by Gregory A. Mertz
The best resource for any battle is the battlefield itself. The Emerging Civil War books are different from many other volumes because it has a guide-book component to it and an inherently strong connection between the narrative of the battle with the actual battlefield resources. That aspect of the series not only attracted me to the Emerging Civil War as a reader, but also as an author for the book on the battle of Shiloh.
That strength of the series and its strong relation with the battlefield resources is not without its challenges. In writing about Shiloh, the biggest ordeal was trying to provide the visitor on the battlefield with an easy-to-follow tour, while also providing the reader back home in their easy chair with a logical flow to the story. While writing a chronological account of a battle is a relatively straightforward process, writing a chronological tour would require a visitor to embark upon a frustrating and time-consuming drive back and forth across the landscape. I approached the Shiloh book as someone with a lot more experience conducting battlefield tours than writing battle narratives. The organization for the book was necessarily going to start with the layout of the tour being paramount.
The logical start of the tour would be the Shiloh National Military Park visitor center. So, while the book needed to begin with introductory remarks to provide context for the battle, it also needed to start off by making connections with those resources found in the immediate vicinity of the visitor center.
Just to the east of the visitor center lay three different landmarks, which could be visited as part of a first tour stop and the beginning of the book. If they did not fit, they could just as easily be delayed until the end of the tour and the conclusion of the book as the visitor completed the tour by circling back to the visitor center. Just to the west of the visitor center was the first tour stop on the park’s self-guided driving tour, but that stop was the scene of fighting that occurred right in the middle of the two-day battle.
It would be very difficult to write the book beginning with the middle of the battle, so the resources to the east seemed to hold more promise for the start of the book. Looking for a way to begin by writing about the landmarks east of the visitor center became the focus.
Dominating the landscape east of the visitor center is the National Cemetery—the final resting place of the Union soldiers who fell at Shiloh. On one side of the cemetery is Pittsburg Landing, the Union supply base on the Tennessee River. Another point of interest is the monument marking the headquarters of Union army commander Ulysses S. Grant.
The National Cemetery is a poignant reminder of cost of the battle of Shiloh and a logical connection with the fact that more American casualties fell at Shiloh than in all other American wars fought prior to the Civil War combined. Examining the casualties may logically be included at the end of a tour or book as one of the results of a battle. But in the case of Shiloh, it helped to address the losses at the beginning to help establish one of the factors that made this battle unique, setting it apart from all other prior American battles. Visiting the National Cemetery first and stressing the distinction that Shiloh held in American history seemed to work well.
The Tennessee River was the Union army’s avenue of advance through the state of Tennessee and a way to go around the Confederate stronghold along the Mississippi. Pittsburg Landing proved to be both a wonderful port that could be used even in high water and the main road leading from Pittsburg Landing led to Corinth, Mississippi, where the Confederates were known to be concentrating. The river, the landing, and the road were all tangible features of plans for the Shiloh Campaign. They were great tour stops, which had stories providing context for the troop movements and strategies.
Grant’s Shiloh headquarters was not the only aspect of Grant that could be interpreted in the area around the visitor center. Prior to the battle, Grant had spent nights at a headquarters north of the battlefield at Savannah, Tennessee. He arrived via boat from Savannah on the morning of the battle, and when he reached Pittsburg Landing, he learned of the true extent of the battle sounds he had heard while traveling. What Grant was told, what he saw, and what he heard in the segment from the landing to the camps at the top of the hill all contributed to his perception of how the battle was shaping up, and what his reaction was going to be. In conversations held at or near his headquarters, as well comments made on the battle line west of the visitor center—a place called “Grant’s Last Line”—Grant would reveal his plan for the battle. Grant resolved that his troops needed to hold on against massive Confederate attacks until reinforcements arrived and then counterattack. So, the book also begins by examining the battle from the perspective of Grant, with the visitor/reader learning about the battle as Grant learned about it. The book offers an overview of the battle through the eyes of the most influential person on the field, before moving on to provide more details about that fight.
With that foundation, the visitor moves forward and looks at the Confederate plans for the Shiloh Campaign, then visits the sites of early battle actions, and basically progresses through the field to see the scenes of later engagements. Other sections of the book likewise had the challenge of visiting scenes out of chronological order, but the challenge of how to start the book by using the resources around the Shiloh visitor center was the biggest.
Attack at Daylight and Whip Them: The Battle of Shiloh, April 6-7, 1862
by Gregory A. Mertz
Savas Beatie, 2019
Click here to read more about the book, including a book description, reviews, and an author bio.
Click here for the audiobook, narrated by Bob Neufeld.