Book Review: Shelby Foote’s Shiloh

Shelby Foote was famous to my generation as one of the historians interviewed in Ken Burns’ documentary The Civil War, and he wrote a three thousand page book with the same title. (A great book to have if you are ever in bed for a week, like I was, recuperating from Lyme’s Disease). But Foote was first and foremost a novelist, and when he did history, it was as a novelist. (Fun Fact: Did you know that his Civil War never won any major awards because judges couldn’t decide if it was fiction or non-fiction? I wonder what they would have thought of Homer or Thucydides.)

History books are written with the benefit of hindsight, with the author trying to achieve perfect objectivity. But no one who was alive at the time ever experienced the event that way; each saw it from his own limited perspective. In Shiloh, Shelby Foote sets out to do the opposite, telling the story of the battle not from the perspective of absolute objectivity, but through fictional first person accounts of individuals who took part in the battle, a battle in which not even the generals had a clear grasp of what was going on. As Foote says through one of his characters:

Books about war were written to be read by God Almighty, because no one but God ever saw it that way. A book about war, to be read by men, ought to tell what each of the twelve of us saw in our little corner. Then it would be the way it was – not to God but to us.

The stories overlap some, with one character giving his impression of another, or several men of the same sight; three characters, for example, all describe the same crescent moon. The key action of the battle, the Union counter-attack on the second day, is narrated by each member of a 12 man Union squad. They are unaware that they saved the day for the Union, they only know they are scared, tired, and angry over the deaths of their friends.

I want to give you a taste of Foote’s style which is realistic, analytic, but dignified. He manages to get across the horror of the battle while respecting the modesty of his characters, who rather than describe a scene of carnage might say simply “I saw things I wouldnt want to see twice.” (There are no apostrophes in the book, which got on my nerves after a while.)

Here an injured private, dazed with fever, describes the battlefield with a metaphor that approaches magic realism:

God was making men and every now and then He would do a bad job on one, and He would look at it and say, “This one wont do,” and He would toss it in a tub He kept there, maybe not even finished with it. And finally, 6 April 1882, the tub got full and God emptied it right out of heaven and they landed here, along this road, tumbled down in all positions, some without arms and legs, some with their heads and bodies split open where they hit the ground so hard.

This is one of my favorite passages, describing a group of Union deserters. The metaphor captures the conscience of a coward:

We were all ranks down here, though you couldnt tell which in most cases because they had torn off their chevrons and shoulder straps and all you could see was the broken threads that had held them on. In some cases you couldnt even tell that, for theyd even picked the threads out, those that had had the time. But that didnt work either because you could still see the darker patches where the sun and rain had weathered the cloth around the place where theyd been sewed.

Here is a question for thought: in the quote at the top Foote says that books about war were written from God’s perspective, that of absolute objectivity. That is a very 19th century notion of God and objectivity. Back in the fourth century St. Augustine called God “interior intus meus”, which is usually translated as “more inside of me than I am to myself”. If God exists, how would you think he would have experienced the battle of Shiloh? From the far removed perspective of heaven, or from the perspectives of every man involved?

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