Of all of the events in American history, few would argue that the Civil War is the most debated, written about and discussed event. While it is beyond the scope of this research to pinpoint the all of the reasons why the Civil War still captures the imagination of historic scholars to this very day, but it is possible to take one of the many books written on the topic and provide a thorough review. In this research, Shiloh-In Hell before Night by James L. McDonough will be the work reviewed from several different vantage points. McDonough’s Purpose in Writing the Book.
It would be easy to simply say that McDonough’s purpose in writing his book was to depict the people and events of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, which took place in the Tennessee Valley on April 6, 1862, when hundreds of thousands of Union and Confederate troops clashed, fought and died (McDonough, 1977). Upon a closer reading of the work, however, a larger purpose becomes apparent. Within the pages of the book, McDonough uses the writing style of the great fiction writers of all time to create an historic account that reads like a novel.
Moreover, through the use of quotes from many of those who were involved in the battle, these people come back to life in a way and tell their own story, lending credibility and accuracy to the work. The Main Argument of the Work James L. McDonough’s main argument in this work is that the Civil War was not just a series of battles, wins and losses, but rather was a struggle for opposing people to try to direct a way of life for everyone to follow. He does this by using actual quotes from the main individuals involved in the battle of Shiloh which show how they felt and what lengths they would go to in order to put forth those beliefs.
Was the Goal of the Book Accomplished? Generally speaking, the goal of the book was accomplished in that McDonough was able to make the point that even in defeat, there is honor to a certain extent, and also that the cause of the Confederate States of America was as much a commitment to the preservation of a way of life that had existed for generations and hundreds of years as much as it was a fight to break away from a government that was seen as oppressive and dictatorial.
McDonough, in his vivid characterizations and flowing style, makes the point that even when a decisive victory is not gained, even the act of fighting for one’s beliefs is in itself a form of victory. By doing this, McDonough shows that the Civil War was a far more complex event in American history than simply two sides fighting to win battles.
This most certainly contributes to the ongoing fascination with the Civil War that was mentioned as this research began, and it is authors like McDonough that both satisfy the reader’s thirst for more information about the Civil War and sparks additional interest at the same time, which is quite a feat for any book about any historic period. Strengths/Weaknesses of the Book In fairness, McDonough’s book has its share of relative strengths and weaknesses which became clear in reading the book and are worthwhile to present and discuss in this review.
An overall strength of the book which became apparent from the very first paragraph was the realization that this was not the usual, dry historic text. Rather, McDonough took on a narrative style that made the presentation of the necessary elements of any historic account something that the reader would in fact look forward to reading, and as such, the more that was read, the more that was learned. In this sense, it could also be cited as a strength that this book serves to educate, as well as entertain the reader. Weaknesses also exist in the book.
Understandably, McDonough wrote the book from a southern point of view, and while there is no way to ethically change the result of the battle- a Confederate retreat which can fairly be seen in retrospect as a defeat- it is fair to say that McDonough’s narrative style and attempt to make the key players in the battle come to life tends to glorify even those who ultimately failed to perform up to standards in the battle, and of course, in the end, were not victorious. This is not to say that McDonough distorted any facts, but he did tend in some ways to over dramatize unsuccessful leaders like Beauregard and others.
Is McDonough’s Book a Valuable Contribution to the Study of the American Civil War? In conclusion, the remaining point to be discussed is whether or not McDonough’s book is a valuable contribution to the study of the Civil War. The point has already been made that the book is able to both provide information and spark a desire to learn more, all in an entertaining and vivid style. Also, it was discussed that McDonough was able to convey something far beyond history- the mindset and tradition which led to the Civil War and inspired thousands on both sides of the conflict to make the ultimate sacrifice for their beliefs.
Based on all of this, it can fairly be said that this book is a valuable study of the Civil War, for anytime that facts and figures from the past can be brought to life and spark the imagination of the reader, the work is most worthwhile, and this work is no exception. Therefore, in closing, let it be said that Shiloh-In Hell before Night, decades after its publication, is still deserving of high continued review. Works Cited McDonough, James Lee. 1977. Shiloh: In Hell before Night. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
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