Monday, March 30, 2015

Not So Glorious


"A Blaze of Glory,” by Jeff Shaara, 2013

Shaara is probably the premier writer on the Civil War right now, following in the footsteps of historians Bruce Catton, James McPherson & Shelby Foote.  His novels of the war are historical fiction, but provide a living picture of the battles, strategy, tactics and personalities involved.   As far as they go, they are accurate.   But it seems that no one has noticed that his books are devoid of politics – devoid of black people or slavery – devoid of any negative background to the especially ‘Southern’ cause.  It looks like he’s trying to sell his books to everyone, including unreconstructed Confederates.
Shiloh Church Today
His father Michael wrote the first in the series, “Killer Angels,” about the battle of Gettsyburg and especially the struggle at Little Round Top.  The son followed with two more books on the Eastern campaigns, “Last Full Measure” and “Gods and Generals.”  The latest series cover the western front - Shiloh (“A Blaze of Glory,”) to Vicksburg (“A Chain of Thunder,”) to the campaigns around Atlanta and Savannah (the latter to be released in May.)  While roundly ignored by some, the western theater was for the most part a long string of victories for the anti-slavery cause, from seizing New Orleans in 1861 all the way to Sherman’s entry into Savannah, Georgia in 1864.  Shaara is attempting to correct that impression – though it is not one that those actually familiar with the war would have. 

This book is about Shiloh in  western Tennessee.  The titles of the books attempt to give a romantic and somewhat gauzy cover to the writing.  The battle of Shiloh was no ‘blaze of glory.’  It was a bloody mess.  But you can’t very well call the book, “A Bloody Confusion” or “2 Days in a Living Hell,” though it would be more accurate.  

Shaara himself attempts to improve upon his father’s original formula which focused exclusively on the actions of the various generals or commanders in the first books.  He has now introduced one enlisted man in each army, and even will include a female civilian in his book about Vicksburg.  In this book on Shiloh it is a union soldier named Bauer from the 16th Wisconsin, part of Prentiss’ division recruited out of Milwaukee.  Prentiss’ division formed the central unit of the ‘Hornet’s Nest’ that crushed ‘secsesh’ attacks for many crucial hours.   For the Confederate army, it is a mounted trooper named Seeley, riding with Nathan Bedford Forrest, the infamous murderer of Fort Pillow and the most successful cavalryman west of the Appalachians. 

Exposed is one of two major conceptual flaws in the book series – the ‘great man’ theory of history. In this book that angle is somewhat mitigated, but still the focus is on Grant, Sherman, Sidney Johnston, the leader of the Confederate Army; Prentiss and a top aide to Johnston, Harris.  That focus gives us a window into the mistakes and successes of the leaders, which is invaluable.  Yet what is involved beyond that – as in any battle, class struggle, mass protest or strike – are the individual actions of thousands of people and lower-level leaders, and the population that surrounds them.  At this point in history, that is not a radical thing to point out, yet so much history, film and ideology in the U.S. is still centered on a select few ‘heroes.’  Even the film “Selma” did that. (‘Selma’ is reviewed below.)

The second major conceptual flaw is the lack of politics.  There are no black people in these books as yet. Glimpsed twice in passing perhaps.  Yet they are the unknown ‘other’ that undergirds the whole war.  The portrayal of Forrest, for instance, praises his daring solo charge into a brigade of union infantry at the end of the battle of Shiloh, in which he grabbed one small man to use as a shield while still riding his horse!  Yet nothing is mentioned of his background – a prominent slave trader and virulent racist, who incidentally went on to murder black and white captives at Fort Pillow.  After the Civil War, he became the first Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, which was basically the Confederate army in drag – ah, white sheets.  The wives and prostitutes that follow the army are mentioned, but almost nothing about the masses of black ex-slaves flocking to the Union armies.  Nothing about the politics of the various generals is written about – just their allegiance to whatever home state they lived in, north or south.  Shaara has essentially de-politicized the Civil War.  He has neutered it of economics.  He has turned it into a military encounter based on geography and nothing more.  

But on to what Shaara does best.  Shiloh was the collision of two large armies full of mostly green, inexperienced soldiers in a woods just south of the Tennessee River, a thick woods full of deep ravines, minor roads, dotted with a few fields, saturated with water, muddy, wet and cold.  All centered between a little log church, Shiloh, at an unknown crossroads and a pond that became saturated with blood.  The Union army suffered from complacency, slowness and inexperience, the Confederate army from divided leadership, arrogance and slowness too.  Shaara makes you relive this battle as if you were there, and this is his skill as a novelist – all based on deep research.  

It was probably Sherman’s worst day.  Sherman in this book is still fretting over the Union route at the First Bull Run, where he saw the Union army run in panic and fear.  Grant’s army is camped in the fields south of Pittsburg Landing, waiting for Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio to join them so they can move south and attack the Confederate rail head at Corinth, Mississippi and cut that rail line to the east.  Sherman here is trying to keep his soldiers calm and in doing so ignores the increasing number of reports of Confederate cavalry patrols, cannon fire, aggressive captives talking about how the whole Union army would be crushed, even sightings of gray troops in the woods.  There is no reconnaissance in force ordered by Sherman or Grant, as both of them discount a surprise attack. Even the Union cavalry seems not to stray far from camp.  Yet that is exactly what happens – a surprise at dawn on Sunday, April 6th, 1862.  If they had thought about it for a minute from the Confederate point of view, attacking Grant’s army before the arrival of Buell was the only sensible thing to do.

On a smaller level it reminds me somewhat of Stalin disbelieving months of reports from his own spies and military sources that the Nazis were planning military action against the USSR. Which almost led to the loss of Leningrad and Moscow.  

So if you can imagine mostly new Union troops encamped in their white tents, getting up from bed, preparing breakfast only to have long lines of Confederate infantry suddenly sighted coming out of the woods to your south – well, a partial route ensued.  No emplacements had been dug, no trees felled, no defensive positions prepared.  Sherman finally realized he was under attack by seeing the butternut uniforms of the enemy infantry himself.  Only Prentiss had advanced in force to meet the Confederate threat.  

Ultimately over a whole day of confused and desperate fighting the union forces are pushed to the high bluffs overlooking Pittsburg Landing when P.T. Bureaugard calls off the last Confederate assault just before evening. He is confident that the next day he can route Grant. Evidently he is unaware that the first units of the Army of the Ohio are coming across the Tennessee and that Lew Wallace’s division of Grant’s army is also coming as reinforcements.  The next day the story is reversed over the same bloody ground.

Ambrose Bierce was in this battle on the Union side and wrote “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” about it. Owl Creek ran along the north-western edge of the Shiloh battlefield. That ghastly story captures the mood of this morbid and cruel encounter.  The Shiloh battlefield is now a federal national park.  Bloody Pond is a shrunken body of water from what I saw 40 years ago.  The wagon trail, the fence along the Hornet’s Nest, Duncan Field, the Peach Orchard, Shiloh Church and the spot where Sidney Johnston died are still to be visited.  This is ‘hallowed ground’ for the blood shed to crush the slave economic system.  Ultimately, while the Union lost more soldiers, the Confederates retreated to Corinth and even abandoned that rail line.  The battle was declared a ‘victory’ for the “North.” but the Union unpreparedness and the stupid Confederate frontal assaults were not victories for the soldiers involved.  

Many books about the civil war are reviewed below, mostly concerning the support for the Union among southerners in nearly every ‘Confederate’ state – i.e. the failure of southern nationalism. Use blog search box, upper left.

P.S. - In the next book on Vicksburg, Shaara finally has one short scene involving an old black man on a Mississippi plantation and one particularily vicious rich planter's wife.  And a single female civilian in Vicksburg tending the wounded. 

Red Frog
March 30, 2015
Commune de Cortona, Italia 

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