Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862

Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862 by O. Edward Cunningham. Edited by Gary D. Joiner and Timothy B. Smith.

Cunningham wrote this book as a PhD dissertation in 1966. Until this past year it has remained unpublished. I had earlier gained a copy through interlibrary loan and a ton of xeroxing. I've never sat down and read it cover to cover before though because my copy was so ungainly to hold and read. The dissertation has a wonderful reputation among serious students of Shiloh as one of the best examinations of the battle.

This new edition has been edited by Gary D. Joiner and Timothy B. Smith. I'm familiar with Smith's previous works but not Joiner's, and a better choice for editing a Shiloh book could not be made in Smith. They did a great job of adding their own footnotes and comments into Cunningham's work without it being distracting. Besides using the footnotes to clarify points or discuss new sources, they also used them to compare and contrast Cunningham's conclusions with Larry Daniel, Wiley Sword and James Lee McDonough (the three other modern examinations of the battle). I enjoyed this as I didn't have to remember exactly what those three authors had said. Plus page citations were given so that I could check exactly what they wrote in each instance.

My only problem with the footnotes was there were times that the editors would say that Cunningham's original text had said something that is pretty clearly incorrect and that they changed the text so that it read better. Perhaps this "error" was because Cunningham's work hadn't gone through the extensive review process that books go through now (and you could assume that if he was alive now to publish his dissertation the peer review process would have fixed those things). Or maybe its not really an error and further research might show Cunningham was right. I'm still not sure where I sit on this issue. In some respects I wish the new book was a faithful reproduction of the dissertation, warts and all. In other respects I think its good that obvious mistakes were edited out. In other sections the editors did mention that Cunningham's interpretation differs, the text was left alone, just a foot note added to indicate the interpretive differences. And that is a great thing. I'm still have not decided if I like the minor corrections or not.

The one problem I had with the dissertation is a complete lack of maps. Thankfully that has been fixed in this new edition. But the maps seem a little busy at times with too many of the trails shown. Also the maps typically show brigade sized units (some do show regiments) and I'd prefer if they had all shown regiments. But that's only a minor point and does not detract from the worth of the book. Just a personal preference, I'm sure there are other readers who would prefer only brigades shown.

The claim made often about Cunningham's book is that his interpretations were well ahead of their time. I'm not sure about that. There was nothing I read that was a real surprise to me, but I'm not exactly new to studying Shiloh. I think it is an important book that can now be read by everyone and sit proudly on the shelves with Sword, Daniel and McDonough. I highly recommend it to all. If I only was going to have one of those four Shiloh books I think it would be Daniel's (then again I have 3 copies of Sword's book so I'm not the best judge of only having one book) but Cunningham's would be my second choice and only because I think Daniel did a better job of showing Shiloh's place in the war. Cunningham is a strong second place though.

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