Shiloh

Themes

In the novel Shiloh, historian and Civil War expert Shelby Foote delivers a spare, unflinching account of the battle of Shiloh, which was fought over the course of two days in April 1862. By mirroring the troops’ movements through the woods of Tennessee with the activity of each soldier’s mind, Foote offers the reader a broad perspective of the battle and a detailed view of the issues behind it. The battle becomes tangible as Foote interweaves the observations of Union and Confederate officers, simple foot soldiers, brave men, and cowards and describes the roar of the muskets and the haze of the gun smoke. The author’s vivid storytelling creates a rich chronicle of a pivotal battle in American history
This book is a wonderful example of his abilities and deals with the battle of Shiloh through the eyes of several men on both sides of the conflict. His characters are not the generals on the field, rather they are common soldiers ranging from privates who have never seen battle up to a colonel (Forrest) — people that don’t have all the answers, others who are still searching for the questions. The wonderful thing about Foote’s writing is his ability to make you feel like you were there without bogging the story down with too many numbers and statistics, but allowing the viewer a much deeper understanding of the events of the battle by giving us a glimpse through the eyes of those who were there.


Foote is one of the great authorities on the War, and though he wrote this when pretty young it is still filled with detail and knowledge of the war. It conveys well the chaos of the fighting and how, as so often, small failures of generalship cost the battle
Shelby Foote’s Shiloh is a novel about a real Civil War battle told from the point of view of a few common soldiers, both northern and southern, who fought there. Because he chose to depict the action from these points of view, he limits what can be said of the big picture. If one can ignore that big picture, the book works very well at showing the reader what the experience must have been like for individuals caught up in different parts of the fight. Yet needing to provide some of that picture, Foote has each character present background on specific generals and their actions leading up to Shiloh. This exposition is, for the most part, pretty clumsy and simply detracts from the first person focus.
The problem I have with the book is that the reader doesn’t get to know any of the characters very well and overall outcome of the battle is unclear. This is a really small book (just over 200 pages) and while the images are graphic and the characters accessable, the author just doesn’t have the space to spread out and let the reader develop a real emotional response to these characters and their actions. Nor is he able to provide any perspective on the battle and what it means – even for the individual characters he has presented.
I think it helps to have read the section in his narrative history of the Civil War that deals with Shiloh. But this means that the novel doesn’t really stand on its own. The reader must come equiped with prior knowledge or be left with questions that will require some research. Perhaps not bad, but I would have preferred a more comprehensive treatment – something more like Tom Wicker’s Unto This Hour. That’s just personal taste. Foote did what he intended and did it well. I can’t help it if I just want more.
Fans of Shelby Foote’s massive three volume Narrative History of the Civil War, (and I am the work’s biggest fan), will surely find something they like in Foote’s earlier novel about the battle of Shiloh. I couldn’t help thinking, however, that Foote’s real calling is as historian and commentator, and his effort to write a novel here seems to be a bit off the mark.
Perhaps unfairly, novels of the Civil War tend to get compared to Michael Shaara’s brilliant Killer Angels, a comparison that does not bode well for Shiloh. Here