By Rock Wheeler, National Geographic Live
This coming Thursday, April 5, Washington-area history buffs will have the opportunity to mark the 150th anniversary of the pivotal Civil War battle of Shiloh a day early by listening to a talk by the distinguished novelist and historian Winston Groom, author of such books as Forrest Gump and Shrouds of Glory. Groom’s latest book Shiloh 1862, published last month by National Geographic Books, is the first major book on the Tennessee battle in fifteen years.
Groom had written two other books on Civil War topics, but even for an experienced historian like him, Shiloh was a daunting subject at first. “I’d always thought it would be very complicated to explain,” he told me recently. ‘It was a confusing fight, mainly because of the terrain.” As he began sifting through accounts of the battle however, he found an approach that promised to lend order to the chaos. “I picked about a dozen or so participants, and tried to tell the story through their eyes.” Fortunately for Groom, it turned out that an extraordinary number of talented writers took part in the battle, many of whom pursued journalistic or literary careers after the war. “We did have some very good writers on that field,” he said, among them Ambrose Bierce, who became one of the most important American writers of his generation, and Lew Wallace, a Union general at Shiloh who went on to write “the bestseller of his day—Ben-Hur.” The firsthand accounts of these and other, lesser-known survivors of the battle’s fury give Shiloh 1862 a convincing feel for what it must have been like to have been caught up in the smoke-filled, ear-splitting maelstrom unleashed by the Confederate Army of Tennessee’s surprise attack on the morning of April 6, 1862.
When I asked him whether he was surprised by anything that he uncovered during his research for the book, Groom replied, “yeah—just about everything!” One was the unimaginably high rate of casualties produced by the battle—more than had been suffered in all of American military history up to that time, including the Revolution, War of 1812, and Mexican War. “It totally shocked the nation,” Groom said. “The biggest battle in the war up to that point had been Bull Run, about 5,000 casualties. Shiloh was 24,000 – it was huge, monstrous, horrible.” Before that time, citizens on either side expected one quick battle to end the war “before Christmas.” Shiloh shattered those illusions, and the war would continue for four
years. As Groom puts it, “the people suddenly, North and South, realized what they had unleashed when they started this war, this giant, murderous thing that would drench the country in blood…(Union General) Grant would write that only after Shiloh did he realize that the only way to win the war would be to subjugate the South entirely.” Perhaps not surprisingly, then, when I asked Groom what lessons he thought Americans today should draw from this battle on its 150th anniversary, his reply was simple and blunt. “Don’t have a civil war.”
Tickets remain for Winston Groom’s Nat Geo Live talk on Shiloh, Thursday evening, April 5 at 7:30 at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C. For more information about the event, visit the Nat Geo Live website.