If asked to name a Civil War battle off the top of their heads, most people would probably say Gettysburg. Some people might respond with Antietam (aka Sharpsburg), or Bull Run (Manassas) or perhaps even Vicksburg or Atlanta.
The battle of Shiloh would probably not be the first one to come to mind, but it was still one of the most important battles of the war, especially in the western theater. The fighting produced over 23,000 casualties and was the largest battle in the Mississippi River region during the war.
The battle of Shiloh took place in southwest Tennessee, just a few miles north of the Mississippi state line. On April 6, 1862, a large Confederate force under the command of General Albert Sidney Johnston surprised an even larger Federal force under the command of Ulysses S. Grant near a spot on the Tennessee River near Savannah called Pittsburg Landing. While Grant was gathering his forces there for an eventual
offensive into Mississippi, Johnston was marching northward from his base in Corinth, Mississippi, to attack Grant before the rest of the Federal forces could be brought up.
Nobody on the Union side, not even Grant, was expecting Johnston to leave the safety of his entrenchments. Indeed, the mindset of one of Grant’s subordinates, General William T. Sherman, was that the Federal army was an assaulting army, not a defensive one. He thought that the issuance of an order to dig entrenchments would have a dampening effect on the enthusiasm of his men. This battle, however, would forever change his tune as to the value of constructing defensive works.
Indeed, an over-confident Grant wrote before the battle, “If they come to attack us, we can whip them, as I have more than twice as many troops as I had at Fort Donelson.” Fort Donelson was a battle that he had recently won and where he had earned the nom de guerre, “Unconditional Surrender Grant.”
Overconfidence was not the sole domain of Union commanders, however. Johnston had boasted to his staff officers on the morning of the battle, “Tonight we will water our horses in the Tennessee River.” Unfortunately for Johnston, he never got the chance to see the Tennessee, for he died that afternoon from blood loss from a wound to the leg. If he had taken the time to get his wound attended to earlier he probably would have survived.
The initial Confederate assault was an astounding success, causing great confusion among the Federals, many of whom skedaddled away as quickly as they could. One Union officer tried to rally his farmboys turned soldiers by telling them, “Why, it’s just like shooting squirrels, only these squirrels have guns, that’s all.”
The Confederates, however, became more disorganized in their assault as the day wore on. Even so, the initial Union retreat could have turned into a complete rout if it had not been for the brave defenders of a parcel of land that would earn the name ‘Hornets Nest’ due to the ferocity of the gunfire.
Grant ordered the defenders to hold that position at all costs, for, if the Confederates were to break through, they would have a direct path to Pittsburg Landing. The Union defenders held their ground against ferocious Confederate attacks until their position became untenable and they were forced to surrender. Their staying power, however, gave Grant the time he needed to bring up reinforcements and to set up a defensive line that effectively blocked the Confederates from advancing any further.
The next morning, Grant launched a counter-attack, pushing the weakened Confederates back. General P.G.T. Beauregard, who assumed command of the army after Johnston fell mortally wounded the day before, thought it best not to seek another general engagement and ordered a withdrawal. Grant believed his men to be too exhausted to pursue after their foe, so he let them go.
I first visited Shiloh 20 years ago during an earlier sightseeing trip. It was early on a summer’s evening when I first laid eyes on the battlefield, which was established as a park by Congress on December 27, 1894. The visitor center was closed for the day so I contented myself with spending a few minutes gazing upon the multitudes of monuments erected after the war to honor various units which saw action.
In 1994, I dropped in again while heading to Arkansas. I was able to stop in at the visitor center on this occasion and look around the battlefield a little more. Another treat on that visit was to see the famous Mississippi Queen paddle wheeler docked at Pittsburg Landing.
On my latest trip, which I took this past August, I left my hotel room in Jackson (Tennessee, not Mississippi) on that Thursday morning and drove the hour or so that it took to reach the battlefield. I paid my entrance fee, toured the small museum and then watched the film. The ranger explained to me, the lone occupant of the theater for that particular showing, that the park service would like to produce a more modern film, but that, until then, they were still showing a film that was produced in the1950’s. As I watched, I got a chuckle at the obviously fake beards worn by the actors portraying Grant and Johnston. Overall, however, for a 50-year old film it wasn’t half bad.
After viewing the film I got back into my car and began driving the several-miles long battlefield tour route, constantly consulting the map contained within the park brochure.
My first main stop was at the Hornet’s Nest. It was a warm, sunny, peaceful day as I walked along the Sunken Road where many of the slain had fallen. It is difficult to stand on such a spot on such a peaceful day and imagine the horror of the fighting that had taken place on this very spot almost 150 years ago. A row of cannon, long since silent, stands sentinel on a knoll a hundred yards or so away from the Sunken Road, indicating the Confederate artillery position.
I continued to meander along the battlefield tour route, stopping here and there. Before long I came upon a replica of a small log church – Shiloh Church. The actual building for which the battle was named is long gone. A more modern church building of stone construction stands near the log reproduction.
I continued driving until I reached my next stop – the spot where Johnston fell, mortally wounded. One of the South’s best hopes for victory had been lost, and so early in the war. Union Colonel Henry Stone later wrote, “It is doubtful if even the defeat of Lee at Gettysburg was a greater blow to Confederate hopes than the defeat and death of Sidney Johnston at Shiloh.”
A little farther up the road on the left is a parcel of land known as the Peach Orchard. As both sides exchanged gunfire through the peach orchard owned by Sarah Bell, it was observed that the peach blossoms being cut down by the bullets produced an effect not unlike falling snow.
A short distance farther up the road, also on the left, is a small body of water which came to be known by the somber sobriquet “Bloody Pond.” This small oasis, about the size of an acre, is where wounded soldiers from both sides came to drink and to bathe their wounds. Many soldiers, as well as horses, died here, turning the color of the water red.
After leaving the Bloody Pond I drove a short distance to a small parking lot. I parked and walked through some woods to view another portion of the park that holds a significance quite different from the military nature of the rest of the park.
Centuries before American killed American in battle at Shiloh, aboriginal Americans had constructed several large earthen mounds and had developed a settlement there by the Tennessee River.
As I walked along the trail through some woods I also noted very small, almost negligible rises in the ground that, according to a sign, were the home sites of the various families. There is a connection between this portion of the park and the military portion – some Union units used one of the mounds as a burial ground for their fallen comrades.
As I neared the end of the miles-long drive, which circled back to the visitor center, I noticed the large national cemetery that sits next to Pittsburg Landing. 4,000 Federal troops are buried there. I had passed a couple of smaller Confederate mass graves earlier in my tour of the park.
I had spent about three hours touring the 4,200-acre battlefield and the mounds. I stayed longer than I had planned, but, thinking back on it, my American heritage and the sacrifices of my forebears were worth a few hours of my time.
Next Installment – Walking Tall