An Interview with Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862 co-editors Gary D. Joiner and Timothy B. Smith, conducted by Civil War Times magazine.
CWT: Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862 is a forty-year-old dissertation. Why does it merit publication?
TBS: Simply put, because it is the best overall treatment of the battle of Shiloh ever written. There is definitely plenty of room for a good Shiloh study. In comparison to Gettysburg’s book-of-the-month deluge of print, before this publication Shiloh has been the recipient of only three major monographs (Wiley Sword’s Shiloh—Bloody April (1974), James Lee McDonough’s Shiloh—In Hell Before Night (1977), and Larry Daniel’s Shiloh: The Battle That Changed the Civil War (1997). Each is quite different from the other, and each has it own strengths.
CWT: Can you describe those strengths?
GJD: Sure. James Lee McDonough’s study serves as a solid macro-overview of the battle, Larry Daniel’s work breaks ground with his “new military history” slant that places the combat within the political context of the war, and Wiley Sword’s book is the best treatment of the battle’s tactical detail. But you have to read all three to get a complete picture of the fighting. We believe Dr. Cunningham’s study has all the strengths of these works in a single volume, and he was a master storyteller. He was decades ahead of his time. Indeed, Shiloh historiography is just catching up with Cunningham.
CWT: That last statement is interesting. Can you describe some of the ways Shiloh historiography is “just catching up?”
TBS: Cunningham’s excellent work predated McDonough and Sword, yet his dissertation is laden with original interpretations universally ignored by historians in the 1970s. For example, Cunningham was the first historian to question the existence of sixty-two Confederate cannon in Ruggles’ artillery-studded line. He took on the whole Hornet’s Nest debate—that it was a major turning point of the battle—head-on. He was the first historian to publicly challenge the idea that the Sunken Road was sunken. He questioned the Reed School of Shiloh historiography that counted as many as twelve or thirteen different charges against the Sunken Road line; Cunningham debunked that by showing that only seven or at most, eight charges could be documented.
CWT: So he really was far ahead of his time . . .
GJD: He was indeed. Unlike most historians writing before and after him, Cunningham’s work is also a contextual look at the battle. In other words, he emphasized places other than the handful of famous sites like the Hornet’s Nest, Peach Orchard, and Bloody Pond. The fighting around the Crossroads (where the Hamburg-Purdy and Corinth-Pittsburg roads intersect) offers a prime example.
CWT: Does the adaptation appearing in this issue offer readers a good indication of what they can expect from the book?
TBS: Yes. We think it demonstrates Cunningham’s exciting narrative style, which is very modern and completely unlike most dissertations. And this adaptation is tension-filled because it examines what took place when a Union patrol stumbled upon the advance elements of A. S. Johnston’s Confederate army. Cunningham had the ability to drop readers into the middle of the field. You can smell the powder and the men yelling and tramping into combat. This adaptation is taken from Chapter 7. We have modified it some and of course, none of the extensive footnotes appear, but it is a good representative passage.
CWT: Dr. Cunningham studied under Dr. T. Harry Williams at LSU, one of the legendary historians of the war. That immediately speaks for the book’s credibility. How did Williams influence Cunningham’s work?
GJD: T. Harry Williams was one of the best historians this country produced. Students fought to be in his overbooked classes. Some tell me today that it was hard to take notes because he was such a phenomenal lecturer. Historians who studied under him, people like Art Bergeron, are evidence of Dr. Williams’ skills as a professor and mentor. He was also a marvelous writer. The “story” of history is evident in all of his works and is reflected in those of his students. Dr. Cunningham’s dissertation combines equal parts of scholarship and storytelling—both executed beautifully. Tim and I both agreed to dedicate the book to Dr. Williams.
CWT: Well, tell us a little about the process of publishing this book. How did it come about?
TBS: I was familiar with the dissertation before working at Shiloh as a ranger, but I became intimately familiar with it there, and referred to it regularly, as do many of the people who work at Shiloh. All of us agreed it deserved a wide audience and should be published. Since no one else was working on this, I decided to try and locate the family, and that’s when I found out Dr. Cunningham passed away many years ago. The family was excited about having it published and permissions were prepared. At that point I contacted my friend Gary Joiner, because I knew he was an outstanding historian and a first-rate cartographer. Battle books need good maps and lots of them. Gary agreed.
CWT: : Gary, tell us about the map-making process for this book.
GJD: As I read the manuscript, I made margin notes of where and why I thought a map should be included. I used David W. Reed’s maps of the battlefield from the turn of the 20th century as the logical starting point. Reed’s text from the battlefield monuments was particularly helpful. I used digital aerial photographs to create a geographic information map of the battlefield and placed on it every marker and tablet in the park. Tim and I agreed that we should use brigade level units as the common denominator. I then tracked the movements of the armies, sometimes hour by hour, sometimes in shorter spans, for both days. Each time span became a separate layer. The final task was to create a base map that looked as it would have during the battle. Each field, road, and body of water was drawn in a manner to permit the "feel" of the terrain to work with the combat units, regardless of its scale. Other maps were created for the Western Theater and the battles of Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, and the siege of Corinth. For the last three, I used the O.R. Atlas as a base map and added or deleted information as needed.
CWT: Tim, you mentioned Dr. Cunningham’s family. How were they to work with?
TBS: Oh, they were great. One of the first things I asked was if he had ever stated any aversion to publishing the dissertation. I did not want to go against his wishes if he did not want it published for some reason. They knew of no desire on Dr. Cunningham’s part to keep it unpublished, so here we are. They were very helpful in signing over legal rights as well as supplying information and photos.
CWT: And how did you come to the publisher that you did, Savas Beatie?
TBS: Gary and I both wanted this to be a major Shiloh work, so we wanted a major publisher. Savas Beatie is well known as a traditional military publisher, and we both had worked with Ted Savas in the past – Gary on a Red River campaign book and I did the book on Champion Hill with them. Also, we knew Ted would actively seek the book clubs and do it in a shorter time period than most university presses. We both have other projects going, so we decided to move this one along a little quicker than the university press rate.
CWT: What do you hope comes from the publication of Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862?
GJD: Well that was really a joint effort with Ted Savas, the publisher and also editor of this book. He questioned this and that, and we spoke almost daily for weeks about everything having to do with the manuscript. One day, we were discussing several sources about the fight near Champion Hill itself. It became obvious that Union eyewitness accounts about the death of a Federal Missouri regimental commander and the immediate aftermath of his fall dovetailed strikingly with Confederate accounts on the same part of the field at the same time of day. After carefully piecing them together, we reached the conclusion about how the colonel was killed, and specifically who had killed him.
CWT: Some projects are so powerful they take on lives of their own. Dr. Cunningham’s book is like that for us. Tim and I both believe Shiloh is one of the best manuscripts we have ever read. For me, it was like discovering The Killer Angels all over again, and feeling as if I was part of the action. I am thrilled to have an opportunity to share Dr. Cunningham’s research and story-telling ability with others who enjoy Civil War history. I know they will gain an entirely new understanding of this important campaign. For those yet to discover the importance of what we believe was the war’s first pivotal large-scale battle, we hope Shiloh provides the spark to ignite their life-long interest.
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