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Shiloh: A Novel Paperback – April 9, 1991
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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.
From the Inside Flap
This fictional re-creation of the battle of Shiloh in April 1862 fulfills the standard set by his monumental history, conveying both the bloody choreography of two armies and the movements of the combatants' hearts and minds.
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Foote’s descriptive prose is fantastic. His keen eye for the changing natural environment around the soldiers – the rain, the mud, the trees and sky and river – enhances the martial atmosphere of the battle. Foote’s soldiers/storytellers are fictional, yet their stories are emblematic of what individual men might have experienced. I take issue with his romantic portrayal of the cutthroat Nathan Bedford Forrest but since I’m a Yankee that’s probably to be expected! Some reviewers criticize the book as not living up to “The Killer Angels” and its detailed explication of the Battle of Gettysburg. I think “Shiloh” had a more modest purpose. It’s a compact narrative in the mold of “The Red Badge of Courage.” On the whole, this riveting, compassionate novel is a wonderful addition to any Civil War buff’s collection.
The novel is written from six points of view: Palmer Metcalfe, an officer on the staff of the rebel army under General Johnston; Walter Fountain, a Union staff officer; Luther Dade, a Mississippi rifleman; Otto Flickner, a canoneer from Minnesota; Jefferson Polly, a cavalryman under Nathan Bedford Forrest, and Robert Winter, who speaks for all twelve of the men of Squad 6, 23rd Indiana. The way the men relate their tales to the reader varies; some write it in epistolary (letter) form, while others speak directly to the audience. The personalities of the characters vary widely, with some of the men well-educated and others "barefoot in their speech." The one unifying factory is that except when recounting the doings of others, there are no heroes.
In writing SHILOH, Foote tried hard, and I think succeeded, in presenting war - especially 19th century war - as controlled chaos, with the emphasis on the "chaos" and not the "control." Also in presenting human motives as what they were and not what we'd like them to be. Metcalfe is confident his paper plans will come to fruition, and bewildered when reality refuses to correspond. Fountain has no idea what he is getting into. Winter records that nobody in his squad likes anyone else. But the show is stolen by Flickner, who, after running away from the battle, challenges another skulker to a fight for calling him a coward. The skulker says, "If you're so alfired brave, sonny, what you doing back here with us skulkers then?" Polly replies with dignity: "I ain't scared the way you made out. I'm what you call demoralized." Only a Southerner like Foote could write dialogue so true to the 1860s, and only a man so steeped in the history of the war could reproduce its atmosphere so completely.
The weaknesses of the story are bound up with its strengths. Having six characters writing six in voices gives the reader the feel of working through a book of essays or recollections rather than a novel, and the fact that several of the stories loosely interweave doesn't really do much to pull them all together. What's more, those who have real Foote's Civil War Trilogy will recognize many passages taken almost word for word from those books and transplanted here; Foote was unable to resist doing this apparently, when he was writing exposition.
Overall, however, I can't do anything but recommend this book, particularly if you've never read Foote's nonfiction work on the war. He writes beautifully when he wants to ("I'd done as poor a job of making a bad man as I had of making a good one", says Polly), and always with wit and a certain melancholy (Metcalfe's father suffers from "Regret...regret of a particularly regional form."). What's more, he sums up the reason for the South's defeat as only a man born and raised in Mississippi could: "We were sick with an old malady; incurable romanticism and misplaced chivalry...We were in love with the past, in love with death." Foote said in an interview once that the Civil War was the war that defined America, and to understand that definition you could do worse than reading SHILOH.
The credit for this highly readable but historically accurate novel goes to Shelby Foote - with a notable assist to fellow native Mississippian William Faulkner. The series of perspectives is similar to As I Lay Dying but it offers the accuracy of a seasoned historian. In truth, "Shiloh" is (to me) more readable than Faulkner and engages in a level that I was never able to find with Foote's idle.
Final Verdict - I rarely say this, but this should be required reading at the High School level. It is written at a very high level and it offers a highly entertaining an accurate retelling of the battle of Shiloh.