“The world was suddenly out of kilter, as though the beauty of the bright Tennessee sunrise was merely a prelude to death, and that nature, with all her morning splendor, was mocking mankind’s folly.” – Winston Groom, Shiloh 1862.
During my Friday lunch hour, I had a wild idea: why not visit the battlefield of Shiloh? Like….tomorrow? I’d wanted to travel there in April because of the anniversary of the battle, but with COVID that wasn’t an option. An hour later I had booked a room in northern Alabama, an hour from the site, and after a half hour for research and fifteen minutes to pack, I’d taken off work the rest of the day and was on my way. Amazingly, the only thing I forgot was binoculars.
Replica of the church “Shiloh” for which the battle is named
I used to immerse myself obsessively in the Civil War, not only reading books about it, but watching movies like Shenandoah, Gettysburg, and The Blue and the Grey — to name three favorites — playing games, collecting music of the era, and always managed to work in a request to visit a Civil War object of interest during our family vacations….whether that was Vicksburg on our Texas trip, or Andersonville on our tour of Georgia. This was the first time I’d gotten to visit a preserved battlefield, however, and it was a sobering experience with a few pleasant surprises.
I cannot speak highly enough of the park’s commitment to helping the public understand the battle — from the excellent movie played in the visitor’s center, to the stellar lecturer-guides, to the signs. The understanding I’ve gleaned is this: Shiloh was part of a Union effort in the west to divide the Confederacy in two, connected to its campaign to control the Mississippi river. The area around Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee river was ideal for amassing troops, with plenty of cleared areas for camps and drilling, a bountiful supply of water, and terrain that ensured any enemy would have to approach from one direction. Twenty miles south lay Corinth, and there a convergence of southern rail lines that, if destroyed, would help break the western and southern halves of the Confederacy.
Former river landing
The Confederacy, which was already losing control of the Tennessee river, needed to destroy the growing Union army before it became unstoppable. On Sunday morning, April 6, General Albert.S. Johnston launched an attack on the dozing Union lines. His initial plan was to push the Union away from the river landing and towards the swamps to their back…which would disrupt them further and turn retreat into a rout. A Union patrol encountered the Confederate army far earlier than expected, and as the battle developed the Union was pushed into a tight circle around Pittsburg Landing, instead of being manipulated away from it. Although the Confederates believed that the battle was over, with only some mopping-up action needed, overnight General Buell’s troops reinforced Grant via the landing and launched a punishing counterattack which left both armies exactly where they were the day before….only now, 24,000 men were dead on the field, including General Johnson, who perished mid-afternoon on the first day. The battle around Shiloh church was the first massive conflict of the war, one that presaged the horrors to follow at Antietam, Gettysburg, and Cold Harbor — and more men died in these two days than had died in all previous American wars combined. A common theme repeated in literature is how awful and confusing the battle was for those who fought in it: it was common for people to become separated from their regiments, for officers to command strangers.
Part of the largest battery of artillery ever assembled on the North American continent until that time — aimed at the Hornet’s Nest, the Union center.
Although I’d gone to see the battlefield, also included in the park is a hiking trail leading to some mounds left by a Mississippi-culture tribe. The mounds are also directly accessible by road, but then you miss the chance to see deer!
The view from the mounds is compelling, too. I was absolutely impressed by the park’s staff and upkeep — they even cut paths of grass shorter for those who want to trek out to the edges of fields to look at monuments .The park is massive, and not every feature of it is obvious from the roadside: when I visited monuments at the far end of Duncan Field, for instance, I moved to the treeline to try to imagine what it might have looked like, 150+ years ago — and I spied a mossy path leading to another monument, out of sight in the woods!
Iowa’s monument was far and away my favorite, mostly for this touch.
They memorialized their dead with the thing that killed them — a minieball.