Back in the 19th century, Americans had a quaint way to express how it felt to confront "something novel, huge and terrible." They referred to it as "seeing the elephant."
Two fine new histories offer gripping accounts of how ordinary men met herds of elephants on the battlefields of the Civil War.
A century and a half ago, next to a Maryland creek called Antietam and in the Tennessee wilderness near a church named Shiloh, tens of thousands of soldiers learned about the horrible powers of a new kind of warfare. Death came not only from rifles and bayonets but from above, courtesy of exploding shells, heavy cannonballs, and knife-sharp shrapnel.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Va., politicians grappled over strategy while a besieged man named Lincoln faced the very real risk of a military coup at the hands of a young egomaniac with a terminal case of "the slows."
Like much of the Civil War, the biggest battles of 1862 are familiar territory. But the authors of both these books offer unique perspective that make them page-turners even for those who know exactly what will happen.
Winston Groom, a historian and novelist best known for writing "Forrest Gump," tackles the earlier of the battles – the first "great and terrible" one of the war – in Shiloh 1862. He devotes little attention to politics, but instead focuses on military strategy, the civilians affected by the battle (including a memorable little girl stunned by soldiers in her midst) and the combatants themselves. Not just the ones with stripes, although they get plenty of attention, but also those with nothing more than shoes and the clothes on their backs, or even less than that.
Ulysses Grant is the most fascinating character here. Before he was the rock upon which Lincoln built victory, before he served as president for eight years, before a grand tomb was erected in his honor (yes, that tomb, in which no one is actually buried), Grant was a failure. Not to mention a reputed souse of the highest order, a poor dresser ("the most unmilitary looking officer in the army"), and a most unlikely leader of men.
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.
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.