“I saw an open field in our possession the second day, so covered with dead that it would have been possible to walk across the clearing in any direction, stepping on dead bodies without a foot touching the ground.” ~ Gen. U.S. Grant on the losses at Shiloh, Tennessee in April, 1862
On an overcast and chilly day in early April, Steve and I decided to drive over to the Shiloh National Military Park to check out the extensive battlefield and park. Before we left, neither of us knew much about Shiloh except that it was one of the biggest, and bloodiest, battles of the Civil War. Since the Civil War is not one of my favorite eras in history, I was woefully ignorant of the details of the battle before we arrived. By the end of the day, I knew much more.
Our first stop was the visitor’s center to figure out where to start. We found a small museum that had maps of the two day battle as well as artifacts from the battle and the Civil War in general. The nice brochure the park hands out provided more background about the reasons for the battle:
By mid-February 1862, United States forces had won decisive victories in the West at Mill Springs, Kentucky, and Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee. These successes opened the way for invasion up the Tennessee River to sever Confederate rail communications along the important Memphis & Charleston and Mobile & Ohio railroads. Forced to abandon Kentucky and Middle Tennessee, Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston, supreme Confederate commander in the West, moved to protect his rail communications by concentrating his scattered forces around the small town of Corinth in northeast Mississippi—strategic crossroads of the Memphis & Charleston and the Mobile & Ohio.
In March, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, commanding U.S. forces in the West, advanced armies under Maj. Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and Don Carlos Buell southward to sever the Southern railroads. Grant ascended the Tennessee River by steamboat, disembarking his Army of the Tennessee at Pittsburg Landing, 22 miles northeast of Corinth. There he established a base of operations on a plateau west of the river, with his forward camps posted two miles inland around a log church called Shiloh Meeting House. Halleck had specifically instructed Grant not to engage the Confederates until he had been reinforced by Buell’s Army of the Ohio, then marching overland from Nashville. Once combined, the two armies would advance on Corinth and permanently break western Confederate railroad communications.
To read more about the logistics and history of the battle, check out the excellent National Park Service web page. Before you start looking at photos of what the battlefield looks like today (peaceful and beautiful), look at this 1888 Chromolithograph drawn by Thure de Thulstrup (from the United States Library of Congress). This images gives us just a glimpse into the horror of that day.
The Union forces were camped out alongside the Tennessee River and before dawn on April 6, 1862, Confederate troops snuck up on their location. Union soldiers on patrol encountered some of the Confederates, raising the alarm and starting the battle. The first day of the battle did not go well for Union forces. They were pinned down and the battlefield was in a considerable state of confusion. However, the second day, reinforcements arrived and the Union eventually prevailed. When the battle was over, both sides were shocked at the carnage. It was the first huge battle of the war and was the bloodiest battle so far (but unfortunately not the bloodiest in the end). Union casualties were 13,047 (1,754 killed, 8,408 wounded, and 2,885 missing). Confederate casualties were 10,699 (1,728 killed, 8,012 wounded, and 959 missing or captured). It’s hard to believe that this battle was not even halfway through the war.
The park service brochure described a driving route through the park that leads visitors to many of the key locations for the battle. We got in the car and got started. Our first stop was a huge Confederate memorial statue.
You can walk up the steps of the monument to get a really good look at the very detailed statues. I thought the three women in the center were haunting and a bit spooky.
The next stop was the scene of one of the most famous parts of the battle in a small dell called the Hornet’s Nest. Union forces holed up in a small dip in terrain while the Confederates bombarded them with artillery. This monument marks the scene. The Hornet’s Nest was over to the left of this photo and the artillery was over to the right.
Here’s one of the nice descriptive plaques around the battlefield explaining the Hornet’s Nest.
After walking down to the sunken road and looking at other monuments along the way, we continued the drive. The next stop was a recreation of the artillery battery that tried to decimate the troops hiding in the sunken dell.
The next stop was the tiny United Method Church at Shiloh and the cemetery surrounding it. This church is the namesake for the battle and is still an active church today. The modern church is much larger, though.
The cemetery next to the church is really fascinating and has many old markers from the 1800s. This was one of my favorites. The inscription reads: A loving wife, A mother dear, A faithful friend, Lies sleeping here. It’s also interesting to think that this woman was alive during the battle. I wonder if she lived nearby and heard and saw what happened here.
After leaving the church and cemetery, we stumbled on a few Confederate mass grave. After the battle, the weather was a bit warm, so all of the dead soldiers had to be immediately buried. Many were buried near the places where they fell. Later, Union troops were exhumed and reburied in a national cemetery near the visitor’s center. The Confederate troops, since they were fighting against the nation, were not considered worthy of burial in a national cemetery. Many of the Confederate dead were buried in mass graves like this one, some with as many as 700 bodies. When we saw these burial sites at the park, it didn’t look like very many people could have been buried at each site. I did a bit of Googling and found a blog post about this very topic that provides some detailed information about how the Confederates were buried. The author says there are as many as 12 mass graves at Shiloh, but many soldiers are also buried in smaller graves throughout the park. The entire park is essentially a cemetery.
Planning Your Visit:
This is a great battlefield to visit when you have a full day to tour the site. It would also be a fantastic place to ride bikes. The park service website has lots of great information about planning a trip to the park, including special events. http://www.nps.gov/shil/planyourvisit/index.htm If you have more time, also check out the Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center. I haven’t visited this yet but have heard it’s a great museum.
The park is a bit remote. The actual address is 1055 Pittsburg Landing Road, Shiloh, Tennessee 38376. The best advice is to plug this into Google Maps or your GPS and follow the directions. When you are close to the park, street signs point the way.
The park is open every day from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm except for three holidays when the park is completely closed:
New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.