“Shiloh” is rooted in two wars: the battle for women’s rights and the Civil War. Feminism was beginning to take hold in America around the same time that Norma Jean and Leroy were married. After more than fifteen years, its precepts have started to permeate Norma Jean’s consciousness. Although she does not articulate her motivations or chalk them up to feminism, she begins a gradual process of reclaiming her independence. She lifts weights, takes classes, supports the family, and stays up late working on her writing. Instead of cooking delicious, high-fat food for Leroy, as she used to do, she feeds herself with nutritious cereal before heading out to work. When Leroy asks her whether her desire to end the marriage is “‘one of those women’s lib things,’” she thinks—or pretends to think—that he is joking. But it’s clear that women’s lib is exactly what is motivating her to strike out on her own.
The Civil War, specifically the battleground at Shiloh, is a counterpart to the feminist struggle; Mason uses the war to underline the confusing, debased, violent, and sometimes romantic institution of marriage. Shiloh is the site of one of the bloodiest battles in American history, but Mabel associates it with marriage because she visited there on the day after her wedding. She thinks of it as a beautiful and romantic spot and repeatedly urges Leroy and Norma Jean to go there on a second honeymoon. When they finally visit the battleground, Leroy senses its many parallels to his own marriage. He is surprised by the direction his marriage has taken, just as he is surprised to find that Shiloh looks not like a golf course but an enormous park full of trees and ravines. He and Norma Jean have struggled to go on, just as the Union and Confederate troops fought to live. And the battleground is now polluted with tourists, parking lots, and cars, just as their lives are polluted by the ordinary and mundane. In the penultimate paragraph of the story, Leroy tries to comprehend the fact that 3,500 men died at Shiloh, but all he can think about is the way his life, and the lives of Mabel, her husband, and Norma Jean, are linked to the battleground. Mason suggests that it is impossible to wrap our minds around abstractions such as war and marriage and that all we can do is understand how they relate to our own lives.