My visit: Nov. 3-4, 2014
Battles: April 6-7, 1862
After just walking around the Shiloh National Cemetery and coming out with tears in my eyes, I knew I was in for an emotional time during this visit.
When I was watching the movie at one point, a reference was made in describing a battle scene about shooting at “the enemy.” I put that in quotes because for whatever reason, that reference hit me in a way that it never had before.
Of course we’ve heard references to the Confederates and the Union, or the Rebels and the Yankees, and we all know this war involved families torn apart and brother fighting against brother. But to hear this soldier talking about lying in wait behind a fortification and taking aim against a fellow citizen calling him the enemy almost took my breath away.
I should have known what was in store for me because even before getting to the visitor center in the car, I saw this monument alongside the road and got chicken skin and chills up my spine then.
“One fourth of Grant’s troops at Shiloh were from Iowa… Many were fresh from camp, had never experienced any form of combat, and some had never so much as even fired their recently issued guns. The carnage they were called into that day left an indelible impression upon them all.”
The Visitor Center was closed for renovation during my visit, but they had put a large tent up where they showed the movie. This is always my first stop when exploring an area such as this – it provides background of what you’re going to see that helps put things in context when you’re on the battlefield.
After getting my Auto Tour Map, I took off for the 9.5 miles through the battlefield. There are a total of 14 stops, but you will miss a lot if you just jump out of the car for a couple of minutes at each one and consider that you’ve seen it all. There are trails into the woods or open fields where you can much better get the feel of what transpired here and the conditions that were so harsh then are sometimes hard to imagine given the peaceful feel that exists there now.
But the monuments, cannon and informative signs with descriptions of what took place are constant reminders that we stand on ground that is soaked in the blood of our forefathers, no matter which side they fought for.
A good recap of the battle is on the Shiloh National Cemetery page:
“On April 6 and 7, 1862, Confederate troops under the command of General Albert Sydney Johnson launched an attack on the Union forces of General Ulysses S. Grant. Months prior, Grant’s more than 48,000 men successfully routed Confederate forces at Fort Donelson and Fort Henry, securing Tennessee’s Cumberland River for the Union. Determined to win back western Tennessee, Johnson planned to force Grant out of the Shiloh area and back toward the east.
Johnson’s initial attack on April 6 came as a surprise to Union troops. Confederate troops overcame a Union battle line and forced Grant to fall back to a defensive position at Pittsburg Landing, just north of Shiloh on the Tennessee River. On the second day of fighting, Union troops from the Army of the Ohio reinforced Grant’s men. Greatly outnumbered, Confederate troops retreated to their base of operations at Corinth, Mississippi. Two days of fierce fighting took a heavy toll on both sides. More than 100,000 men engaged in the conflict, and nearly 3,500 died on the battlefield or from their wounds. Union losses amounted to 1,750 killed and 8,400 wounded.”
I thought the explanation the plaque provides was very interesting:
“Shiloh’s Confederate Monument combines symbolism with beauty to commemorate the story of the Southern “Lost Cause” in the fields and woods near Shiloh Church. Its prominent location marks a Confederate high water mark. Here, on April 6, 1862, Confederates encircled and captured over 2,200 Federal troops, including General Benjamin Prentiss, thus ending Union defense of the Hornets Nest.
Over 18 feet high, the monument’s central figures depict a “Defeated Victory.”
In front, the South surrenders the laurel wreath of victory to Death on her right, and Night on her left. Death took away the Confederate commander-in-chief; while Night, having brought on re-enforcements for the Federals, stands waiting to complete the defeat.
Below them, in low relief, appears the figure of General Albert Sidney Johnson, the southern commander. Johnson remains the highest ranking American officer ever to die in combat.
The panel of heads to the right represents the spirit of the first day’s battle. Exuberantly, hopefully, courageously, fearlessly, the young Confederates rush into battle. The eleven soldiers portrayed equal the number of Confederate states.
The soldiers on the panel to the left, now fewer in number, represent the second day’s battle. Driven back over ground they had gained the day before, Confederates are finally forced to retreat. The panel shows the sorrow of the men who fought so hard for a victory so nearly won, and so unexpectedly lost. The symbolically depicted “wave upon wave of soldiery” is now past its crest.
At the far right, the Infantryman has snatched up the Confederate flag in defiance of the U.S. Army. In support by his side, the Artilleryman calmly gazes through the smoke of battle.
To the left, the Cavalryman spreads his hand in frustration. Although eager to assist, the cavalry could not penetrate Shiloh’s thick undergrowth. The rear figure, head bowed in submission to the order to cease firing, represents the Confederate officer corps. At that point on the evening of the battle’s first day, Confederate victory had seemed imminent.”
As I found out when I toured Shiloh National Cemetery, except for two who were buried in the cemetery grounds, all other Confederate soldiers were left buried in the mass graves in the battlefield where they fell, five of which are marked on the tour, some requiring short walks to reach, all basically looking like this:
It’s said that probably as many as a dozen mass graves may be on the battlefield, but only five have been located and properly marked so far.
I walked the length of this path while picturing what happened here after reading the sign:
“After being driven from their camps by attacking Confederates, more than 4,000 Union soldiers retreated to the woods to your left, and took position along the “Sunken Road,” the dirt wagon trace in front of you. Here, on high ground commanding Duncan Field and the adjoining woods, Federal infantry took cover behind oak trees, fence rails and dense undergrowth.
During the next eight hours, Confederate infantry charged the road and the wooded stronghold they called the “Hornets’ Nest” eleven times. Repeatedly they were repulsed by swarms of minie balls.
A 5-minute walk down the Sunken Road leads to an exhibit on the surrender of the Hornets’ Nest. The ground you will be walking over is the scene of some of the most desperate and deadly fighting in the Civil War.
Captain Andrew Hickenlooper, 5th Ohio Battery reported, “Then the supporting infantry, rising from their recumbent position, sent forth a sheet of leaden hail that elicited curses, shrieks, groans and shouts, all blended into an appalling cry.”
At the opposite end of the path, we find out about the Surrender of the Hornets’ Nest:
“In the woods to the right and behind you lay the heart of the Hornets’ Nest, where Union infantry and artillery held out eight hours against the Confederate tide. The Federals repulsed a series of assaults across Duncan Field and through the adjoining woods. Late in the day, 62 cannon commanded by Brig. Gen. Daniel Ruggles began pounding the Confederate infantry pressed in on the flanks. Many Federals escaped the closing trap, but more than 2,000 men under Brig. Gen. Benjamin Prentiss held their ground. Isolated and outnumbered, the Union defenders surrendered.
The Confederates crushed the Hornets’ Nest, but the effort cost them many lives, and allowed General Grant time to consolidate his forces for a successful counterattack the next day.”
53 guns were in position here on April 6, 1862. When infantry attacks against the Hornets’ Nest failed, Confederates concentrated 11 batteries of artillery to bombard the position, allowing their infantry to encircle and capture Gen. Benjamin Prentiss and nearly 2,100 Union soldiers.
I’d say the fall season is a great one for visiting this park. The trees are amazingly beautiful, the rustling sounds of the leaves falling and drifting on the cool air and the crunch of the leaves beneath your feet on the trails are perfect sights and sounds and seemed to add to the mood. But the views are now so peaceful and beautiful, it takes some effort to picture what it was like 152 years ago with so much chaos, destruction and death going on.
A perfect example of that:
From information sign:
“The Battle of Shiloh was, at its time, the bloodiest conflict this nation had seen. The beautiful spring woods, fields and orchards were transformed over two days into scenes of death and destruction which eyewitnesses described as horrible, desolate, and heart-rending.
This narrow pond attracted the weary and wounded soldiers of both armies who were engaged in heavy fighting nearby. Some crawled here for their last drink. Observers after the battle reported that the pond was littered with dead soldiers and horses. Blood had turned the water a murky red.
American short-story writer Ambrose Bierce was only 20 when he fought here with the Union Army of the Ohio. Bierce recorded his impressions of the aftermath:
“Knapsacks, canteens, haversacks distended with soaken and swollen biscuits, gaping to disgorge, blankets beaten into the soil by the rain, rifles with bent barrels or splintered stocks, waist-belts; hats and the omnipresent sardine box – all the wretched debris of the battle still littered the spongy earth as far as one could see, in every direction. Dead horses were everywhere; a few disabled caissons… Men? There were men enough; all dead…”
Apparently there is still some disagreement about how General Johnston died. I met a member of the Daughters of the Confederacy here and I told her how moved I had been at the movie and now seeing the monuments in person. She said she thought some things in the movie about his death were not exactly right, but didn’t go on about it.
This is what the signs here said:
Death of General Johnston
On the afternoon of the first day of fighting, Confederate forces under Gen. Albert Sidney Johnson sought to envelop Grant’s left wing and seize Pittsburg Landing. While leading his men against Union forces barring his way, Gen. Johnston was fatally wounded here.
Johnston, who had been slightly wounded earlier, was struck just below the right knee by a stray minie ball. The bullet tore open an artery, causing severe bleeding. Tennessee Governor Isham G. Harris, a volunteer aide, discovered Johnston reeling in his saddle near this point, and led him down to the protected ravine on your right. The general died a few minutes later.
General Johnston died quietly from loss of blood. Prompt medical attention could have saved his life, but earlier that day Johnston had dismissed his own surgeon to care for Confederate and Union wounded.
Gen. Albert Sidney Johnson, a West Point graduate and Mexican War veteran, was highly respected by both sides. Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States, wrote: “In his fall, the great pillar of the Southern Confederacy was crushed.”
From information signs:
“Shiloh Church, biblically known as “place of peace” was built in 1851. Ironically, this small log church gave name to the famous Battle of Shiloh and became the site of some of the fiercest fighting yet seen in the Civil War. On Sunday morning, April 6, 1862 the quiet woods and fields around this small Methodist Church erupted into a horrific battle. Shortly after dawn, the Confederate Army under the command of General Albert S. Johnston attacked the Union Division of General W.T. Sherman camped at this location.
The Union troops were determined to hold the high ground by this church and the Confederates were equally determined to drive the Federals into the Tennessee River. After several hours of intense fighting, the entire Federal army under the command of Ulysses S. Grant slowly withdraw toward Pittsburg Landing leaving this are with many dead and wounded from both sides.
By early afternoon, General P.G.T. Beauregard assumed command of the Confederate Army after the death of General Johnston. Beauregard established his headquarters and directed the battle from this area near the church. By nightfall, Shiloh Church also served as shelter for the many wounded and dying men who had fallen during that day’s fighting.
The following day, April 7th, Shiloh Church once again served as a critical location when the Confederate Army started their slow retreat back to Corinth.
When the battle was over, it had cost both sides a combined total of 23,746 men killed, wounded, or missing.
Although the original log church was destroyed during the battle, the log church before you is a near exact replica of that original church. Much detail went into building this church, using hand-hewn logs approximately 150 years old that came from this area.”
Today, next to the log church, completed in 1952, the Shiloh United Methodist Church is an active congregation.
I’ve often said that I had absolutely no interest in history of any kind when I was in school. But one of the things I’m most grateful for since I started RVing is the opportunity I’ve had to visit these kind of historical sites in person. There’s something about walking on the ground where it happened and reading about the people and being able to visualize what took place that is fascinating to me now. For anyone interested in the history of our country and particularly the Civil War, I’d say this is a must-see and one for the bucket list for sure.