Friday, May 25, 2012

Smith, ed. : "THE BATTLE OF SHILOH" Vol. III - Tennessee in the Civil War series

[ Tennessee in the Civil War: The Best of Tennessee Historical Quarterly  Vol. III - The Battle of Shiloh, edited by Timothy B. Smith (The Tennessee Historical Society). Softcover, maps, illustrations, notes, index. 208 pp. ISBN:978-0-9615966-5-1 $25 ]

Since 1942, Tennessee Historical Quarterly, the scholarly journal of the Tennessee Historical Society, has published close to 400 Civil War related articles. In commemoration of the conflict's sesquicentennial, the society, with series editor Carroll Van West, plan to republish the best of these in a dozen themed volumes. An expert scholar will select the essays and pen the introduction for each book. An excellent choice for Volume III - The Battle of Shiloh is historian Timothy B. Smith, the author and editor of numerous Shiloh studies.

Given its status as the state's preeminent battle, it is no surprise that Shiloh is the subject of more than a few THQ articles and Smith's selections comprise a mix of the expected and unexpected, both old and new.  As one might suppose, content quality and depth of research vary and many of the older writings espouse interpretations considered dated by many of today's scholars.  However, all have points of interest.

The first chapter, Peter Franklin Walker's 1957 assessment of Confederate command failure during the Forts Henry and Donelson campaign, outlines the now mainstream critiques of Confederate generals Johnston, Floyd, Pillow, and Buckner.  The most unconventional feature is Walker's criticism of Grant's failure to prevent the escape of the Fort Henry garrison. 

Every Shiloh compilation has to have a Hornet's Nest article and Donald Dosch's from 1978 is a clinical, step-by-step recreation of events.  Although he does not develop his own views on the relative importance of the sunken road fighting, his notes frequently defer to the judgments of David Reed, whose views on the primacy of the Hornet's Nest are well known to today's readers. 

Donald Clark's lengthy piece from 2009 takes a detailed look at Don Carlos Buell's march to the battlefield, as well as the controversial official and public opinions of Buell and lead division commander "Bull" Nelson on the state of the Army of the Tennessee upon their arrival.  Like most of today's historians, Clark does not believe that Buell's arrival on the afternoon of April 6 "saved" Grant's army.  A participant that certainly did believe in Buell as savior, and committed his thoughts on the matter to the pages of his fiction, was Ambrose Bierce. Christopher Kiernan Coleman's article recounts Bierce's participation in the campaign and battle and analyzes how the famous writer's experiences were represented in his later fiction.  A military and civilian 'human interest' article associated with the battle, similar in style to his book, can be found in James McDonough's offering from 1976.

A pair of chapters reproduce participant writings.  For the September 1958 issue, John Biel excerpted the Shiloh portions of the diary and letters of 38th Tennessee soldier Joseph Dimmit Thompson.  These pieces of primary source material provide convey to the reader the perspective of a common soldier belonging to Pond's Brigade of Ruggles's Division. Biel's contribution is also remarkable in that it is the most extensively annotated of the book's selections.   Artist Conrad Wise Chapman, best known for his Siege of Charleston paintings, also fought at Shiloh and was wounded on Day 2.  Wise's thoughts on the battle and his wounding are presented in Ben Bassham's well edited 1988 article.

An article assessing shifting interpretations of Shiloh by historians and another summarizing the formation of the park itself together offer a fitting conclusion to the volume. Editor Timothy Smith's 2003 article divides Shiloh scholarship into four schools of thought and lists the prominent adherents to each.  Most readers will have been exposed to Smith's thoughts on these matters through his many publications since so they need not be restated here.  However, one historian he does mention that most readers have probably not heard of is James Gentsch, whose Master's thesis "A Geographic Analysis of the Battle of Shiloh" (Memphis State University, 1994) sounds worthy of future publication in book form.

Although the definitive battle history has yet to be written, Shiloh students have been treated to a number of excellent books and essay compilations in recent decades.  While all of the articles in The Battle of Shiloh have been published before (obviously), their compilation in a new volume has merit with the hope that a new generation of reader can more easily access them and benefit from their content.

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