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This Great Battlefield of Shiloh: History, Memory, and the Establishment of a Civil War National Military Park

by Smith, Timothy B.
Publisher: University of Tennessee Press
Retail Price: $28.95
Issue: Winter 2005
ISBN: 1572332816

Preservation efforts


Reconciling North and South

The mention of Shiloh conjures up a muster roll of names that Americans associate with the 1862 battle and the larger Civil War: Ulysses S. Grant, Albert Sidney Johnston, William T. Sherman, and P.G.T. Beauregard. The names Cornelius Cadle, D.W. Reed, and Atwell Thompson, however, likely produce blank stares. In Timothy B. Smith's excellent study of the Shiloh National Military Park, these men take center stage in lieu of the generals. Smith weaves two parallel tales into a single narrative that is a valuable addition to Shiloh literature. One story recounts the role of Cadle, Reed, Thompson, and others in the military park's creation in the 1890s; the second reveals that their initial interpretation of the battle defined how future generations remembered and at times misunderstood the events of those two April days.

The park's growth and development from the battle's conclusion to its incorporation into the National Park Service in 1933 provides the chronological framework for one of Smith's stories. Cadle led the effort to preserve the site through congressional action, serving as the first chairman of the Shiloh National Military Park Commission; Reed became the first park secretary and historian; and Thompson worked as the park's chief engineer. These men overcame challenges that included procuring funds, purchasing land, establishing the park's physical layout, and defining regulations regarding field markers and monuments.

The second and more intriguing story explains how the initial interpretation of the battle, created primarily by Shiloh veteran and park historian D.W. Reed, defined an understanding of the battle that has endured for decades, an interpretation that remains widely accepted today. With the aid of extant documents, his own recollections, and returning veterans like Lew Wallace and Isham G. Harris, Reed oversaw the placement of markers that established unit positions, field landmarks, and key events. The markers' locations and their text identified the battlefield's center--known as the Hornets' Nest--as the place where the battle was won and lost. There along the Sunken Road stubborn Union troops held off furious Confederate assaults, giving Grant the time needed to throw up a defensive line sufficient to stave off disaster. Reed's interpretation wrote the story of the Hornets' Nest into the national memory, especially its fierce fighting and terrible sacrifice. Smith points out, however, that recent scholarship suggests Reed overemphasized the significance of the fighting at the Hornets' Nest, and that contrary to what has attained near mythical status, the heaviest fighting occurred on the flanks of the two armies. A more conclusive study, along with enough time to change a nation's memory, will be needed to dislodge the Hornets' Nest from the heart of Shiloh.

Smith successfully places his dual storyline into the national context, showing how a cooperative spirit among white northern and southern battle veterans supported the park's creation, exemplifying the two regions' reconciliation. The veterans and their sons focused not on the war's causes or on questions of who was right or wrong, but instead celebrated the honor, valor, and courage of both Blue and Gray. Complementing the well-written text are early photographs of the park and of significant personalities like Cadle and Reed. A series of appendices elaborates on legislation, monuments, and historiography. Smith has produced an outstanding study that will appeal to students of memorialization, the Civil War, and especially to those intrigued and captivated by the battle known as Shiloh.

Harry S. Laver is an assistant professor of history at Southeastern Louisiana University. He recently published Refuge of Manhood: Masculinity and the Militia Experience, in Southern Manhood: Perspectives on Masculinity in the Old South, eds. Craig Thompson Friend and Lorri Glover, University of Georgia Press, 2004.

Laver, Harry S., review of This Great Battlefield of Shiloh: History, Memory, and the Establishment of a Civil War National Military Park, by Smith, Timothy B., Civil War Book Review, (Winter 2005).