© 2012 Jeff Shaara
Come all you gallant soldiers, a story I will tell
About the bloody battle on top of Shiloh's hill
It was an awful struggle; it'll cause your heart to chill
All from the bloody battle on top of Shiloh's hill.
In 1974, Michael Shaara wrote an unparalleled novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, eschewing a traditional narrative and telling the story directly from the point of view of various generals and infantrymen who contended against one another amid Pennsylvania’s rocky hills and woodlands. The novel met enormous critical and popular success, and when it became a movie, Shaara’s son Jeff was prompted to consider picking up where his late father left off and writing similar novels in the same time. He responded with Gods and Generals, concerning the war’s beginning, and later with The Last Full Measure, making his father’s original part of an American Civil War trilogy. Keeping his father’s style, Shaara followed up on his success with novels set in all of the United States’ major wars – the Invasion of Mexico, the War of Independence, and the two world wars. The WW2 novels saw Shaara attempting to create his own narrative approach, one focused on fewer characters, but in A Blaze of Glory he returns to both his original style and setting: 1862, the American Civil War. But this time Shaara writes not of Lee and Grant, of the armies of the Potomac and of Virgina. Here, the action begins in the west, and the main event is the staggeringly bloody battle of Shiloh.
Shaara turning his attention to the little-regarded western theater is most welcome: although the battles of Shiloh and Vicksburg may have some name recognition, the eastern characters and battles (Lee and Grant; Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg) dominate the national imagination. I also welcome Shaara’s return to his and his father’s former style: the WW2 novels were overly dominated by one or two characters and didn’t deliver the varied substance of The Killer Angels and other works. Here, Shaara’s panel includes Albert Sidney Johnston, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Grant, Sherman, and a few infantrymen from both sides. This allows Shaara to tell the story from both sides, without demonizing either. Consistently, the generals chide their men for dehumanizing the enemy, pointing out that the “rebs” or the “bluebellies” are just as clever, just as tough, and just as resolute in believing the righteousness of their cause as their respective side is.
Shaara’s writing in A Blaze of Glory is as compelling as ever: he captures splendidly the utter confusion in the opening day of battle, as the southern troops hammer through a bewildered Union line, and the grisly impact of the bloodshed on the second day. It’s an experience that leaves one stunned, especially when main characters become part of the carnage. At novel’s end, one can’t help but reflect on how much was lost in one battle for relatively nothing, and the epilogue doesn’t improve judgments of the battle’s worth. Unlike battles covered in other novels, there’s no triumph to celebrate, nothing to redeem the carnage and make it seem worthwhile. And yet even knowing this, I’d read it again, because Johnston is a particularly inviting character, and the suspense and action make it an exciting read even given the subdued ending.
If Blaze of Glory is any indication of what we have to look forward to, Shaara’s new ACW trilogy will prove quite a treat, for it begins with a battle that is both a thriller and gives opportunity for sober reflection on the costs of the war.
Although we won the battle, my heart is filled with pain
The one that brought me to this life I'll never see again
I pray to the lord if consistent with his will
Lord save the souls of them poor boys that died on Shiloh's hill.
- The Killer Angels; Gods and Generals; The Last Full Measure; Gone for Soldiers; Michael and Jeff Shaara
- Shiloh, 1862, Winston Groom
- "The Battle of Shiloh Hill", various artists. The most haunting version I've yet heard is Bobby Horton's. YouTube has a cover by Wayne Erbsen.