War novelist Shaara returns with this first of a projected trilogy about the Civil War west of the Appalachians.
Why Shiloh? It was a flyspeck in a corner of Tennessee, 20 miles from the Rebel stronghold of Corinth, Miss. The two-day battle in April 1862 was an inconclusive victory for the North. Still, the seesaw nature of the contest, coupled with the death of a commander in the saddle, gives it obvious dramatic appeal. That appeal is missing in the troop movements that take up the novel’s first half. Everything is slowed in a sea of mud produced by the incessant rains. Shaara alternates between Union and Confederate war councils, while the common man is represented by a very green cavalry lieutenant from Memphis and an equally green infantryman from Wisconsin. It is the interplay between the generals, though, that fascinates Shaara. Grant must cope with his boss, the vainglorious Halleck in St. Louis, just as the sympathetically portrayed Southern commander, Johnston, contains his ambitious deputy Beauregard. While Grant waits for reinforcements, Johnston orders a surprise attack: a full-frontal engagement at dawn. The Confederates will dominate the first day, though waves of panic will infect both sides. Then Johnston dies suddenly, a leg wound. On the second day, Grant’s army, much enlarged, gains the upper hand. Shaara tracks the constant flanking maneuvers on a battlefield obscured by smoke. The sheer detail becomes numbing, though there is great dexterity in his long, rolling sentences. Due recognition is given to the staggering numbers of dead and wounded (one quarter of all soldiers); the psychological state of the survivors gets less attention. One infantryman who has discovered the joy of killing sees himself bound for hell, but this revelation of a man’s essence is rare.
The particulars of the battle have been meticulously researched and rendered; what’s missing is a vision that would transcend them.