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Civil War Road Trip to Shiloh

August 4, 2013

I didn’t realize it at the time, but about a year and a half ago another one of my literary fascinations snuck up on me. Mike and I were driving to North and South Carolina to visit family, and we’d just passed road signs for another Civil War national battlefield. I was struck by the number of them and remarked that taking a road trip through the South to visit them would be a cool way to learn history and see more of the South. He agreed, and I guess we tucked the idea away somewhere.civil_war_road_trip

When I later promised my sister I’d definitely attend the Memphis music festival with her in May 2013, I started thinking about a trip to Memphis. Beyond the Graceland, Sun Records, and civil rights locations we’d want to see while there, I realized it might be a good chance to begin a Civil War road trip. But where and how to start?

The Complete Civil War Road Trip Guide

I searched for a guide to the battlefields on Amazon, and found Michael Weeks’s The Complete Civil War Road Trip Guide. I couldn’t have been more fortunate, as this book is an excellent guide for all a newbie or seasoned historian could want when visiting the Civil War battlefields.

As Weeks describes in the front matter, his book provides 10 major tours that take in highly significant sites as well as a number of smaller ones (smaller in significance, that is). Each tour provides an overview of the area’s Civil War history, short descriptions of the major players in the battles and events for that tour, a geographical explanation of the tour, and then lengthier descriptions of each stop along the way: the events that occurred there and what to see. He includes sidebars with addresses, phone numbers, and visiting hours for museums, historical markers, parks, and centers for these sites, adding helpful information on what they offer visitors (e.g., an interpretive film or driving tour). Finally, each section ends with helpful info about bed and breakfasts (some of which are part of the Civil War history) and the availability of hotels and motels.

Weeks’s obvious fascination with Civil War history shines through in his short overview of how Memphis and the surrounding area had fared in the Civil War. It grabbed me by the collar and didn’t let go. Thus, I returned from the fall run of the Friends of the Library book sale with the first volume of Shelby Foote’s three-volume Civil War: A Narrative and the Pulitzer Prize–winning Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson.

Probably the most fascinating event that I’d encountered in Weeks’s book was the battle at Shiloh, a little spot named for the church that sat there. Shiloh was the first of the dramatically tragic battles of the war, shocking the nation (or both of them, depending on your perspective) in its staggeringly high loss of life (at the time). Grant received a good deal of criticism for his absence from the battlefield (his headquarters was nine miles away), and the Confederate attack that started the battle came as a complete surprise to the Union soldiers encamped near the Shiloh church. Nevertheless, the Confederates’ beloved general, Albert Sidney Johnston, died in the battle and one Union division under Brigadier General Benjamin Prentiss fought fiercely, allowing more Union troops to race to the rescue overnight, thus providing a Union victory. If you can call such loss of life—the casualties over two days totaled 23,000-plus—a victory.

The road trip we took this past spring was wonderful. Weeks’s guide was instrumental in finding and knowing about the places we visited, even though we veered occasionally from the two tours we followed, finding more gems along the way. In fact, we learned that the Shenandoah Valley tour is full of great sites and stops, so the only fault I might have with Weeks’s tour in that area is that you should set aside an extra day or two for any diversions you want to take in (e.g., Lexington offers much more to see than Weeks mentions, such as the VMI museum with lots of Stonewall Jackson materials and Jackson’s house itself).

Shiloh: A Novel

Soon I learned that Shelby Foote had written a novel about the battle, and I had to have it. -2Called simply Shiloh: A Novel, the book tells the story of the battle in seven chapters, each one told from the perspective of a different participant, alternating between Confederate and Union armies. (Actually, the first and last chapters follow the same character, and one chapter uses the voices of several men in one Union squad from Indiana.) In this case, this conceit works well to tell the battle story and to humanize it.

The battle begins with Johnston’s aide-de-camp, Lt. Palmer Metcalfe, describing the Confederates’ short march from their camp to the early-morning surprise attack on the just-barely-awake Union soldiers. It continues with Union adjutant Capt. Walter Fountain, stationed beside the church and near Sherman’s headquarters. Then we follow Pvt. Luther Dade, a Confederate rifleman, into the attack on the Union army, surprising them at breakfast; Dade’s injuries in the fight lead him across the battlefield in a search for a doctor, crossing the peach orchard and ending when he witnesses the death of General Johnston. Union cannoneer Pvt. Otto Flickner describes the harrowing experience of the Hornets Nest, late in the first day’s fighting, which concluded with Prentiss’s surrender to the Rebels. As night descends, Sgt. Jefferson Polly, a scout with General Nathan Bedford Forrest, takes us on a reconnaissance near Pittsburgh Landing, where Union gunboats carrying General Don Carlos Buell’s troops disembark overnight with the support the Union needs to win the battle. In the morning, the men from one squad in the 23rd Indiana, under the command of Brig. Gen. Lew Wallace, assume they’ve marched from the east to surrender with the rest of the Union army; instead they overrun the Confederates on the field. The final chapter, once again told by Lt. Metcalfe, provides a thrilling scene—involving the reckless Nathan Bedford Forrest—of the Confederate army in retreat.

Foote began his work as a novelist, rather than an academic historian, and Shiloh is a great introduction to his skills as a storyteller. If you who saw his contribution to Ken Burns’s PBS documentary, The Civil War, you’ll recognize his uniquely Southern and articulate voice in this novel. That voice uses Southern expressions and almost-obsolete terms that invoke the times and the scenes. Here’s just one example of what I love about Foote’s writing:

There was a gang of Federal soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder in the field beyond the tents. I thought it was the whole Yankee army, lined up waiting for us. Those in front were kneeling under the guns of the men in the second line, a great bank of blue uniforms and rifle barrels and white faces like rows of eggs, one above another. When they fired, the smoke came at us in a solid wall. Things plucked at my clothes and twitched my hat, and when I looked around I saw men all over the ground, in the same ugly positions as the men back on the slope, moaning and whimpering, clawing at the grass. Some were gut-shot, making high yelping sounds like a turpentined dog.

My fascination with the Civil War continues to grow, and I’m certain the serendipity of starting with these two books has much to do with that. In fact, I’ve purchased several other novels of the Civil War (novels by Jeff and Michael Shaara) and have already begun reading Foote’s massive history. You’ll hear more about that when I’ve finished reading it.

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