WAMU 88.5 : The Diane Rehm Show

Winston Groom: "Shiloh, 1862"

Shiloh has been called the first “great and terrible battle” of the American Civil War. Before it was fought in the spring of 1862, many believed the war would be over by Christmas. But then word came from southwest Tennessee of the battle’s 23,000 casualties -- more than in all previous American wars combined. The conflict began on April sixth as the Confederate Army mounted a surprise attack on General Ulysses grant’s poorly prepared troops. When it ended a day later, both sides finally realized what they had unleashed – and understood the war was far from over. On its 150th anniversary, a look at Shiloh's pivotal role in America’s Civil War.

Program Highlights

Award-winning author Winston Groom has written a new history of the Civil War battle - the Battle of Shiloh - which got its name from a tiny Methodist chapel that stood at the site of the heaviest fighting. The book is titled simply, "Shiloh, 1862." In it, Groom brings key characters from the battle vividly to life. He focuses on the human aspects of the story.

A Battle Of Colonels

Groom calls the Battle of Shiloh a "battle of colonels." The generals didn't have a lot of say or control in the course of the battle. "So when I looked at it, I thought there's gotta be a way to tell this story so that your average reader can appreciate it. And what I did was I found a dozen or maybe more, 18, 19 people who were either in the battle itself or very personally affected by it who had written letters or diaries or memoirs. And I let them carry the thread all the way through the fight," Groom said.

Diarists

Gjelten noted that while it seems that not many people keep diaries today, back in the Civil War era, people seemed to do it more and many were strong writers. Groom said that people back then poured their hearts into their diaries; they didn't have phones to pick up or emails to write. One diarist, Josie Underwood, came from Bowling Green, Kentucky, a town that was bitterly divided Confederate sentiments. Her own family were staunch Unionists, but she went to Memphis to stay with relatives for a summer and fell in love with a staunch Confederate there. Her diary reveals the depths of her torn feelings and her ultimate decision to go back to her family and her Unionists roots.

The Brutality Of The Battle

Groom said that he still can't understand how Ulysses S. Grant "got himself surprised by 45,000 men sneaking up on him," but apparently that's what happened. "I mean, to not fortify, to not put out patrols when you knew that you had 20 miles away a great Confederate Force is beyond me. But these guys, to think about them, you know, they were polishing their boots or doing their wash or, as I said, playing cards," she said.

You can read the full transcript here.

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