Reviewed by Amy Gruzesky
When one thinks of the Civil War, certain names almost certainly come to mind: Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Abraham Lincoln … but in the historical fiction novel They Met at Shiloh by Phillip Bryant, the reader is introduced to Michael, Stephen, Robert and William; Mule, Philip and Huber and a host of others, along with the dropping of a few more well-known names.
But in the realm of this story, whether they were generals or captains or lieutenants really doesn’t matter, because the story being told to the reader is the story of these men — some mere boys, really. It’s not the soldier or the fighting he does that makes an impact, it’s the human being and his story behind the uniform.
Granted, there are descriptions of marching and fighting, and cannons ripping men apart and gun-slinging — but in the overall story, what resonates most with the reader, at least this reader, was the everyday facts and habits and quirks of the men we are introduced to. They are sons, brothers, fathers, husbands, best friends.
We feel ourselves jonesing for that first cup of morning coffee right along with them when they are woken extra early one morning to start marching into battle at Shiloh — one of the major battles in the Civil War; I laughed out loud at the description of one of the young soldiers who was so well known for being a klutz and knocking things over that the other men in the infantry often made it so he got his coffee last and they gave him a wide berth when he did.
I felt the sadness of Michael when he found himself walking through a field of bodies, fledgling life still in some of them, and others definitely dead — and it didn’t matter to him, or to me, what side of the conflict these slain men were on.
Death is sad — pure and simple; and seeing it through the eyes of a battlefield soldier, and one that could find himself among death and destruction at any time, made me wonder how soldiers do it — go into battle knowing that they might not make it out.
I read this book because while I like historical fiction, I don’t usually read about wars or fighting or the Civil War. And this book, based on a real battle that took place near a small church in Tennessee that Grant had overtaken, along with the surrounding farm community, was one of the bloodiest and important of the Civil War — and one that I knew would push my boundaries.
Admittedly, when I started the book I was a bit put off by all of the factual renderings the author shared, as it came off as very textbook-like to me; and, I read the Kindle version, so I don’t know if the hardcover or paperback had any maps included, and that would have helped me envision and understand the physical location better.
However, if you want to read a book that shows the true human side of war, this one will do it. Even after finishing it, I still feel compassion and sympathy for the characters, and realize that one truth holds true — no matter which side wins — everyone loses something in war.