Brilliant History of Winston Groom

Brilliant History of Winston Groom
(Andrew Wardlow/News Herald via AP)
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The popular novelist and historian Winston Groom died on Sept. 16, 2020, at the age of 77. The obituaries mostly focused on his authorship of "Forrest Gump," which was made into a popular movie starring Tom Hanks that earned several Academy Awards. But Groom’s best work was as a military historian, where he combined insight gained from his own experiences in the Vietnam War with descriptive writing that kept readers turning pages with anticipation.

Groom was born in 1943 in Washington, D.C., but grew up in Mobile County, Ala. He attended a military prep school and the University of Alabama. From 1965-67, he served in the U.S. Army and did a tour in Vietnam. He worked as a reporter for the Washington Star, then turned his talents to book writing.
Groom’s family is embedded in America’s military history. Groom’s great-great-great grandfather fought in the War of 1812. His great-grandfather fought in the Civil War. His grandfather fought in World War I. His father fought in the Second World War. As Groom once noted, his forbearers were not professional warriors, “they just happened to be of the right age at the right time to be swept up in the fighting.”

Groom's interest in military and history started at home

Groom’s interest in military history and history in general, he once explained, began when as a child at large family dinners he listened to family members reminisce about things that happened “before the war” and “during the war” and “after the war.” At the military prep school he attended, Groom recalled, he learned about the Civil War and World War II. At the University of Alabama, he read Mahan and Samuel Eliot Morrison on naval war and history. His urge to write about war, however, derived from his experiences in Vietnam and his discovery in his parents’ attic of a metal strongbox that contained documents related to his great-grandfather’s service with Joe Wheeler’s Confederate Cavalry in the Civil War.

His first book on military history was "Shrouds of Glory" (1995), which chronicled the fighting in the Western theater of the Civil War from Sherman’s assault on Atlanta to the Battle of Nashville. "Shrouds of Glory" is told in narrative form, reminiscent of Shelby Foote’s unequalled three-volume Civil War history. Groom set the stage for his narrative of the war’s Western Theater by noting events in the Eastern Theater, including Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign. His description of the fighting in Virginia in 1864 and how it differed from previous battles fought in the East is unforgettable:

Most earlier Civil War battles had been fought as one-or-two-day affairs — Bull Run, Gettysburg, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and so on — fang-slashing dogfights in which the stronger dog quickly established himself and the loser ran off to fight another day. But Grant’s spring offensive introduced a new kind of war, a grinding nightmare of armed embrace in which the victorious dog never turns loose of his victim, but pursues him relentlessly, attacking whenever he can.

Groom noted that the sheer brutality of the fighting during the Overland Campaign caused one Unionist to complain: “For all I can see, we must go floundering on indefinitely through torrents of blood and unfathomable bankruptcy.”

Grant and his top lieutenant Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman waged total war against the Confederacy. “War is cruelty,” Sherman once remarked, “you cannot refine it.” After taking Atlanta, Sherman set off on his famous “March to the Sea,” and left the campaign in the West to Gen. George H. Thomas, a Virginian who stayed loyal to the Union.

Thomas, who commanded the Army of the Cumberland, had earned the nickname the “Rock of Chickamauga,” for leading a heroic stand on Snodgrass Hill that saved the Union Army there from destruction in September 1863. Groom described Thomas’ army in 1864 as “the anvil for Sherman’s pulverizing attacks on the road to Atlanta.” “Thomas,” Groom wrote, “was establishing himself as a soldier of proven field merit, an earnest and methodical workhorse who was absolutely indifferent to danger.” Shrouds of Glory follows Thomas’ army as it slowly but unerringly destroys the Confederate forces at the battles of Spring Hill, Franklin, and Nashville.

Groom had uncanny ability to capture the moment

The fighting at Franklin on Nov. 30, 1864, almost defied description, but Groom managed to convey its sheer horror and ferocity. “In all its bloody four years,” he wrote, “the war had rarely—if ever—seen fighting so ferocious on so large a scale in so confined a space . . . [T]housands of men within an area no larger than a few acres shot, bayoneted, gouged, and bludgeoned one another to death with rifle butts, axes, picks, guns, knives, and shovels.” Groom noted that Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood’s losses at Franklin exceeded those of the more famous Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg.

Thomas’s army in deliberate, plodding fashion finished off the Confederates at Nashville in mid-December 1864. The defeat was “catastrophic” for the Confederacy in the West, Groom noted. The Tennessee Campaign of 1864 was over. And soon, the war in the East would be over, too.

In 2002, Groom shifted his attention to the First World War and the battles in an around the Ypres Salient in Belgium between 1914-18. In "A Storm in Flanders," Groom described the Ypres Salient as the “most notorious and dreaded place in all of the First World War, probably of any war in history.” It was, he wrote, a “gigantic corpse factory,” a “vast graveyard,” where poison gas and flamethrowers were used, and where soldiers fought in cratered fields and sometimes in waist-deep mud amid rotting humans and animals. Groom’s vivid descriptions of the fighting on Messines Ridge, at Langemarck, Hooge, Zonnebeke, Gheluvelt, and especially Passchendaele are enough to convince even the most eager military historian that while there was heroism and courage displayed on the battlefields, there is no glory in war. By war’s end, the Ypres Salient was a “vast treeless sea of mud, slop, craters, and ruins.”

Groom's take on 1942, Vicksburg

Three years later, Groom wrote "1942: The Year That Tried Men’s Souls." 1942 was a year of both tragedy and triumph for America and its allies in World War II. It began with the loss of the Philippines and Singapore, the Bataan Death March, Japanese expansion into New Guinea, U-Boat attacks on ships off American coasts, and Rommel’s advances in the North African desert. America responded, however, with the Doolittle Raid, MacArthur’s air-land-sea operations in New Guinea, the struggle at Guadalcanal, Midway, the success of the Allied convoys in the Atlantic, the brilliant code-breaking (Ultra and MAGIC), and the success of Operation Torch in North Africa. The tide of war had turned in both Europe and the Pacific. “[B]y the end of 1942,” Groom wrote, “the worldwide Axis onrush was blunted for good.”

Groom returned to the Civil War in 2009 with "Vicksburg, 1863." Vicksburg is a difficult, complex struggle to describe, composed of many battles and skirmishes, combining naval and land conflicts, and a lengthy siege. Groom’s hero in that book is Grant, “whose military philosophy defied anything that had been seen so far in the war or, for the most part, in modern military history.” Grant, Groom wrote, used the “tactics of a pit bull, which once in close quarters with an opponent, will hang on till-death-do-us-part.” The fighting involved trench warfare, the digging of tunnels and mines to set off explosives under enemy positions, naval gunfire on the town, an intense struggle on Champion Hill that Groom described as “desperate and bloody fighting, at times involving gun butts, bayonets, fists, knives, and artillery sponge staffs.” Vicksburg surrendered to Grant on July 4, 1863, one day after Lee retreated from Gettysburg. It was at Vicksburg, not Gettysburg, Groom explained, where “the death knell of the Southern Confederacy had been struck.”

In 2012, Groom wrote "Shiloh, 1862," a detailed history of what he called “the first great and terrible battle of the Civil War and the one that set the stage for those to come.” Shiloh, located in southwestern Tennessee and named for a small church located in the center of the battlefield, was, Groom wrote, the scene of “ruthless battlefield butchery almost unimaginable at that day and time.” Fought over a two-day period (April 6-7, 1862), Shiloh resulted in nearly 24,000 casualties — “more in a single battle than in all America’s previous wars.” Union troops on the first day of battle disembarked at Pittsburg Landing along the Tennessee River and were caught unprepared when a Confederate army from Corinth, Mississippi, attacked. The Confederates under the command of Albert Sydney Johnston (who was killed during the fighting) chased Union troops led by General Sherman to the river’s edge after the first day.

Groom’s descriptions of the fiercest fighting at an area near a sunken road known to history as the Hornet’s Nest — after the sound made by hundreds of bullets “singing through the air”—are memorable. When Grant arrived on the field and observed the utter chaos of the Union retreat, he ordered Gen. Benjamin Prentiss to hold the sunken road at all costs. For five hours, Confederate forces assailed the Hornet’s Nest, “a place of dark horrors,” Groom wrote, “where the most awful slaughter of the Battle of Shiloh took place.” The Hornet’s Nest, wrote Groom, was the “19th century’s version of a buzz saw,” a “quandary of homicidal dismay,” a “dark, dangerous, and . . . insurmountable” position. Finally, after feeding Confederate forces piecemeal into the meat grinder that was the Hornet’s Nest, 10 Southern brigades were concentrated on the position, and it fell. “With the collapse of the Hornet’s Nest,” Groom noted, “the Yankees were compressed into a half-mile-long line with its left resting on Pittsburg Landing . . . and running almost due west to the Hamburg-Savannah road, their backs against the miry bottoms of Snake Creek.”

It was getting late, however, and Confederate generals decided against a night attack that might have pushed the Union forces into the river. Grant and Sherman made good use of the interval by building up a force that would take back the field the next day. Groom noted that while Grant was the victor of Shiloh, the errors on the first day of battle and the massive casualties caused some in Congress to call for his removal from command. Fortunately for the Union effort, Lincoln recognized Grant’s leadership qualities — composure under pressure, steadfastness, and a will to win no matter the costs.
Shiloh, Groom concluded, “was a living nightmare that no one could forget.” It was a “giant corpse factory.” The war would not be brief, as many had predicted. The slaughter was only beginning.

Final books focus on World War II

Groom’s last two books returned to World War II. "The Generals" (2015) reviewed the life and careers of Douglas MacArthur, George Marshall, and George Patton, highlighting their roles in helping the United States achieve victory in the Second World War. He described all three as “exceptionally good soldiers, and great captains, brave as lions, bold as bulls, audacious, and inventive.” They were “fine men who served their country with distinction . . . [and] their memory enriched the national trust.”

In "The Allies" (2018), Groom reflected on the political leaders — Churchill, Stalin, and Franklin Roosevelt — who led their nations to victory in the Second World War. It was an unlikely alliance of two democratic leaders and a murderous gangster-statesman. Yet Groom believed and wrote that those three leaders stood “above all others in the history of the twentieth century.” He rightly chided Roosevelt for aligning with Stalin against Churchill in deciding the postwar balance of power. The three leaders were bound together briefly by Nazi aggression, and when they defeated the Nazis, the alliance transformed into a Cold War. While Churchill and Roosevelt, Groom noted, “would be rightly remembered for their bold leadership in crisis, . . . the enormity of Stalin’s crimes would echo just as powerfully.”

Winston Groom, though not trained as an historian, used his skills as a writer to bring history to life for his many readers. As a popular historian, Groom knew that he stood on the shoulders of academic giants. He once wrote that the historians who preceded him on the subjects he wrote about “help shape the way you think, point you in the right directions, and give you intellectual food for thought.” And just as he expressed his gratitude to them, we who love history express our gratitude to him.

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