Shiloh Top 7 Books: Shiloh Discussion Group Member Bjorn

The recent Civil War Bloggers Top 10 Gettysburg Books list turned out well, so well that I immediately contacted the members of the Shiloh Discussion Group to see if they would join me in creating another combined list, this time of the Top 7 Shiloh books, which will appear this August at TOCWOC on a permanent page designed for this eventSDG members have been posting their lists of the Top 7 Shiloh books over the last month with a deadline of August 1.   The following is SDG group member Bjorn’s list of the Top 7 Shiloh Books.

Like others here, I will interpret Brett’s challenge to list my seven favorite books on Shiloh freely.  Actually, in my case, very freely.  My apologies.  Here are what I think are the seven most influential things that tell the story of the battle of Shiloh, in no particular order.

  1. Albert Dillahunty.  Shiloh National Military Park, Tennessee.  National Park Service Historical Handbook Series No. 10.  National Park Service Historical Handbook Series No. 10.  Washington, D.C.: 1955.  47p.    Dilluhunty’s short pamphlet is probably the most widely read work on Shiloh, having been purchased by visitors to the Shiloh National Military Park since 1955.  It is still available today, and is often called “the scout book” because of its popularity among visiting Boy Scout troops.  It is especially intriguing in it’s second half as it interprets the most-visited sites on the park, and documents many of the non-historical texts, such as Will S. Hays’ song “The Drummer Boy of Shiloh,” that were most influential in establishing the popular narrative of the battle.  Dillihunty contributes a twenty-two stanza poem, “Four Voices From Shiloh,” which helps to illustrate the crucial role of those non-historical texts in popular understanding of the battle.
  2. Ira B. Likes (Director).  Shiloh: Portrait of a Battle.  Orientation film, Shiloh National Military Park, 1955.  One need not work at Shiloh National Military Park to appreciate the influence of this self-produced orientation film on the popular understanding of Shiloh.  But those who have served as rangers at the park know how entrenched the narrative embedded in this short movie is in the imagination of the public.  Few people read about the battle before they visit the park.  Many people first learn of the battle as children visiting the park with family.  The first interpretation they get is the orientation film, and that story sticks.  However, after fifty years the history in the film is several generations out of date.  The minimal production value is charming, and the story is compelling.  Writing Shiloh: Portrait of a Battle off as a “bad film” ignores the power of its storytelling, and its control over popular understanding of the battle.
  3. U. S. Grant.  Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant.  New York: Charles L. Webster & Co., 1892.  2 volumes.  Grant’s memoirs actually represent a genre of books that form an important core of Shiloh historiography.  As much as recent generations have made enormous progress in understanding the battle from the soldiers’ point of view, the major topics of controversy – Surprise, Hornets Nest, Lew Wallace, “Buell Saves Grant,” and Pursuit among others – still have their roots in the debates carried on between the leaders of the armies through their post war writings.  Grant’s memoirs are probably the most influential of the series of personal recollections that include Sherman’s memoirs, Alfred Roman’s “approved” biography of Beauregard, and William Preston Johnston’s biography of A. S. Johnston (not an autobiography, of course, but the still the closest we will ever come to understanding the motivations and decisions of the Confederate commander).  It was Grant who wrote in his Century Magazine essay that Shiloh was “the most persistently misunderstood battle” of the war, a phrase that is practically the motto of students of the battle.
  4. Manning Force.  From Fort Henry to Corinth (Campaigns of the Civil War).  New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1882.  204p. Force’s history is one of many early sources on the battle, but is important as the first work to have access to the Official Records.  This book represents a major shift from memoirs and argumentative articles toward more objective history.  As a capable historian and veteran of the battle Force set the stage for David W. Reed.
  5. Timothy B. Smith.  This Great Battlefield of Shiloh:  History, Memory, and the Establishment of a Civil War National Military Park.  Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2004.  Shiloh National Military Park is its self a most important source on the battle.  Smith’s influential study tells the important story of how the park came to be, but also explores the crucial role of the park and its historians to Shiloh history and popular memory.
  6. Shelby Foote.  Shiloh: A Novel.  New York: The Dial Press, 1952.  Foote’s novel serves a similar purpose for Shiloh as Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels serves for the battle of Gettysburg.  While not pretending to be non-fiction, this historical novel nevertheless captures the feel of the battle, and a sense of the psychology of the people involved. Many people come to Shiloh National Military Park without having read any history of the battle, but they have Foote, or they have read Will Henry’s Journey to Shiloh, or they have seen the film version of Journey….
  7. Shiloh National Military Park.  The old saying that one must walk the battlefield in order to understand the battle is true of Shiloh.  As Timothy Smith points out, only the original five national military parks have the benefit of being founded and interpreted by the men who fought the battles.  Few people, however, understand the rich variety of ways walking this battlefield affects understanding of the battle.  If a battlefield is an historic resource, then Shiloh is both a primary and a secondary resource.  Geography dictated the evolution of the battle, and the geography must be included as primary evidence in any serious study.  The interpretation added to the landscape by park historians, most notably David W. Reed, crosses the line between first-hand testimony and second-hand analysis.  The location of the tablets and monuments is largely due to on-the-ground examinations by visiting veterans, cooperating with Reed.  The information on the tablets is almost entirely from Reed, combining his personal experiences and observations with written primary sources, principally the Official Records.  Later generations of park historians have added wayside exhibits, and created tours that support a certain version of the story.  That story will change with the generations, and as the layout of the tour routes change.  The battlefield park is the most important source on the battle.


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