The Road to Shiloh
The mist hung in the hills early on the morning of April 22, 2012 as I drove down Route 57 from Memphis toward Shiloh. Just a few weeks past the one-hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh I cold imagine the hardship of life in 1862 when traveling through the sun-dappled hills of Tennessee offered equally as beautiful a sight but with greater hardship. Traveling on foot, on horseback or by wagon was obviously much harder than tooling down a bright highway in a Chevy truck with a GPS system to guide me.
In some ways the road to Shiloh is unchanged from that fateful day. The forests are thick and when the morning sun burns off the dew and fog there is perhaps no more beautiful sight than the grandeur of the Tennessee River Valley. Equestrian farms and small towns line the road from Memphis. Hawks and eagles circle in the air. The sun finally burns off the traces of winter ice that still linger on the morning breeze.
There are ghosts here in the Tennessee hills. Because there is a resonance to mankind’s actions we have made note of such places as Shiloh where the peach blossoms drifted on the morning breeze as the muskets began to fire and the screams of the dying began to drift up from the gunsmoke shrouded battlefield that would become one of the legendary military actions of the Civil War. The names of the principal players are well known to Civil War aficionados who still debate the details of this great battle where one-hundred thousand men engaged in two days of vicious fighting: Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Don Carlos Buell, Albert Sidney Johnston, P.G.T. Beauregard, Stephen A. Hurlbut, Nathan Bedford Forrest.
I carried with me the recently published Shiloh, 1862 by Winston Groom and the National Park Service map as I slowly surveyed the principal battle points. There are many other books, of course, but Groom is an excellent historian and a fine writer. The publication of Groom’s book was a fortunate coincidence as I made my way to Shiloh church. Today, a modern Methodist church stands next to the restored church and the sight of dozens of Nissans, Chevrolets and a Honda or two makes for a jarring juxtaposition. Such modern landmarks seem intrusive. And the nearly 400 monuments and battle placards scattered throughout the park are nearly suffocating.
Not being one to cater to the experts one finds in every crowd, I avoided any dialogue with historians, armchair and academic alike (accepting that I clearly belong to the armchair variety), and simply followed the map to visit various crucial locations. My purpose wasn’t to re-live a moment-by-moment re-enactment as so many are prone to do, but rather to get a feel for the essence of the location.
Pittsburg Landing on the bank of the Tennessee River offers a breathtaking view of the waterway where the gunboat the U.S.S. Lexington provided artillery support for the Federals when the rebels sought to turn the tide. This location, like all of those at Shiloh today, is serene and lovely. Only our knowledge of history and the travails of men can intrude on that tranquility and offer to us a scene of carnage.
Looking north up the Tennessee River from Pittsburg Landing
Grant made his headquarters over the hill where today the military graveyard, which includes modern graves, is nestled across a manicured lawn near the Park Service Office and bookstore. The small museum is a delight and Park Service staff were helpful and knowledgeable, as I expected.
For most historians the immediate focus of a battlefield visit involves a widespread area known as the Peach Orchard, the Sunken Road, The Hornet’s Nest and the Bloody Pond. It was at the Peach Orchard that General Hurlbut’s division turned back the charging rebels. My first view of the location came as I looked north from the Hamburg-Purdy Road. The long field between tree-lines has been well-depicted in dozens of films and documentaries. In the distance I could see the reconstructed W. Manse George cabin. I walked across that field with my wife. Occasionally, we spotted freshly turned soil where visitors with metal detectors have dug for musket balls or other artifacts. By now the sun was high and the morning was beginning to wan as we trekked to the Bloody Pond just a short distance from the cabin.
The Manse cabin
The Bloody Pond is tranquil and green, the trees resonating with bird calls. It was here that wounded and dying men on both sides cleaned their wounds and slaked their thirst, their blood turning the water red. Only the morning shadows and reflections of trees hint at the brutality that resulted in thousands of casualties.
The Manse cabin and Peach Orchard
The thicket that became known as the Hornet’s Nest is still a tangled mass of trees and brush. The ferocity of the fighting here and at nearby Duncan’s Field gave the place its nickname. The green shadows waver in the morning sun and the gentle call of birds belies the history of a land that was stained by the blood of its protectors.
There is much to consider about Shiloh. There are lessons here in military tactics, egotism, heroism, cowardice and the destructive nature of politics, racism and madness. Scholars and students debate the details with particular glee. Grant’s blunders, brilliance, and good luck; Beauregard’s missed opportunity for victory; Sherman’s taciturn machismo; Lew Wallace and the missing division; and finally, the trenches of dead Confederates after the Federal victory. This, in addition to the mythology and trivia that refuses to die itself. The figures of legend who manifest themselves time and again in other arenas: John Clem, the little drummer boy of Shiloh; the observations of Ambrose Bierce, himself later a subject of speculation after his disappearance in Mexico during Pancho Villa’s rebellion; Lew Wallace’s literary redemption after writing Ben-Hur, a beloved novel from the time of its publication; Henry Morton Stanley, later a great African game hunter but best remembered as the man who found Dr. Livingstone; and Grant’s ascension to the Presidency of the United States.
The Bloody Pond
Perhaps the relevance is found in the cause of the war, which is succinctly summarized as the abolition of slavery. Naturally, the cause of the Civil War was complicated beyond the slavery issue, but it ultimately has relevance today because those identical issues exist in the United States in 2012. We live in an era where racist rock stars like Ted Nugent threaten Barack Obama’s life based upon Nugent’s unfounded fear that somehow the first black American President is a threat to his multi-million dollar lifestyle. Nugent’s ignorance is as large as the elephant’s backside, warts and all.
The issues of secession, prejudice, states’ rights and the long reach of government into our daily lives are just as relevant today as they were one-hundred and fifty years ago. Ultimately, the south wanted to be left alone, but Abraham Lincoln recognized that without unity the nation would crumble. They called it The Union for a reason. Lincoln set out to preserve and protect the Constitution of the United States but without a Union there was no viability to the Constitution.
The great failure of all modern political parties, of course, is the lack of reasonable dialogue. The Socratic principals of debate followed by informed voting have given way to an “Us Against Them” mentality. Finger pointing and flag waving are not reasonable substitutes for intelligent discussion.
Another view of the Bloody Pond
Shiloh continues to fascinate us long after the last trumpet sounded, and perhaps that is as it should be. There are lessons here that should not be ignored, and a wealth of human interest tales that are at once exciting and repugnant. It’s difficult to turn away from the hypnotic allure of a flame.
As I made my way that April morning across the Shiloh battlefield I was struck by he contrast of tranquility and the horror of war that occurred here on April 6th and 7th, 1862. The road to Shiloh can be long or short, depending on the circumstances. But the act of war has only one outcome. You can see it in the rows of marble markers at the military graveyard, several thousand bearing only numbers. These are the graves of the unknown. As I walked across the field that morning I encountered a bronze plaque gleaming in the sun and its simple verse serves as a stark reminder to war’s conclusion.
On flame’s eternal camping-ground
Their silent tents are spread,
And glory guards with solemn round
The bivouac of the dead.
Shiloh, 1862 by Winston Groom
Shiloh – In Hell Before Night by James Lee McDonough
Shiloh: The Battle That Changed the Civil War by Larry J. Daniel
Shiloh by Shelby Foote (novel)
Images and text copyright © 2012 by Thomas McNulty