Monday, July 15, 2019

Review - "Attack at Daylight and Whip Them: The Battle of Shiloh, April 6-7, 1862" by Gregory Mertz

[Attack at Daylight and Whip Them: The Battle of Shiloh, April 6-7, 1862 by Gregory A. Mertz (Savas Beatie, 2019). Softcover, 17 maps, 166 images, appendix, orders of battle. Pages:xx,171. ISBN:978-1-61121-313-3. $14.95]

Through now dozens of installments, the Emerging Civil War series has established a winning formula of presenting concise historical narratives (authored mostly by NPS-affiliated individuals well versed in public history) generously supplemented by tour, map, and photograph features. How these constituent elements are arranged is largely up to the author. In general, the historical narrative is presented in standard chronological fashion with the driving/walking tour either offered standalone or integrated piecemeal into each chapter. The appendix section typically addresses a range of associated topics that often rival the main text in their attention-grabbing nature. Gregory Mertz's Attack at Daylight and Whip Them: The Battle of Shiloh, April 6-7, 1862 is unusual in that it is the tour that drives the narrative rather than the other way around, and the appendix section is limited to a single (though very important) issue.

As mentioned above, touring efficiency is what lies chiefly behind the chosen chapter arrangement. The book begins near Pittsburg Landing with "Grant's Last Line" and moves back and forth chronologically, even alternating between Day 1 and Day 2 events. The execution turns out to be less confusing than it sounds, especially for those readers already familiar with the battle. Novice readers might struggle with grasping the historical sequence of events, though.

Addressing old controversies and the various well-known interpretive traditions, Mertz's overview narrative is simply excellent in its summarization of the current state of the Shiloh battle historiography, among the best short-form treatments available. Descriptive accounts of each stage of the battle are well supported by a fine set of maps drawn mostly at brigade scale. Neither tour nor text address the Confederate approach march or retreat (including the fighting at Fallen Timbers), but, as is the case with book's attenuated appendix section, this is almost surely due to the format's space limitations.

ECW authors are typically grizzled veterans of conducting public tours and creating interpretive programs, and Mertz's well-honed skills in those areas are displayed in the book's seamless integration of battlefield tour and historical narrative. Clear directions and detailed viewer orientation are provided for every numbered driving tour stop and letter-sequenced walking tour stage.

In addition to recounting details of the battle, the author judiciously weighs the strengths and weaknesses of enduring points of contention. While he largely detaches himself from the fray, Mertz does occasionally come down firmly on one debate side or the other. For example, the author joins those that counter critics of Albert Sidney Johnston's leading from the front by citing the need for the Confederate commander to personally inspire his inexperienced army at key moments during the attack. As for the slain Johnston's replacement, while some see Beauregard's chief sin as calling off the Day 1 attack too soon, Mertz more persuasively criticizes the general for pulling back too far during the evening and yielding the best ground for the next day's fighting. Interestingly, the author does not substantively address criticisms of Grant's Day 1 unpreparedness.

In the appendix, contributor Ryan Quint offers a well-balanced assessment of the never-ending Lew Wallace controversy. Agreeing with the current consensus among recent biographers and Shiloh battle historians that Wallace was neither lost nor slow, the writer acknowledges that we'll never know for certain the wording of Grant's disputed order (the sheet of paper being lost to history). Other criticisms remain, however. Wallace's brief stop for a divisional lunch break and even more time lost due to his decision to maintain his original order of march when his column turned around are decisions enduringly open to question (though both could be justified on some level).

This title is one of the best representatives of what ECW series titles strive to achieve in balancing history and tour while also remaining accessible (and interesting) to a wide range of readers. Attack at Daylight and Whip Them has all the hallmarks of being a very useful tool for conducting a self-guided tour of the Shiloh battlefield.


  1. Thanks for the review, Drew.

    ECW books do all you claim, with the added bonus (one of the big reasons I decided to publish the series) they often bring new readers into the Civil War genre. At the parks, etc. new visitors won't pick up a 400-page book on Shiloh. But they will pick up this one, which has just enough text, photos, and maps to be accessible, learned, and interested. And if the bug bites...they come back and wade more than shoe-top deep into the morass we call our love.

  2. Drew: I'll never fathom the lunch break or the fixation on keeping the order of march. The latter is especially baffling because he well knew of the urgency by then. It's why he had to turn around in the first place - because continuing in the original direction would run smack into Johnston's troops located where Grant's troops were supposed to have been. The efforts to justify that decision are "unenthusiastic" at best.

    1. Mr. Foskett: I just read your review of the new Lew Wallace book by Christopher Mortenson in the latest issue of Civil War News. The review is well done and balanced. You obviously have a firm grasp on the subject matter. Perhaps Drew could hire you as an assistant reviewer. :)

    2. Mr. Sinclair: Thanks for the generous words. As we know, Drew probably doesn't need any assistants :) I note that based on his (as always) thorough review here on March 6, 2019, he and I appear to be pretty much in agreement on the book.

    3. John S.,
      The site can't afford his hourly rate!

    4. Drew; I've been known to do 'pro bono" work. But you definitely wouldn't qualify, although I might give you a "friends and family" discount :)


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