The Generals of Shiloh: Character in Leadership, April 6-7, 1862 by Larry Tagg. Savas Beatie, 2017. Cloth, ISBN: 978-1611213690. $32.95.
The Generals of Shiloh is designed to be a companion for anyone reading one or more of the fine narratives of the 1862 battle. But would any student of the war who already has a library containing such volumes as Generals in Blue, Generals in Gray, and The Confederate General have a need for a book titled The Generals of Shiloh? The answer is “yes.”
For starters, the title is misleading. Providing sketches of those holding the rank of general is just one of many useful elements in the book. Of the sixty-six officers who entered the battle commanding a brigade-sized unit or larger, twenty-nine were the senior colonels of a brigade; the book treats them as well. Indeed, nearly half of the biographical sketches in the book are not of generals. Though some of the colonels would eventually become generals, many of these early war colonels would disappear soon after the Battle of Shiloh. Thus, the book does a great service by providing biographical sketches (and many hard to find photographs) of the numerous instrumental colonels who effectively functioned as generals.
Tagg also offers a different kind of synopsis for the generals than is found in standard Civil War reference works. Not all aspects of the soldier’s life receive equal billing. Instead, Tagg’s goal is to provide a snapshot of the man and his experiences at the moment the shooting began at the Battle of Shiloh. Although the entries for each commander are necessarily brief, they get to the essence of the figure in a brisk, stimulating manner. Quotes often illustrate the appearance, personality, temperament, bravery or talent of the leader. The reader learns how or why the soldier happened to rise to command, what the soldier’s most prominent feature or characteristic was, or whether any tendencies of the officer from earlier battles became manifest at Shiloh.
One gets a feel for which men were best prepared for what they were about to experience in the first truly large-scale battle of the war—and then a summary of how they performed during the fight. With the biographical entities uniquely crafted to help the reader understand the man as he was at Shiloh, the post-battle lives of most of the generals and colonels in the book are covered in just a sentence or two.
The other key element of the book that is not reflected in the title is that it provides a battle summary for each brigade, division, corps and army that participated in the fight. While half of the book comprises the biographical entities of generals and colonels in command, the other half provides superb abstracts of what each unit did during the battle. The organization of the armies lends the book its structure.
As with the assessment of the soldiers, the unit descriptions also help the reader to gain an idea of the prior experiences of individual units. They trace the recruitment of the troops to the formation of the unit, pointing out which regiments had seen prior combat and which were green, which had been camped at Shiloh for weeks and which had just joined the army. In doing so, the author helps to paint a picture of the context in which Shiloh was fought.
The brigade descriptions typically include a paragraph about each of the regiments comprising the brigade, noting from where each regiment hailed. The unit abstracts make judicial use of statistics, including strengths, losses, and comparisons with how the casualties of a given unit contrast with others.
One of the Union brigades that was broken up and sent to several different portions of the battlefield was Brigadier General John McArthur’s. Tagg did a fine job explaining its splintered role in the battle, including how McArthur also picked up a regiment from a different brigade to serve along with him in his makeshift “demi brigade.”
Telling the story of any battle in a standard narrative will necessarily involve sharing tidbits of the key leaders, but it is often impossible to do much more without interrupting the flow of the story. Tagg has recognized the need to fill a niche. He more fully develops the character of those officers who made the key decisions and led men into combat. Tagg has not written a stand-alone book on the Battle of Shiloh, but rather a superb supplement that also reads well from cover to cover. The volume skillfully develops the leaders of the battle.
Gregory A. Mertz, the Supervisory Historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, is the author of Attack at Daylight and Whip Them: The Battle of Shiloh, April 6-7, 1862, forthcoming from Savas-Beatie.