By Shelby Foote
Shelby Foote’s 1952 novel “Shiloh,” is not your typical Civil War novel. One character does not happen to be in all the right places at all the right times. Neither does it champion the Union or the Confederate viewpoint. Nor does if follow multiple characters during the battle from the first shot fired until its conclusion. It is rather the story of a battle told in the form of a relay.
“Shiloh,” Foote’s fourth novel, tells the story of the two day battle at Pittsburg Landing on the western bank of the Tennessee River, eight miles south of Savannah, Tennessee, told through multiple viewpoints. One chapter per character (with two exceptions) in which one piece of the battle is told through its narrator’s point of view. The flow of the battle is never once interrupted by the novel’s constantly changing narrators, instead each character picks up narrative of the battle where the previous character’s ended. From the battle’s beginning until its conclusion, the narrative is passed from character to character, much like the baton in a 4x100 meter relay race.
Foote begins with Lieutenant Palmer Metcalf, an Aide-de-Camp of General Albert Sidney Johnston, commander of the Confederate Army. Through his eyes the reader is witness to the march of the Army of Mississippi from Corinth, Mississippi to Pittsburg Landing, and the firing of the first shots of the battle.
The story continues as Captain Walter Fountain, Adjutant of the 53rd Ohio Infantry, in Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee, who has the misfortune of being on duty as Officer of the Day in the early hours of April 6th, 1862 when the swarming Confederate army overwhelms the unsuspecting camps of their Federal counterparts.
Switching back to the Confederate viewpoint Foote’s next narrator, Private Luther Dade of the 6th Mississippi Infantry, continues as the waves of Confederates gradually push the Union Army from their campsites and witnesses the death of General Johnston.
Private Otto Flickner of the 1st Minnesota Artillery bears witness to the hard fighting at “The Hornet’s Nest,” and having abandoned his post just before the Union line collapses makes his way at the close of the first fight to the shelter of the riverbank bluffs of Pittsburg Landing, where several other “demoralized” Union soldiers have also sought refuge.
Continuing into Sunday night, Foote’s narrative switches once again to the Confederates with Sergeant Jefferson Polly, a scout in Nathan Bedford’s cavalry who from atop the Indian mounds next to the river witnesses the Major General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio crossing the Tennessee River to reinforce Grant’s troops.
The second day of the battle is carried forward by the first of Foote’s narrative exceptions. Instead of being told from one character’s point of view, he instead splits it up into twelve short vignettes, each told by a member of a squad from the 23rd Indiana Infantry of Lew Wallace’s division.
In the novel’s final chapter Lieutenant Palmer Metcalf, in Foote’s second narrative exception, returns as the narrator and from his vantage point, relates the details of the Confederate withdrawal from Pittsburg Landing and Nathan Bedford Forrest’s stand at Fallen Timbers.
Each chapter builds from each previous chapter, and as the narrative progresses, characters from prior chapters appear, if only briefly. Lieutenant Metcalf, is the only character to reprieve his role as narrator, and appearing in the novel’s first and last chapter is a satisfying conclusion to Foote’s narrative.
The book’s best feature is easily its map of the battlefield. Each chapter’s corresponding number appears on the map is where the chapter begins. Arrows trace the journey of each character across the battlefield, allowing the reader to easily follow the action.
“Shiloh” is not your typical Civil War novel. Foote has deconstructed the battle, and reconstructed it piece by piece, covering the dramatic ark of the battle, in its entirety, in a clear linear narrative, which is easily followed, and never once overwhelms the reader.
ISBN 978-0679735427, Vintage, 1991 Edition, ©1952, Paperback, 240 pages, 1 Map. $15.95