Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Going back to Shiloh with author Phillip Bryant

They met at Shiloh

April 7th, 1862-- The battle has ended with the retreat of the Confederate army. Philip Pearson (a former Methodist Episcopal Minister) and his pards from the 25th Ohio Volunteers retraced their steps looking for wounded and fallen comrades.

A clearing revealed a sight equal to the ninth level of hell. Space opened in the trees, roughly twenty yards in length and ten in width, revealing a low-lying pond where wounded from both armies writhed side by side on muddy banks relieving their thirst. Many had life in them, but dozens lay still. Stepping around the pond was impossible without kicking some poor soul.

“God have mercy,” Philip whispered. Hospitals and aid stations on a battlefield were sights of suffering, but the sufferers knew help was on the way. This pitiful mass of bodies was a collection of all the desperately wounded on this side of the battlefield who had one desire in mind: water. They lay on top of each other, and those who did not have the strength or life left to draw their heads out of the water were pushed into the soft banks by those coming after. In their fight to relieve their thirst, man desecrated man to lap a few mouthfuls of bloody water.

“Have you ever seen the likes?” muttered Sammy.

The pond was tinged muddy red, and a few corpses were visible floating on the surface. They gazed in silent disgust and horror. Mule asked, “You think any of our pards made it this far?”  

“Don’t know,” Johnny said quietly, “and I don’t think I can look.”

 “Don’t we got to try?” Mule insisted.

“We din’t come here to help all them,” Johnny retorted. “We go down there, and they’re all gonna want our help.”
Comments from Phil:
I have always been a civil war history buff, ever since I was 12. My personal library is full of history books and I've read anything that would tell me a story about an event. As a youth, play usually entailed being a soldier, be it with Star Wars figures, G.I. Joe or whatever was on hand to make a uniform and a weapon. My poor brother had to endure all this, even to the tune of being shot accidentally with a BB gun!

 My first novel, They Met at Shiloh, had its germination from something a good friend of mine wrote. A group of us in college had been friends for several semesters. For Christmas one year, he wrote a story with everyone as a character. It was an interesting thing to do and everyone loved it.

Not to be outdone I decided to write something with all of them in it, but this would be a novel. I'd spent the summer of 1987 at my parent's home after army basic training. With nothing to do I started piecing together notes and research on the civil war battle of Shiloh. I'd been to the battlefield as a child and it was a dramatic story in itself. Conflict in the high Union command, distrust in the confederate command, opportunities lost, and a reversal of fortune gave Shiloh all the elements of a good story.

I have been a civil war reenactor for the last fifteen years. Reenacting allowed me to experience some of the privations of soldier life. Marching, sleeping in the open in all weather, camp life, fatigue and guard duty, period rations and period ways of cooking them, and standing in line of battle. I was able to weave these details into the narrative to give it a realistic feel. Because the outcome of the battle is known to history, the details and character focus were critical to giving life to my narrative.

I wanted to portray a realistic view of faith. Personal faith played a much larger role in the lives of our forebear's than we see today in our current society. I didn't want a sappy everyone gets saved view either, but a treatment of how faith and various iterations of that faith interacted in the time period. Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans all coexisted in regiments and had common bond in liturgy and practice. I wasn't going to shy away from the obvious influence of faith and war. Up until the Civil War the Army did not have a policy for regimental Chaplains, they could be elected or appointed by the commander if he wished, but the War Department put such a level of importance to the position that selection of Chaplains was codified and a rigorous review process was instituted to ensure that only ministers of good standing and active in their denominations could hold the post of Chaplain. A high priority was placed on the spiritual well being of soldiers by both sides of the conflict. I have tried to give that some flavor.

What I was writing was character, and in particular, soldier centric. It was a look at how a battle could exert its own influence upon the characters, treating it as a character itself. This was a unique approach to the subject and has been hard to categorize for purposes of marketing as it falls outside several norms. It's an hour by hour look at how Shiloh unfolded and how the characters coped with stress and loss.
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