War, those who love trite expressions might say, is a horrible, tragic thing. Innumerable numbers of people have died through the ages due to competition for resources, for upholding their cultural/religious beliefs, for ideals that often seem insubstantial when one views the corpses of people they have known and loved. Yet war also reminds us paradoxically of our better qualities, of the brave men and women who have suffered in the hopes that their next generation may not have to endure what they have persevered through. It is this combination of the horrific and the heroic that makes war (or violence in general, perhaps) so grotesquely fascinating to people even centuries after the last shot was fired. In the United States and especially in the region of the former Confederacy, the American Civil War still occupies a central part of the national psyche. Whether some view it as a “righteous” war that preserved not just the Union but also eradicated that detestable institution of slavery or if it marked the descent into privation and the genesis of a further cultural separation from the rest of the country, the Civil War’s many facets and interpretations still are being fought over 150 years after the surrender of Fort Sumter.
As a native Tennessean whose family (the Irish side, that is; the Cherokees and Chickasaws had lived here for thousands of years) had been among the first to settle in Tennessee (my 4x great-grandfather was William Cage, who was the Speaker of the House for the failed state of Franklin), the Civil War for my ancestors contained its own fair share of agonies and glories. My great-great grandfather had his exploits at the Battle of Ft. Donelson (about which I may write more later this year), while ancestors of my paternal grandmother split over secession and some fought for the Union while others fought for the Confederacy. This was common across both sides of the “border states,” especially Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee. In viewing prior battle sites, there were stark reminders that Tennesseans killed Tennesseans over the issues of the indissoluble Union and slavery. It is easy, over 150 years after the fighting began, to condemn one side and praise the other, depending if the perspective centers around those ideals of “freedom of people” and “freedom of the states.” Those antebellum ideas are still be fought over today, just this time it takes the form of rhetoric regarding things such as health care, birth control, social welfare, and taxation.
In 1862, there had only been relatively minor battles. Both the Union and the Confederacy had to quell fractious arguments regarding volunteer mustering and the suspension of basic rights such as that of habeas corpus. The Confederates were trying to hold a series of river passages that ran deep into Southern territory while the Union forces were in near paralysis due to the Army of the Potomac’s General George McClellan slow recovery from typhoid fever and to Western Theater commander Hallack’s initial refusal to engage in more than cautious advancement after the capture of Ft. Henry and Ft. Donelson during the first 16 days of February 1862. But scarcely two months later, one of the largest, bloodiest, and most important battles had been fought near the west bank of the Tennessee River at a tiny place called Pittsburg Landing, a mere 22 miles from the important railroad center of Corinth, Mississippi. Over the course of April 6-7, 1862, there were nearly 11,000 Confederate casualties and over 13,000 Union casualties as the battle ebbed and flowed. There were heroes such as Prentiss and tragedies such as the mortal wounding of Confederate general Albert Sidney Johnston from a shot to the thigh. The Peach Orchard. The sunken road known now simply as The Hornet’s Nest. The Bloody Pond. The who’s who of the war and later politics and literature: Ulysses S. Grant, William Sherman, Lew Wallace, Ambrose Bierce, Nathan Bedford Forrest, James Garfield, among others. This battle, named after the small country Shiloh Methodist Church, was the bloodiest two-day battle of the entire war. There were portents of war’s future: The rapid deployment of troops via rail that led to the Confederate Army of the Mississippi to assemble in Corinth before marching north to confront Grant’s forces, the quasi-trench warfare of The Hornet’s Nest, and the massive array of artillery (the largest ever seen in continental North America until that time). More people died or were wounded at Shiloh than had suffered casualties during the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War combined. With this in mind, my parents and I took a trip to visit the Shiloh National Military Park on April 3, just before the official sesquicentennial celebrations. Below are some of the pictures that I took of the battle site and the memorials surrounding it.
We first stopped at the visitor’s center, which contained maps of the park and the key locations of the battle. Notice the large number of square miles that this site covers. If hiked, it would take several hours to go from one end of the battle site to the other (the river was at least a half-mile away from the main fighting).
After walking around the visitor’s center and shopping in the park’s bookstore (pictures of some of the books I bought are available here), my parents and I watched a short film on the battle that the Park Service produced in 1956:
We had driven a bit over two hours when we arrived at the park around 10:30 AM, so after the video ended, we went to eat at a locally-renowned seafood restaurant, The Catfish Hotel, on the banks of the Tennessee River, very near the spot where General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio landed the night of April 6 to reinforce Grant’s forces, who were on the verge of collapse after The Hornet’s Nest fell late that afternoon. Here is a picture of the river at Pittsburg Landing:
After an excellent meal, we returned to the park and first visited the National Cemetery there. Below are several images that I took of the Union dead (we did not walk to the mass burial sites for the Confederate soldiers):
After leaving the cemetery, we took a driving tour (to hike it would have involved nearly 15 miles of walking, which none of us wanted to do) of the key parts of the site, stopping along the way to take pictures. The first place we stopped was the “Bloody Pond.”
Next stop was The Hornet’s Nest, with pictures of the back line of the sunken road (obscured by the trees that have grown around it over the years) and the fence line that marked where Prentiss’ troops made their determined stand that bought the Union forces enough time to regroup the afternoon of April 6:
We then visited the namesake for the battle, the reconstructed log cabin Shiloh Methodist Church:
The last stop was the site where Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston died:
After nearly four hours at the park and driving through and stopping at the key sites, we headed back. There certainly is a lot to see at Shiloh National Military Park, especially this Friday-Saturday, but it was also a sobering reminder of the scale of the conflict and the battles waged. It certainly has led me to read more on the Civil War than I had been inclined to do for at least the past two decades. There may be other Civil War features here later in the year (I have pictures from Parker’s Crossroads and will likely be visiting the Ft. Henry and Ft. Donelson sites in the coming weeks and months). Let me know if you have any questions about this battle or the pictures posted here.