Top 7 Shiloh Books: Shiloh Discussion Group Founder Wrap10

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 founder Wrap10’s list of the Top 7 Shiloh Books.

Below is my Top 7 list for Shiloh.

To start with, I really don’t think there is such a thing as a definitive book on Shiloh. No one book that you can point to as the one where you will learn as much as we are ever likely to learn. Each of the books on this list has strengths and weaknesses, and each will give you a perspective on various aspects of Shiloh that is somewhat different than what you will find in the others. Each will provide you with answers to some questions, and probably still leave you wondering about others.

In other words, I don’t know as there is one single best book on Shiloh. But I do know that there are several excellent books on Shiloh. I’ve tried to include some of the ones that I think qualify here, but by no means is this all of them. By no means at all.

What I’ve tried to do with this list is come up with what I think are the books that best combine the details of the battle with a broader perspective, placing Shiloh within a larger context. That was my general guideline that I decided to follow. With that in mind, here’s my list…

1. Shiloh: The Battle That Changed the Civil War, by Larry J. Daniel (1997)

Larry Daniel’s book isn’t actually my favorite book on Shiloh – although it’s up there pretty high – but I’m placing it at the top of this list because I think he probably does the best job of combining detail and overview. It’s close on that score between his book and the next one below. In fact, it’s just about a coin-flip. But I’d probably give the nod to Daniel.

At the time it was published, in 1997, Daniel’s book was the first major book on Shiloh to appear in about 20 years. Generally speaking, prior to Daniel’s book most people had a choice between Wiley Sword’s detailed examination of the battle or James Lee McDonough’s more readily available overview. Daniel’s book combines these two elements together, and does so in a way that sets it apart from either of the other two. And even after more than 10 years and the recent release of another major book on the battle, Daniel’s book holds up very well.

In a sense in fact, Daniel’s book could be considered as the first modern book on Shiloh to incorporate some of the more recent “revisionist” findings that call some of the traditional aspects of Shiloh into question.

At the same time though, Daniel does not follow in lock-step with the revisionist line of thought. His conclusions about the fighting in the Hornets Nest for instance, will come across as more in line with the traditional version of the battle than what might be considered the more revisionist version.

Another element of his book that is unique among Shiloh books is the photographs. Two of my standard complaints about most Civil War book are the need for more photographs and more and better maps. Daniel’s book could use more of both, but the ones included are not bad.

There are precious few early-day photos of Shiloh floating around, and only three that actually date to the war. But Daniel’s book includes several post-war photos of the battlefield from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including a few that even pre-date the park itself. Those aren’t really major considerations in the big scheme of things, but it does score points with me.

Of the four major books on Shiloh, Daniel’s also might have the best battle maps, although it does not include a map of the Union camps prior to the battle, or the location and formation of the Confederate army prior to the battle. Both of which are oversights in my opinion.

Daniel also places Shiloh within a much larger scope than just the battle, or even the campaign that began at Fort Henry and ended at Corinth. And he may do this better than anyone else.

Daniel reaches some conclusions in his book that I’m not sure I agree with, but that’s a purely personal opinion. And even where I disagree with his conclusions, I think he usually does a good job of presenting his case.

All in all, Larry Daniel’s book still has to rank as one of the best books available on Shiloh, and quite possibly the best at blending the details of the battle with the larger picture.

2. Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862, by O. Edward Cunningham (2007).

Cunningham’s book has the unique distinction of being the oldest book on this list (with one exception), and also the newest. It was originally released as a PhD dissertation in 1966, and not published in book form until 2007, after some minor editing by historian and former Shiloh park ranger Tim Smith and historian Gary D. Joiner.

Some of Larry Daniel’s research was based on Cunningham’s dissertation, and the two have a somewhat similar feel about their overall treatment of the campaign and battle. But there are significant differences, and you won’t mistake one for the other. They do not always reach the same conclusions, emphasize the same things, or hold the same opinion about various decisions or commanders.

Cunningham in my opinion also has a warmer, more conversational writing style than does Daniel, and brings more of a human touch to his subject.

Probably the best way to describe his approach to the battle is “even-handed.” You don’t really come away from his book (or at least I didn’t), thinking that one aspect of the battle was somehow more important than any other.

And truth be told, this is one of the major “selling points” of Cunningham’s book. His treatment of the battle is a radical departure from the decades-long version that emphasizes the Hornets Nest above all else. Cunningham does not do this, and that is noteworthy in and of itself.

It should be noted that Cunningham does not dismiss the importance of the Hornets Nest – a claim which is amazingly (and incorrectly) made on the dust-jacket of the current hardback edition of the book. He simply places it alongside other aspects of the battle, giving it what amounts to equal billing. But, in the larger picture of Shiloh’s historiography, that’s big news.

His original dissertation is also a major catalyst behind what editors Tim Smith and Gary D. Joiner refer to in the introduction as the “revisionist” line of thought about Shiloh. (In fact, Tim Smith in recent years has expressed a point of view about Benjamin Prentiss and the Hornets Nest that some people might consider to be taking the revisionist line a bit too far. It makes for a good debate.)

Surprisingly, of the four major, modern books on Shiloh, Cunningham’s is the only one to have a map showing the position and formation of the Confederate army prior to the battle. And the maps in this book are products of the editors, specifically Gary D. Joiner.

Each of the other three modern, full-scale books on Shiloh (Daniel, Sword, and McDonough) begin their series of maps on the battle with the opening attack; but each of them fail to show the location or formation of the Confederate army before that attack began. (To be fair, McDonough’s book actually does have a map showing the southern army’s location, but not the formation.)

That’s a serious oversight, and thanks to the editors, one not repeated in Cunningham’s book. Understanding how the Confederate attack formation was arranged is crucial to understanding how the battle evolved, and while written descriptions help with visualizing it, nothing beats seeing it.

The editors also included a section of modern photographs of the park near the back of the book. A thoughtful addition.

As carefully researched as Cunningham’s book obviously was, there are a few rather surprising errors here and there, usually in describing certain parts of the battle. These are corrected by the editors, and the changes are called to your attention in the footnotes.

While no book is going to be perfect and Cunningham is rightly praised for his ground-breaking research, some of these boo-boos are real head-scratchers. Just as an example, his description of the original location for Peabody’s brigade at the start of the battle is so convoluted that not even the editors could figure out where he was placing them.

Mistakes like this are a little surprising, especially for someone who was clearly engaged in some very meticulous research than included many visits to the park. Then again, as the saying has it, stuff happens.

The book also has a somewhat abrupt ending, with no concluding chapter that ties everything together. As a counterweight to that, it does contain a good account of the Corinth campaign. Something that is usually missing from other books on the battle.

In sum, Cunningham’s book is an outstanding piece of work. The drawbacks are fairly minor and do not take away from an excellent book on Shiloh. In fact, anyone who lists this book as their top choice for Shiloh would get no argument from me.

3. Shiloh: Bloody April, by Wiley Sword (1974, 2001).

This is my favorite book on Shiloh. Sword is the one who truly opened my eyes to the fact that there was more to the battle than the Hornets Nest. If you’re looking for a detailed account of the entire battle, you’ll be hard-pressed to do better than Wiley Sword.

In fact, as Ron said earlier, I think Sword’s book can be looked on as the first truly modern treatment of the battle, and in that respect I’m not sure he’s received the credit I think he deserves for showing us Shiloh’s broader scope beyond the Hornet’s Nest. Cunningham and Daniel are both lauded for doing this, and rightly so. Sword should be as well.

I also think Sword has a marvelous writing style. It is very similar to Cunningham’s, and while Cunningham’s book is probably better at giving a broader view, Sword’s is better on the details.

Of all the books on this list, Sword’s is the very best at putting a human touch on a nearly blow-by-blow account of the battle. The way in which he weaves personal stories into the larger battle narrative is excellent, and done so smoothly than you might not even notice the transition. I like to say that his book is more than just facts and figures – it’s facts, figures, and faces. He skillfully reminds you that the story you are reading about happened to real, flesh-and-blood people.

On the negative side of the ledger, the maps could use some work, and there are not nearly enough pictures. But again, those are standard complaints for me. The maps in Sword’s book are basic and functional, and do the job, but I still wish there would have been more, and with more detail.

The format he uses for his endnotes, listed at the back of the book, is also a bit odd, and a little difficult to follow at first. He also does not give any additional information or opinions in his endnotes. That’s a personal and fairly minor complaint on my part, as I like to see such things.

Sword also emphasizes different aspects of the battle from either Daniel or Cunningham, and you will come away from his book with the opinion that he views the death of Albert Sidney Johnston as not just a major moment in the battle, but also in the war.

In fact, Sword has what could almost be called an obsession with getting the National Park Service to relocate the monument and marker noting where Johnston died. (Of the four major, modern books on the battle, Sword’s is almost certainly the most favorable toward Johnston. Daniel and McDonough are pretty harsh toward the Confederate commander, Cunningham not quite so much.)

Sword adamantly believes that Johnston died further north on the battlefield than where indicated by the Park Service, and he has waged an ongoing campaign to have this site moved. His belief that Johnston’s death marked a major turning point in the war, and not just the battle, is almost certainly the driving force behind this.

Unfortunately, it is also almost certainly the reason why far more attention seems to be called to Sword’s focus on Johnston than his even-handed approach to the larger battle. And unfortunate is the right word for it.

I suspect that when a lot of folks think about Sword and Shiloh, they think first about his focus on Johnston. But there is much more to his book than that. In the introduction to Cunningham’s book, editors Tim Smith and Gary D. Joiner call Sword’s book the best tactical treatment of Shiloh. Despite some minor faults here and there, that’s exactly what it is.

So if I’m that high on the book, why don’t I have it listed at the top? It is at the top for me personally, but while I think this is the best book on the battle itself, I also think Daniel and Cunningham do a somewhat better job of telling the story of Shiloh from a broader perspective.

That’s painting with a little too broad of a brush, as Sword does place the battle in a larger context, and Daniel and Cunningham do provide details of the battle in their respective books. For the most part though, I think Sword is the details guy, and Daniel and Cunningham are a little more big-picture. As is McDonough.

So generally speaking, if you want overview combined with some detail, Daniel, Cunningham, and James Lee McDonough might be your best choices. If you’re looking for more detail about the battle along with another perspective, Sword’s your man.

#4. The Battle of Shiloh and the Organizations Engaged, by D.W. Reed (1902, 1909).

David Wilson Reed’s book just might be the most interesting title on this or any other list about Shiloh. It is strictly a tactical treatment of the battle, along with a brief overview of the preceding campaign. And within that context, it is not only an excellent book, it’s a book that any serious student of Shiloh simply has to read at some point.

A veteran of the battle and the park‘s first historian, Reed more than any other person is responsible for the park at Shiloh as we know it today, as well as the traditional story of the battle as it has been handed down to us through the years.

For that reason alone, his book is worth your time. It was last issued in 1913 and since then it has virtually dropped from sight, although it has recently been re-published. An online version is also available to read for free.

Given the importance of Reed and his book in the history of Shiloh, it might be a bit surprising to discover just how even-handedly he covers the battle. Some faults might be found or disagreements had with certain details here and there – which is true for any of these books – but Reed clearly strove for an accurate view of the entire battle. And by and large, he delivers just that.

And yet, Reed and his book are together considered one of the cornerstones for the traditional version of the battle in which the Hornets Nest dominates the story.

Tim Smith, in The Untold Story of Shiloh (page 9), believes that part of the reason for that might be the amount of time that Reed devoted in his account to the Sunken Road and Hornets Nest, as well as the subtle way in which the text becomes somewhat more dramatic when turning to the fighting in that area, where Reed himself participated. Smith is probably right about that. The change in tone is there, although it is indeed quite subtle and can be a little difficult to detect if you aren’t looking for it.

But Smith also concluded that even if Reed did not mean to, in Tim Smith’s words, “institutionalize the Hornets Nest school of thought,” as Smith adds, “he certainly suggested it for later writers to use.”

Put another way, later writers and historians picked up on Reed’s emphasis on the Hornets Nest, however subtle, and ran with it. As a result, the Hornets Nest and the Sunken Road have not only come to dominate the story of Shiloh, they quite simply dwarf every other part of the battle, even to this day.

Which brings us back to Reed’s book. It is doubtful that Reed ever intended for one area of the battle or battlefield to dominate so much attention in this manner. And I think when you read his book, you’ll see this as well. Reed attempted to give an objective account of the entire battle from both sides, including what he refers to as “detailed movements” of all three armies down to the brigade level.

With good reason, D.W. Reed is considered the father of Shiloh National Military Park. He is also probably the father of what is still the dominate version of the story of Shiloh. Something he would no doubt be proud of, and all things considered, probably also find ironic. The irony lying in the fact that his original, well-balanced version of the battle has become so unbalanced in the retelling. For all of those reasons, Reed’s account of the battle is one that needs to be read.

5. Shiloh: In Hell Before Night, by James Lee McDonough (1977).

It’s possible that McDonough’s truly fine book is the best overview of Shiloh available, at least in book form. In fact, some people would no doubt call it exactly that.

The main reason I don’t have it listed at the top is due to the fact that two other, more recent books do what I think is a better job of incorporating more recent research into excellent overviews of the campaign and battle. Those two books of course being Larry Daniel’s and Edward Cunningham’s. (Even though, again, Cunningham’s book actually pre-dates McDonough’s.)

McDonough’s book is more in line with the traditional version of the battle. It is also pretty light on the details compared to the other books on this list. But that’s only a shortcoming if you’re looking for more detail rather than an overview. And you would be hard-pressed to find a better overview of Shiloh than this one.

McDonough’s book also rivals Daniel’s when it comes to the pictures. McDonough, in fact, does something that none of the others do, which is include wartime sketches of the battlefield. Given the dearth of wartime photographs of Shiloh, the use of sketches was a very nice touch.

McDonough’s book might also be the most readable, for lack of a better word. Much like Sword and Cunningham, McDonough’s account has a very human touch about it.

The maps aren’t bad, although the rendering of the armies as small, black and white arrowheads strikes me as a bit unusual, although I think I see why it was done. But the maps do the job, especially as part of a general overview.

I don’t see eye-to-eye with McDonough on some of his conclusions, but I also think that his book should be included on anyone’s list for Shiloh.

6. From Fort Henry to Corinth, by Manning Force (1881).

Like Reed, Manning Force was a veteran of the battle, having served in Lew Wallace’s division at Shiloh. And in 1881 he released what historian Tim Smith says was the first full-scale book about the entire battle. After nearly 13 decades, it still holds it own, and serves as an excellent comparison with more modern accounts.  (Also like Reed’s book, it can be read online in its entirety. Simply do a search for the author and title.)

The title of Force’s book does not do it justice. The narrative actually begins well in advance of Fort Henry, taking you all the way back to the spring of 1861 in Missouri. Force gives surprisingly detailed accounts of several actions that pre-date Fort Henry, including Wilson’s Creek, Pea Ridge, Belmont, Island #10, and other engagements. He covers events in 1861 Missouri and Kentucky, and sets the stage for the Shiloh Campaign extremely well.

After dealing with events from Fort Henry to the eve of Shiloh, he then plunges into the battle, providing a narrative that probably rivals both Reed and Sword for detail. Reed’s account is pretty straightforward and to the point, and the same can largely be said of Force’s narrative, which pre-dates Reed’s by two decades.

Force’s approach to the battle is interesting in another respect, in that he does not follow the battle in chronological order, as do most of the more modern accounts. Instead, after recounting the opening phase of the battle along the outer perimeter of the Union camps, he then moves to the western side of the battlefield and walks you through the action there before moving on to the center and then the eastern side of the field.

There is some overlap, but for the most part, he takes you through the action on each section of the battlefield from start to finish before moving on. He repeats this technique for the second day’s fight, only going in reverse order and moving from east to west. Some people may very well find this an easier way to follow the battle than the more typical timeline version.

He seems to give a clue in the narrative itself as to why he chose this particular approach to describing the battle: “A combat made up of numberless separate encounters of detached portions of broken lines, continually shifting position and changing direction in the forest and across ravines, filling an entire day, is almost incapable of a connected narrative.”

Hard to argue with that!

Force also gives what might be the best account of how the various Union divisions came to be arranged at Pittsburg Landing prior to the battle.

He also refers to the Hornets Nest by name (remember this is 1881), and refers to the Sunken Road as an “old, sunk, washed-out road,”without calling it the ‘Sunken Road,’ a name which, according to Larry Daniel, may not have come into general use until after the formation of the park.

But, you will not come away from Force’s book with the impression that the fighting in the Hornets Nest was the pivotal moment of the battle. Like Cunningham nearly a century later, his account is much more even-handed.

Another interesting aspect involves his treatment of Ruggle’s Battery and the bombardment against the Sunken Road line. He does not give a total for the number of cannons involved, but he does infer that the bombardment only succeeded in driving off some of the Union artillery. (Namely, he refers to Hickenlooper’s battery leaving the area at this time.)

This goes against what has become the more traditional line of thought, which holds that the bombardment was a major reason why the Hornets Nest finally collapsed.

There are precious few maps, each of which is decent but not great. There is but a single map for the battle itself, and too much information is crammed into too small a space. There are no pictures whatsoever. Minor quibbles, although having a good, modern map of the battlefield handy when following along with his account is a very good idea.

As is true with each book here, folks will find things to quibble about in some of the details of Force’s narrative. And not without reason. But don’t let that stop you from reading this truly fine book.

Even though he was a Union veteran of the battle and the account does seem to tilt a little toward the North, like Reed some 20 years later, Force clearly attempted to provide an objective view of the battle from both sides. On the whole, I think he did a superb job of it.

As you read through his narrative in fact, you might find yourself forgetting that it was originally written well over a century ago, and before the Hornets Nest came to dominate the battle’s historiography. It’s an excellent and well-balanced account of Shiloh written less than 20 years after the battle, by someone who was there.

7. Blue & Gray special issue on Shiloh, by Stacy Allen (1997).

That’s right, the seventh title on my list of books is a magazine article. So I’m breaking the rules. Hey, sometimes you just feel the need to be wild and crazy.  (In all seriousness, you can include whatever you think should be included, be it book or magazine article.)

And in fact, if this were a book instead of a magazine article, I’d have it listed at the top of this list. Because in my personal opinion, Stacy Allen has provided us with what I still consider to be the best overview of Shiloh that’s ever been written, period.

He also outlines why he believes the southern commanders had a faulty understanding of the position of the Union army prior to the battle, and how this impacted the battle. The narrative also includes some excellent (albeit necessarily general) maps of the battlefield.

You’ll also find several different driving tour maps for when you visit the park. One of these takes you around the park, following the main tour stops as they existed when the article was first published. The others allow you to follow the routes taken by the Confederate army on their approach to Pittsburg Landing, as well as re-trace Lew Wallace’s infamous march, and William Nelson’s march from Savannah. There are also maps for Fallen Timbers, and brief tours of both Savannah and Corinth.

If you’re looking for a solid overview of Shiloh written by the person who probably knows more about the battle than anyone else alive, and can be read in a single sitting, Stay Allen’s article is the way to go.

The main drawback to all this is that the article, written in 1997, can be difficult to obtain anymore. It was originally released as a two-part series, and Blue & Gray only shows Part 2, covering the second day’s battle, as being available for backorder on their web site. (The two issues have since been combined into a single, all-inclusive special edition.)

Another alternative, and so far as I know probably the best alternative, is to order the single-copy version from the bookstore at Shiloh. As I understand it, they periodically receive additional copies from the folks at Blue & Gray, although I don’t know how long that will last. But you can contact the bookstore at 731-689-3475, and ask for the Blue & Gray special issue on Shiloh.



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One response to “Top 7 Shiloh Books: Shiloh Discussion Group Founder Wrap10”

  1. […] “Probably the best way to describe his approach to the battle is “even-handed.” You don’t really come away from his book (or at least I didn’t), thinking that one aspect of the battle was somehow more important than any other. And truth be told, this is one of the major “selling points” of Cunningham’s book. His treatment of the battle is a radical departure from the decades-long version that emphasizes the Hornets Nest above all else. Cunningham does not do this, and that is noteworthy in and of itself. (via Shiloh Discussion Group founder Perry Cuskey) […]

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