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Tom Chaney: Not As Seen By God Looking Down

Of Writers And Their Books: Not As Seen By God Looking Down. Tom says surely Shiloh stands among the finest novels about the Civil War, or any war for that matter. This column first appeared 5 July 2009.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Kudzu and Thistles

By Tom Chaney

Not As Seen By God Looking Down

Were it not for the Civil War neither the South nor the nation at large would have so rich a literature. According to William Faulkner the pivotal point in southern history was July 3, 1863 at Gettysburg just before Pickett's fatal charge with hope not yet dashed -- all yet possible.

Many writers from all regions have tried to deal with that war in fiction and have found it hard to do. Many fail in the squishy swamps of sentimentality. More fail, it seems, because they try to see the battles and the war from the top down as though the novel or the historical work (are they not the same?) were to be read by God Almighty, because no one but God ever saw the war or the battle that way.

I am drawn back to the work of Shelby Foote, especially his short novel, Shiloh [1952].

Every time I read that fine work about that horrible battle in April of 1862, I am revolted anew by the modern day "re-enactors" who seem to treat the serious business of slaughter as a weekend diversion.

In Shiloh and in his monumental, three volume history, Civil War: A Narrative Foote is able to show bodies askance in mud and blood beyond political considerations. At one point in Shiloh he has General Ulysses Grant respond to the political issues of war, "I have nothing to do with opinion. I shall deal only with armed rebellion and its aiders and abettors."

We see the battle of Shiloh through the prism of individual experience. Foote can combine objective data with subjective experience. As the confederate army crawls toward Pittsburg Landing, Palmer Metcalfe, an aide to General Johnston, observes in Chapter One that at a distance "it was impersonal: an army in motion, so many inspissated tons of flesh and bone and blood and equipment: but seen from close, the mass reduced to company size. . . . It was not that way at all. I could see their faces then, and the army became what it really was: forty thousand men -- young men mostly -- out on their first march. . . . This was their third day out, and their faces showed it. Rain and mud. . . . Their faces were gay now in the sunlight, but when you looked close you saw the sullen lines of strain about the mouths and the lower eyelids etched with fatigue."

Many folks got their first taste of Shelby Foote from his deft appearances in Ken Burns eleven hour television epic, The Civil War. Others of us were pleased to encounter in that series the gentle southern voice we had been fond of for decades.

The seven chapters alternate between south and north ending, as it began with Metcalf. In defeat he is tending to a delirious amputee in a wagon.

Soldiers are valued by their desire to fight -- and their growing ability to do so. Yet we also see the shirkers who succumb to understandable fear and retreat to river's edge under a bluff.

Surely Shiloh stands among the finest novels about the Civil War, or any war for that matter. It has earned its place right there next to Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage in which individual suffering and relationships are paramount -- political issues are beside the point.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2014-07-06 04:03:37
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