|Border States: Journal of the Kentucky-Tennessee American Studies Association, No. 8 (1991)|
On April 6-7, 1862, near Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, occurred
the battle now best known by the romantic-sounding name of Shiloh.
Surely there is irony in the fact that this battle took place
near the small Methodist church called Shiloh, since more men
died in the battle than in all the wars previously fought by citizens
of the United States -- the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812,
and the Mexican War. Nearly 3500 men lost their lives in the two-day
encounter. Overall, almost 24,000 casualties were realized on
both sides. An added irony is that the battle plan followed by
the Confederate soldiers was Napoleon's plan for Waterloo, and
the percentage of casualties at Shiloh was twenty-four percent,
the same results as at Waterloo. But, as Shelby Foote observes
in The Civil War: A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville,
"Waterloo had settled something, while this one apparently
had settled nothing. When it was over the two armies were back
where they started, with other Waterloos ahead" (350).
James McDonough, in his significant study of this battle, quotes
Otto Eisenchim as saying, "No novelist could have packed
into a space of two days more action, romance and surprises than
history did on that occasion" (v). Even so, in the years
since Shiloh a good many literary people have seized on the happenings
there as subject matter for all kinds of literary treatments.
Perhaps this battle was destined for literary immortality in part
because of those who participated in it. One of the leading figures
of the Union Army was the future novelist Major General Lew Wallace,
whose mistake in taking the wrong road led not only to a delay
in the arrival of his forces but also to the later criticism that
caused him after the war -- Ancient Mariner-like -- to return
annually to Shiloh in attempts to explain his delay. McDonough
says, "Shiloh was to bring him much publicity and much sorrow"
(96, 47). There is no surprise that Wallace's later literary triumphs
included no retelling of the Shiloh story.
Another literary figure there for the two-day struggle was Sergeant
Ambrose Bierce of the Ninth Indiana. Assigned in February 1862
to the Army of the Ohio under Don Carlos Buell, he joined Grant's
Army of the Tennessee at Shiloh. Bierce participated in the second
day of fighting on April 7, 1862, when the Ninth Indiana suffered
the highest casualties of any on the Union side. Later Bierce
was to recall the events in his account "What I Saw of Shiloh."
As he began, he recounted the peaceful, almost idyllic setting
of that Sunday morning. That serene picture soon gave way to the
carnage that would serve Bierce effectively in such stories as
"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and "Chickamauga."
It was the horror of war that enraged Bierce's greatest furor.
His ability to imprint the destruction and devastation on the
reader's mind climaxes in his account of such landmarks as the
peach orchard, the Hornet's Nest, and the Bloody Pond. Many other
vivid scenes rushed to his memory. Once he interrupted his efforts
to say, "I can't describe it" (256). On another occasion
he turned aside to investigate a ravine where an Illinois regiment
had been trapped in the fighting. The area had been burned over,
and Bierce said, "I obtained leave to go down into the valley
of death and gratify a reprehensible curiosity." Shocked
at the horrors he encountered, he brought into play his typical
cynicism: "I cannot catalogue the charms of these gallant
gentlemen who had got what they enlisted for" (261-2). For
all his later stories about the Civil War, Bierce never had one
set at Shiloh. Although he would later draw upon some of the experiences
he witnessed there, the reality was too much even for him. Carey
McWilliams, his biographer, said "Bierce never forgot that
first major battle...He made war story after war story based on
some incident garnered from his experience at Shiloh [which] came
to signify the turning point in his life. He wrote of it sadly,
lovingly, as though upon its blood-drenched fields he had lost
the perishable illusion of youth" (41).
Shiloh was the first Civil War battle immortalized in a ballad.
In fact, the battle inspired a number of anonymous poetic tributes
to bravery and loss. One such work created a folk hero that all
America could identify with since no designation of either Union
or Confederate army is given. "The Drummer Boy of Shiloh"
tells the story of a drummer boy who met his death in the battle.
The details were put in rhyme and set to music by Will Shakespeare
Hays, who wrote music for a publishing firm in Louisville. Richard
Harwell notes that "the sentimentality of the piece brought
it immediate popularity in a period of the war when the folks
at home wanted just such outlets for their emotion" (76).
On Shiloh's dark and blood ground, the dead and wounded lay.Another ballad, "The Battle of Shiloh," collected by Cecil Sharp from the singing of Philander Fitzgerald of Nash, Virginia, obviously presents a Southern bias. Its opening call to "each loyal Southerner's heart" prepares the reader for a seemingly glorious victory of the Confederates.
Amongst them was a drummer boy, that beat the drum that day.
A wounded soldier raised him up, His drum was by his side.
He clasped his hands and raised his eyes and prayed before he died:
Look down upon the battle field, Oh Thou, our Heav'nly friend,
Have mercy on our sinful souls. The soldiers cried, "Amen."
For gather'd round a little group, Each brave man knelt and cried.
They listen'd to the drummer boy who prayed before he died.
"Oh Mother!" said the dying boy, "Look down from Heav'n on me."
Receive me to thy fond embrace, Oh take me home to thee.
I've loved my country as my God, To serve them both I've tried."
He smiled, shook hands. Death seized the boy who prayed before he died.
Each soldier wept then like a child, Stout hearts were they and brave.
They wrote upon a simple board these words "This is a guide
To those who mourn the drummer boy who prayed before he died." (Harwell 77)
Their guns and knapsacks they threw down,Two contemporaries of the battle sought to immortalize it soon after its completion. Far from the fields surrounding Shiloh was Herman Melville, but his imagination had been touched by the events unfolding in the South. By 1862 Melville's earlier successes had waned, and he was seeking other outlets for his artistic abilities as well as other means of providing income for his family. Just three years before, Mrs. Melville had written her mother: "Herman has taken to writing poetry. You need not tell anyone, for you know how such things get around" (Hand 326). While there are no references to Melville's immediate response to Shiloh, his interest in battle sites nearer home is well-documented. According to Jay Leyda's Melville Log, Melville and his brother Allan arrived in Washington in April 1864 seeking a pass to visit the Army of the Potomac. Such a request was granted, and a few days later both men left Washington for the front visiting various battlefields and meeting General Grant. Jane Melville arrived in Washington and wrote her step-daughter on April 13, "We arrived here safely, but did not find the Army of the Potomac on Sunday last...We hope to see Papa tomorrow -- unless the Guerrillas have Papa and Uncle Herman" (666-7).
They ran like hares before the hounds.
The Yankee Dutch could not withstand
The Southern charge at Shiloh.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Now many a pretty maid did mourn
A lover who'll no more return;
The cruel war has from her torn;
His body lies at Shiloh. (Emrich 448-9)
Out of those visits and his constant reading of war accounts,
Melville composed the seventy-two poems that were included in
Battle-Pieces when it was published in 1866. While Melville
insisted there was no effort to arrange the poems in any scheme,
they are placed in chronological order. His detailed knowledge
of the war is evidenced in the numerous Civil War personalities
mentioned and the many places remembered in the poems. It is little
wonder that Newton Arvin would later call Melville "the Matthew
Brady of Civil War verse" (qtd. in Hillway 126).
Before continuing with a discussion of Melville's treatments of
Shiloh, however, notice must be given the other poet from the
same period who wrote about this battle. His name was Forceythe
Willson, and his work "The Old Sergeant" first appeared
in the Louisville Journal perhaps in 1863. It was republished
in 1866 and ironically was reviewed with Melville's book of Civil
War verse in an unsigned review under the title "More Poetry
of The War" in Nation on September 6, 1866. The reviewer
expresses a skeptical view of most of the work inspired by the
war. He places Melville in the "herd of recent versifiers."
Part of the blame, he says, must be instinctive. "Nature
did not make him a poet. His pages contain at best little more
than the rough ore of poetry." He speaks of individual poems:
"There are some...in which it is difficult to discover rhythm,
measure, or consonance of rhyme. The thought is often involved
and obscure. The sentiment is weakened by incongruous imagery"
In contrast, this reviewer praises Willson's work as superior
It is a misfortune that the special events which have moved Mr. Melville to write are the same, in several instances, which have already been put into verse by other writers, and that these earlier poems, already more or less familiar to the public, are necessarily brought into comparison with his. Thus his brief verses entitled "Shiloh: A Requiem" almost inevitably suggest, by contrast, the very striking poem of Mr. Forceythe Willson's, of which a great part of the scene is laid on the battle-field of Shiloh, called "The Old Sergeant."Finally the reviewer concludes: "We doubt if the war has inspired a narrative poem more imaginatively conceived, or more vigorously told" (390).
To give some indication of the quality of competition Melville
was forced to confront, one or two stanzas of Willson's "imaginatively
conceived" and "vigorously told" narrative should
"Come a little nearer, Doctor, -- thank you, -- let me take the cup:Melville's "Shiloh: A Requiem" must be one of the finest literary responses to that horrible occasion. Only nineteen lines long, the poem begins and ends with the swallows flying low and skimming as if they hovered and comforted. Against the back-drop of the natural world of swallows, field, clouds, and rain, man invades with war, fighting, and death; hence, the sub-title "A Requiem" becomes appropriate. The church dominates lines nine and ten with its loneliness in the midst of fratricide. Its ineffectiveness is suggested in the lines that follow referring to "natural prayer of dying foemen." The church has not drawn these enemies together; suffering and death have done that. Their prayers are natural rather than ritual, the result of the "parting groan" of fatal wounds and injuries. There is nothing like a bullet to change one's perspective, to "undeceive" as Melville declares, to reveal in the clearest, brightest light.
Draw your chair up, -- draw it closer, -- just another little sup!
May be you think I'm better; but I'm pretty well used up: --
Doctor, you've done all you could do, but I'm just a going up!
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
"I have got my marching orders, and I'm ready now to go;
Doctor, did you say I fainted? -- but it couldn't ha' been so,
For as sure as I'm a sergeant, and was wounded at Shiloh,
I've this very night been back there, on the old field of Shiloh!
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
"There was where Lew Wallace showed them he was of the canny kin,
There was where old Nelson thundered, and where Rousseau waded in;
There McCook sent 'em to breakfast, and we began to win --
There was where the grape-shot took me, just as we began to win." (Stedman 388-9)
The twentieth century has not forgotten the imaginative possibilities
of that April Sunday. Stephen Vincent Benét in his John
Brown's Body and Jesse Hill Ford in his novel The Raider
deal with the events of that battle. Even a British novelist,
Don Bannister, in a 1981 novel called Long Day at Shiloh,
has chosen to tell the story exclusively from the perspective
of the Union soldiers. Arranged in a strict chronological ordering
(his chapter headings are hours beginning with Midnight April
5/6 and ending with Midnight April 6/7), Bannister neglects much
of the drama of the event by ignoring the feelings shared on both
sides. This work does not compare favorably in any way with the
much more ambitious and much more effective novel by Shelby Foote.
Few readers could accuse Foote of not knowing his subject matter,
for not only did he publish his novel Shiloh in 1952, he
was later to follow it up with his masterpiece, a three-volume
study entitled The Civil War: A Narrative, appearing one
volume at a time in 1958, 1963, and 1974. As one reads the account
of the battle at Shiloh, for instance, in the historical survey
and then compares that with the fictionalized version in the novel,
he is struck with the accuracy even in fiction. Foote explained
his intention for the novel in a note at the end of the book:
"Historical characters in this book speak the words they
spoke and do the things they did at Shiloh. Many of the minor
incidents also occurred, even when here they are assigned to fictional
persons; I hope the weather is accurate too" (225).
Where Bannister was content to tell only one side of the struggle,
Foote chooses to tell both sides with his chapters alternating
between Union and Confederate participants. The historical accuracy
constantly amazes the reader, but at the same time one loses himself
in the drama of the story and must struggle to remember this is
William Faulkner said of Foote's Shiloh that it was "twice
the book that The Red Badge of Courage is" (qtd. in
Carter 241). That statement is true in part because the author
totally immersed himself in the research for his study. He was
writing more than fiction; he was determined to make history live
once again. Foote said to William C. Carter, "I always remember
a quote from Keats saying that 'a fact is not a truth until you
love it'" (248).
From this writer's perspective, this battle offered enormous literary
potential, filled as it was with an uncanny number of "ifs"
-- if those torrential rains had not occurred, if Lew Wallace
had arrived earlier, if Johnston had not been killed, if Beauregard
and Johnston had not help opposing viewpoints on fighting this
battle. And that list might be lengthened.
The importance of rains before and during the battle might have
received a dominant place to a piece of fiction such as Hemingway
granted in A Farewell to Arms. The irony of Johnston's
death, caused by a stray bullet cutting an artery in his leg,
is enhanced by the knowledge that his only aide present knew nothing
of emergency medical help while the staff physician had been ordered
by Johnston to assist wounded prisoners. Stephen Crane could have
masterfully captured the twists of fate in that set of circumstances.
While literature may thrive on those kinds of "Ifs,"
Ben C. Truman explains that "there is no poorer place in
the world for [them] than on the battlefield. The results are
victories or defeats for one side or the other, and no 'Ifs' can
tarnish the one or repair the other" (66).
To walk over those acres attempting to envision the horror of
the place becomes all but impossible, for as Bierce discovered,
it is all quiet and peaceful now. Does the present reality deceive
the memory? Or is there a contentment to be found in Melville's
conclusion: "All is hushed at Shiloh?" Such a hush in
no way suggests oblivion, for if the dead lie low the swallows
still skim over the forest-field of Shiloh and the remembrance
still stirs the heart.
Bierce, Ambrose. The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce.
New York: Neale Publishing, 1909.
Branch, Watson G., ed. Melville: The Critical Heritage.
London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974.
Carter, William C. "Seeking the Truth in Narrative: An Interview
with Shelby Foote." In Conversations With Shelby Foote.
Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1989.
Emrich, Duncan, ed. American Folk Poetry. Boston: Little-Brown,
Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville.
New York: Random House, 1958.
--- Shiloh. New York: Dial, 1952.
Hand, Harry Ed. "'And War Be Done': Battle-Pieces
and Other Civil War Poetry of Herman Melville." Journal
of Human Relations 11 (1963): 326-40.
Harwell, Richard B., ed. The Confederate Reader: How the South
Saw the War. New York: Dover, 1989.
Hillway, Tyrus. Herman Melville. New Haven: College and
University Press, 1963.
Leyda, Jay. The Melville Log. Vol. 2. New York: Gordian,
McDonough, James Lee, Shiloh-- in Hell before Night. Knoxville:
U of Tennessee P, 1977.
Stedman, Edmund Clarence, ed. An American Anthology, 1787-1900.
Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1906.
Truman, Ben C., "A Spectacular Battle and Its 'Ifs.'"
Crucial Moments of the Civil War. Ed. Willard Webb. New
York: Bonanza Books, 1961.
Warren, Robert Penn. ed. Selected Poems by Herman Melville.
New York: Random House, 1967.
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