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'Shiloh 1862' and 'The Long Road to Antietam'

Writer Winston Groom illuminates the personal side of a battle in 'Shiloh,' while Richard Slotkin's 'Antietam' is an eye-opening view of an engagement and a war.

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There are plenty of other characters too, from William Tecumseh Sherman (thought to be mad, and with good reason) to connivers and politicians to a high-profile Confederate general who looked like the spitting image of comic actor Jonah Hill and would lose his life to a bullet, but not on the battlefield. Full of evocative stories – plus helpful maps and fascinating photos – "Shiloh 1862" is the perfect Civil War battle book for those who don't read Civil War battle books.

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Shiloh was the first mammoth rumble of the Civil War, and Antietam would be the third, just a few months later in September 1862. Historian Richard Slotkin's The Long Road to Antietam: How the Civil War Became a Revolution is a remarkable piece of work, an eye-opening double history of a battle and a war.

Slotkin is interested in wider themes than what happened on a single bloody day, although he devotes plenty of space to the Battle of Antietam itself. He sees Antietam as a turning point, a quasi-victory for the North that gave the president breathing room and turned the war into a slog, an "all-out war of subjugation" from the North's perspective.

The star here – and boy, would he think he deserved top billing – is a pipsqueak of a general named George McClellan who commanded the allegiance of virtually everyone under him and no one above him. Not only did he insult and ignore the president – he "incessantly schemed and conspired and politicked" – but he also thought he could do a better job at the top.

Amazingly, it appears that he and his allies actually gave a lot of though to the idea of deposing Lincoln, at least temporarily. This while McClellan, again and again, failed to fight, paralyzed by the fear of risking and losing.

And whom did he face on the other side? A white-haired gentleman by the name of Robert E. Lee.

How bad did it get in 1862? Consider how 9/11 ravaged the country's heart, and how many of us knew one of the victims or knew someone who did.

Then imagine an even larger toll in a much smaller United States. Sept. 17, 1862, the date of the Battle of Antietam, remains the bloodiest day in American history, with an estimated toll of 3,650 lives. That's worse than 9/11.

And in a nation 90 percent smaller than it is now, that number would multiply, again and again. The war, once thought to be a temporary inconvenience, had moved past "the point of no return," as Slotkin writes, and it was far from clear who would win. 

But a single thing seemed more certain than ever: No one, from a little girl near a church called Shiloh to the president of the United States, could escape the elephants.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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