once the fighting actually commenced. In addition to heaping blame on Albert Sidney Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard, Groom censures Leonidas Polk and Braxton Bragg. Their opponents, particularly Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman, are also chastised for being taken by surprise. Meanwhile, subordinates and the men in the ranks performed little better than the officers in command at Shiloh, though Groom repeatedly reminds us that the troops demonstrated remarkable courage, given that many units were entering combat for the first time.

Groom’s highlighting of several less prominent people, civilian as well as military, gives Shiloh, 1862 all the drama of a novel embedded in a first-rate nonfiction work. Knowledgeable scholars will be especially interested in these individuals, including Ambrose Bierce, future explorer Henry Morton Stanley and especially diarist Elsie Duncan. Otherwise, however, Shiloh experts may find little that is new in Groom’s work.

Concluding his account of the fighting, Groom opines, “A determined effort by Grant to pursue the retreating Confederate army likely would have ended the Civil War in the West in a fell swoop.” Given that New Orleans fell only two weeks later, could the Confederacy have survived the spring of 1862? In his final chapter, Groom engages in “the ‘what-if ’ game, which most trained historians scoff at as a nonhistorical pursuit, usually just before they indulge in it themselves.” His most significant hypothetical scenario is one seldom considered: “If Beauregard had, in fact, driven Grant’s army into the river, or to surrender, then neither Grant nor Sherman would have been the stellar figures they became in the future battles of the war.” Had Grant been relieved of command in 1862, the Confederacy would almost certainly have gained its independence.

No matter what the significance of this pivotal battle, Grooms’ Shiloh, 1862 is so readable that it is a superb gift for any enthusiast of American, military or Civil War history.


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