There is no substitute for visiting a battlefield. Walking over the ground where combatants fought and died educates one in regard to the scale and flow of the conflict. Seeing the actual place, particularly if well preserved, allows one to marvel and recoil at what occurred.
Over 150 years ago, on April 6th and 7th, two American armies clashed between Corinth, Mississippi and Pittsburgh Landing, Tennessee.
Much of the battle occurred around the Shiloh Meeting House, built by Southern Methodists after that organization split into factions due to the issue of slavery. They gave the rude single-room structure a Hebrew name, which roughly translates to “Place of Peace.”
For two spring days, it was anything but.
General A. S. Johnston decided to leave his defensive positions in order to crush the Union Army resting near Pittsburgh Landing. While rallying his troops, he paid for his questionable decision with his life. Johnston succumbed after failing to take steps to stop the flow of blood from a leg wound. But his troops, now commanded by General P. G. T. Beauregard, continued the frontal assault on the Union lines.
Many on both sides had never before seen battle. It is little wonder that hundreds, if not thousands, became disoriented and lost in the chaos amid the local forests and farms.
Union General U. S. Grant did his best to redirect “stragglers” back to the front instead of allowing those who had run from the battle to huddle fearfully on the banks of the Tennessee River. He personally reformed units to join the battle lines.
Over the course of the day, the Union Divisions were forced back almost two miles from their campsites near the Meeting House. The scale of the mayhem was immense.
As night fell, the Northern army was compacted against the Tennessee river. The Confederates felt there would only be mop-up in the morning, and Beauregard sent a telegram to the Confederate Capitol at Richmond announcing the victory.
“We this morning attacked the enemy in strong position, … and after a severe battle of 10 hours, … gained a complete victory, driving the enemy from every position.”
Through the night, constant rain and incessant thunder from Union gunboats completed the misery of the long day.
However, Grant’s resolve, along with reinforcements which were delayed during the day but finally arrived after nightfall, dictated a scenario different from the one Beauregard anticipated.
The unexpected dawn counterattack by the Union Army forced the Confederates to retreat throughout the day, and they finally headed back to Corinth in waning light. The exhausted Union Army did not pursue.
War is a compilation of massive deadly mistakes. Though there are times when we must fight for self-preservation and for what we believe, such endeavors always extract a terrible price. Entering into a war is almost always a mistake from which multiple additional mistakes flow.
During the second day, Grant and two of his staff made a navigational blunder and came within range of a group of Southern riflemen. One lost his hat to a bullet, the second lost his horse, and Grant’s scabbard was fractured by a shot.
One mistake after another. Often only luck decides who lives or dies.
Two days of slaughter returned the armies to their initial positions. Tens of thousands became casualties. In his memoirs, Grant remarked that by stepping on corpses, it would have been possible to walk across the field of battle without ever touching the ground.
Though little was accomplished in what was described as a Union victory, illusions of swift victory with minimal bloodshed were shattered, and the stage was set for three additional years of suffering.
All photos are property of the author.
The Complete Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant — Seven Treasures Publications, Copyright 2009
Shiloh National Military Park — https://www.nps.gov/shil/index.htm
Grant at Shiloh, Bruce Catton — https://www.americanheritage.com/grant-shiloh#