Shiloh by Shelby Foote

This is a short (225 pages) historical fiction novel written in 1952 by Shelby Foote. I read it in five days. The book is greatness. Foote uses a unique approach to tell the story of the American Civil War battle of Shiloh. He employs the use of first-person perspectives of one protagonists per chapter, Union and Confederate, except chapter six where he uses the twelve members of a squad to give a moment-by-moment commentary of the battle. The novel is divided into seven chapters. Each of the chapters is closely concerned with one of the characters again except for chapter six which gives the views of twelve squad members.

The first chapter takes place the day before the battle and is told by Lieutenant Palmer Metcalfe. He is a young aristocrat from New Orleans. We learn a year early he had been a student at the Louisiana State Seminary under William Tecumseh Sherman. He serves as a staff officer under Confederate commander General Albert Sidney Johnston. He watches as the Confederate army marches through the Tennessee countryside in preparation for a surprise attack upon the Union troops at Pittsburg Landing where their “horses will drink from the Tennessee River tomorrow”. His self-satisfaction is evident as he remembers the complicated attack plan he helped draft. He thinks back on the struggles Johnston went through in bringing his army together for this anticipated decisive blow. The Confederate troops are inexperienced and noisy, and some of Johnston’s generals believe the element of surprise has been lost. Johnston says they will fight despite the conditions.

Chapter Two is the story of Captain Walter Fountain, an Ohio regimental adjutant in the Union Army encamped at Pittsburg Landing. He is the Officer on Duty (OD) though he feels he should not have be an OD as he is the adjutant. He spends night writing a letter to his wife. Through his thoughts, we learn about the Union army’s deliberate advance through Tennessee under General Ulysses Grant. Fountain is homesick yet confident that the war will be over soon. As he writes his letter, he notices the birds and animals becoming noisier and more agitated. Suddenly the Confederate soldiers attack the Union troops. The chapter ends abruptly. I was left with the assumption that Fountain is killed in the initial attack.

Chapter Three comes from the viewpoint of Private Luther Dade. He is scared but determined to do his duty. When the fight does come, Dade is disturbed when he realizes the dead bodies of old friends mean no more to him than those of stranger or Yankees. He stresses of combat are too much for him. He does well in combat. He sustains a minor arm wound and is sent to wait for a doctor. Hours pass. He gets no medical attention. Dade’s arm begins to show signs of infection. He moves toward the sound of firing in search of a doctor. He finds himself in a clearing near Shiloh Church. At the church is Johnston’s staff, gathered around their wounded and dying commander. Dade is captivated by the drama of the scene. He begins to pass out from his wound as the chapter ends.

Chapter Four is narrated by Private Otto Flickner, a Minnesota artilleryman. It is now the first night of the battle. Flickner is trembling at the riverbank with hundreds of other deserters. He rationalizes his actions by quoting what a sergeant of his had said, “I’m not scared, I’m just what they call demoralized.” His search for justification leads him to remember the day’s events: the devastating surprise attack, one failed attempt after another to stand and fight, the endless concussions of incoming enemy artillery fire, and finally his running away because “so much is enough but a little bit more is too much.” He and the other deserters are taunted at and called cowards by some reinforcements that pass by. The taunting forces Flickner to realize that a coward is exactly what he has been. He leaves the riverbank roving through the woods searching for his unit. Somehow he comes upon them getting ready for one last stand. His sergeant who witnessed his simply walking away greets him as if nothing had happened. He returns to his old gun.

Chapter Five concerns Sergeant Jefferson Polly, a Texas cavalryman serving under Nathan Bedford Forrest. A former seminary student, sailor, and soldier of fortune, Polly joined the army because “I wasn’t any better at being a bad man than I was a good one.” His mature and contemptuous point of view tells him that the Confederate army, even though successful on day one, is fighting a inadequately planned and shoddily coordinated battle. That night, Forrest leads Polly and his squad on a reconnaissance mission to Pittsburg Landing. While there they see thousands of Union reinforcements disembarking from steamboats. Forrest and Polly try to alert the confederate generals without success. With the coming of the next day he resigns himself to a day of defeat beside Colonel Forrest.

Chapter Six focuses on an Indiana squad. It is under the command of General Lew Wallace. We hear from all twelve members in the squad. They tell of their efforts to reach the battlefield. We learn of the wrong turn that delayed them for a day. We see the contempt that was poured on them by other troops for their slowness. When the battle’s second day begins, the Indianans and the rest of Wallace’s division are at the forefront of the resurgent Union attack. At the end of the fight, two of the Indianans are dead. The ten survivors wonder why they lived and the others died.

Chapter Seven returns to Lieutenant Metcalfe as he staggers down the road to Corinth. We see him as one of the beaten Confederate army. He remembers the death of General Johnston. He recalls how events spun out of control in the aftermath of the general’s death. He reflects on how the disorganized and leaderless Confederate army fell victim to a surprise Yankee attack the next day, how Johnston’s old-fashioned gallantry had been no match for the reality they had encountered. In the disorder of the retreat he falls in with Forrest and Polly. He participates in their valiant rearguard action at Fallen Timbers. Metcalfe decides to join Forrest’s unit; even as an enlisted man if necessary. His viewpoint changes to believing that any hope the Confederacy has lies with men like Forrest rather than men like Johnston. The book ends with Metcalfe tending to a delirious amputee in a wagon. I assume it is Luther Dade.

Read and reviewed by Jimmie A. Kepler.

The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam

The Best and the Brightest (1972) by David Halberstam is an account of the origins of the Vietnam War. The book provides great detail on how the decisions were made in the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson administrations that led to the war. The book focuses on the period from 1960 to 1965. It also covers earlier and later years up to the publication year of the book.

I am a fan of the late David Halberstam. I had the opportunity to hear him speak at the Tate Lecture Series held by Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas five years ago. I also had the pleasure of meeting him at a meet and greet held in concert with that event.

I first read this book in late 1972. I reread the book after hearing Halberstam speak at SMU.

When I reread The Best and the Brightest I found it as fresh as when I read it back in late 1972. Halberstam does an excellent job of showing how bad decisions, deceitfulness, a reluctance to face facts and complete rudimentary stupidity got America into a war that was lost from the start. The book makes known how so many smart, highly successful people, the best and the brightest of the American foreign policy and military were so unbelievably mistaken for so very long.

Halberstam examines diverse factors that contribute to America’s involvement. We learn that the Democratic Party was still haunted by claims that it had ‘lost China’ to Communists. They did not want to be said to have lost Vietnam also. During the McCarthy era the government lost or got rid of experts in Vietnam and surrounding Far-East countries. We learn that early studies called for close to a million US troops in order to fully defeat the Viet Cong. It would be impossible to persuade congress or the US public to deploy that many soldiers. We discover the fear that declarations of war, and excessive shows of force, including bombing too close to China or too many US troops might have triggered the entry of Chinese ground forces into the war, and greater Soviet involvement (and perhaps repair the growing Sino-Soviet rift).

Halberstam points out some war games showed that a slow escalation by the United States could be evenly matched by North Vietnam. He shares that every year 200,000 North Vietnamese came of drafting age. They could possibly be sent down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to replace any losses against the US. In essence the US would be fighting the North Vietnamese birthrate. Interestingly he makes us aware that both administrations believed any show of force by the US in the form of bombing or ground forces would signal the US interest in defending South Vietnam. This would therefore cause the US greater shame if they were to withdraw.

We see Lyndon Johnson’s concern and belief that too much attention given to the war effort would jeopardize his Great Society domestic programs. These programs were his personal priority. Additionally, the effects of strategic bombing policy were examined. Here we see the wrong belief that North Vietnam valued its industrial base so much it would not risk its annihilation by US air power. There was the false belief that the North Vietnamese would negotiate peace after experiencing some limited bombing, but others reflected back that even in World War II strategic bombing united the victim population against the attacker and did little to encumber manufacturing output.

Halberstam also mentions the simplistic Domino Theory rationales. Interestingly we learn the thought that after placing a few thousand Americans in harm’s way, it became politically easier to send hundreds of thousands to Vietnam with the promise that with sufficient numbers they could defend themselves, and that to abandon Vietnam now would mean the earlier investment in money and lives would be thrown away.

The book shows that the gradual escalation chosen allowed the LBJ Administration at the outset to avoid negative publicity and criticism from Congress. Gradual escalation also avoided a direct war against the Chinese, but at the same time removed the possibility of either victory or withdrawal. Read and reviewed by Jimmie A. Kepler.

Suicide Charlie: A Vietnam War Story by Norman L. Russell

I found Suicide Charlie: A Vietnam War Story in the local library. I read the book during the first week of February 2006. Norman L. Russell tells his story with the draft, the US Army and the 25th Infantry Division. Russell was drafted in 1968. He went to Vietnam when he was 19 years old. There he served as a mortar man with the 25th Infantry Division’s so-called Suicide Charlie Company. He tells how he was hardened by the demands of war. He tells of the various experiences he had. The war made less sense to him the longer he was there. He found it hard to follow all the orders he was given. He tells of being told to shoot to kill the Vietnamese children to keep away from his unit’s trash dump. He disobeyed this order. He shares a tale of the boom boom girls (prostitutes). He lets us have a look at another kind of battle he faced upon return to the world — post combat depression and delayed stress. He makes mention that his father was a World War II vet that took his own life a few years after returning. He battles the demons related to this from time to time. Unlike some memoirs, there are moments of hubris on his part from time to time in the book. It is very entertaining and an easy read. Read and reviewed by Jimmie A. Kepler.

The Gathering Storm by Sir Winston Churchill

The Gathering Storm by Sir Winston Churchill is the first volume of Churchill’s Noble Prize winning six part chronicle of World War II. This six book series is Churchill’s personal memoirs. The Gathering Storm depicts the rise of Hitler and the indifference of the leaders of the European democracies to the clouds of the gathering storm. Churchill incorporates contemporary documentation and his own reminiscence in this opening memoir. Churchill’s mastery of English is reason enough to read this book. I like what was said in a review on, “Winston Churchill was not only a statesman and leader of historic proportions, he also possessed substantial literary talents. These two factors combine to make The Gathering Storm a unique work.” The book tells the story of the events between World War One and World War Two. Churchill shows how key events were ignored or the people simply hoped they would go away without dealing with them. The resulting inaction allowed many of the later events to occur, thus escalating the size and difficulty of the task. Sir Winston Churchill won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953 for this book and the other five books in the series. Read by Jimmie A. Kepler in July – August 1996 and  again in August – September 2004.

Mobile Riverine Force: America’s Mobile Riverine Force Vietnam Vol. 1 and 2

Mobile Riverine Force: America’s Mobile Riverine Force Vietnam Vol. 1 is a history of the Mobile Riverine Force in the US Armed Services from its beginning through today. It contains a 74 page description of Riverine Operations 1966-1969 by Major General William B Fulton. It tells the history of the Mobile Riverine Force Association. It shares stories of member’s personal experience through biographies of Mobile Riverine Force Association members. It has hundreds of historic photographs.

Volume II proceeds on where Volume I left off and details the ongoing function of the Riverine Forces leading up to the final boats being transferred to the South Vietnamese Navy in December 1970. In the interim period you will see how combat hardened sailors volunteered to be Advisors to the South Vietnamese Navy under the command of Task Force 194. Despite the outcome of the war, a legacy of honor, dedication, and heroism was left by a small band of unique young sailors and soldiers. (Vol 2 review description written by the publisher – source:

Sherman: Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman by William T. Sherman

Sherman: Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman by William T. Sherman is a must book for anyone serious in learning about the life and experiences of Union General William T. Sherman.

I have read numerous Civil War books, including the prominent historical volumes by the leading scholars. Reading these volumes led me to begin reading the memoirs and books of the significant people involved in the war – Grant, Longstreet, etc. Sherman’s memoirs have been the most fascinating.

Sherman is an interesting writer. His descriptions of early California life were beautiful. It paints a great picture of 1840’s San Francisco and northern California. In other places the writing bogged down where it felt you were reading a military TO&E (table of organization and equipment).

Sherman was not a failure in anything that he did. On the contrary, I think he led a full and fascinating life that would be difficult to duplicate in the present times, even with our transportation abilities. Sherman was a brilliant military leader and you feel as though you are with him throughout his many marches and campaigns. He includes many letters and orders in the book that I believe substantiate his writing and give proof that he was one of a kind.

I was surprised to learn that he served as commanding general of the US Army from 1868 – 1884, longer than any other person. That would be like being US Army chief of staff today for 16 years!

Yes, the book did have some hubris and he did defend some of his actions. All in all a must read. Read by Jimmie A. Kepler in July – August 2006.

On to Berlin: Battles of an Airborne Commander 1943-1946 by General James M. Gavin

General James M. Gavin tells the story of the 82d Airborne Division during World War II. Gavin began training at the Airborne School in Fort Benning in July 1941, and graduated in August 1941. After graduating he served in an experimental unit. His first command was Commanding Officer of C Company of the newly established 503rd Parachute Infantry Battalion. Gavin’s friends William Ryder — Commander of Airborne training – and William Yarborough – Communications officer of the Provisional Airborne Group – convinced General William C. Lee to let Gavin develop the tactics and basic rules of Airborne combat. Lee followed up on this recommendation, and made Gavin his Operations and Training officer (S-3). On October 16, 1941 he was promoted to Major.

One of his first priorities was determining how airborne troops could be used most effectively. His first action was writing FM 31-30: Tactics and Technique of Air-Borne Troops. He used information about Soviet and German experiences with Paratroopers and Glider troops, and also used his own experience about tactics and warfare. The manual contained information about tactics, but also about the organization of the paratroopers, what kind of operations they could execute, and what they would need to execute their task effectively.

Gavin is best suited to provide this history since he served with the Division during its entire participation in the European Campaign, starting as a Regimental Commander with the 505th to eventually commanding the division.

General Gavin gives a detailed description of all the operations the 82d participated in during World War II. He adds his analysis of why certain things went well for his unit, while other things were a struggle. He provides insight into the Allied command structure and the challenges it faced.

This is an enjoyable and informative book that provides a unique perspective of the war, much different than other general officers. Gavin personally experienced the harshness and challenges of WWII combat because of the nature of airborne operations. Gavin also he participated in numerous high-level planning sessions with other well-known leaders of the Allied Command. This participation allows him to connect the planning and the execution of how strategic decisions influenced the actual combat operations in the European Theater of Operations.

For me the most insightful and interesting part of the book was General Gavin’s analysis of General Eisenhower’s decision to concede Berlin to the Russians. The last chapter reflects back on the war and Berlin question with analysis of the decisions made and their impact and implications thirty years later. It is pretty interesting stuff, especially given the long-term impact that these decisions had on world events.

I strongly recommend this book. For those wanting to learn more about the 82d or airborne operations this is required reading. Read and reviewed by Jimmie A. Kepler.