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Road trip: Shiloh September 1, 2011

Posted by Jenny in Civil War, history, memoir, travel.
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Shiloh Meeting House

Two years ago, I wrote about the battle of Shiloh. You can read the post here. The battle has gripped my imagination for a long time. In fact, it even plays a role in my soon-to-be-published murder mystery, Murder at the Jumpoff. But I’d never visited the battlefield until my road trip last month.

So it was with a great deal of anticipation that I left my motel in Paris, Tennessee, and drove south toward Shiloh, located close to the Mississippi border and near the town of Savannah, Tennessee. The novelty of my surroundings added to my enjoyment. I had never been in West Tennessee before except on a long-ago family trip that zipped us across the region on I-40, the goal only to get past Memphis. I did not touch an interstate on this day of travel. Instead, I cruised along on fast two-lane roads, slowing for small towns like Parsons and Milledgeville and Crump. Little brick houses fronted by red and purple crape myrtle lined these towns’ quiet streets. Comfortable puffs of smoke rose promisingly from black barrels, for I was in the heart of barbecue country.

I arrived at the Shiloh visitor center just in time to hear an announcement that a ranger would soon be giving a walking tour on the subject of “Grant’s Last Line of Defense.” I met the group in the welcome shade of a towering live oak: Ranger Charles Spearman and a family from Louisiana. “So you’re from Louisiana too?” the ranger asked, assuming I had some connection with the others. “No, North Carolina.” I didn’t blame him for the assumption. How many women are interested enough in battlefields to visit them on their own?

Ranger Charles Spearman

We were fortunate in having Ranger Spearman as our guide. He was knowledgeable, and passionate, about the subject. Much to the surprise of the others, I immediately started peppering him with questions. I just couldn’t help it. Here I was in the place I’d been reading about for a long time, in the presence of someone devoted to its history. I was asking him about the relationship of Grant and Sherman, who both fought here…about the death of Albert Sidney Johnston…about the arrival of Buell’s reinforcements.

His subject concerned the end of the day on April 6, 1862. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee (37,000 troops present) had been surprised at dawn that morning by Johnston’s Army of the Mississippi (40,000). Men in blue fought desperately to hold their ground at the Hornet’s Nest and all the way back to the banks of the Tennessee River (where thousands of Union stragglers cowered, not so willing as their comrades to face death). As dusk fell and a chilly rain began to fall, the Confederates still held the river landing. But that night, General Buell brought in another 35,000 men of the Army of the Ohio, and on the second day, the tide turned in favor of the Union. By the time the Confederates retreated at the end of April 7, 24,000 men had been killed or wounded. As Grant described it in his memoir, it was “a terrible battle fought between great armies.”

After Ranger Spearman concluded his talk and we walked back to the visitor center, I chatted with him and learned that he had previously been at the Chattanooga battlefields. We talked about Missionary Ridge, and he mentioned that the Confederates had placed their defense line “on the geographic rather than the military high point of the ridge.” I told him that this reminded me of the British position at the battle of Spionkop in the Boer War. He impressed me by being familiar with the general circumstances of the war—not many Americans are.

Back at the visitor center, I watched a 32-minute film about the battle. Ranger Spearman had warned us about it: “The movie’s a bit old, and they’re going to replace it.” He wasn’t kidding. The film was made in 1956, and it was narrated in a certain distinct voice—stern, a bit pompous—common to documentaries of the period. Watching events of 1862 through the filter of 1956 turned out to be comical, especially seeing the actors with 50s-style haircuts and outrageously fake beards and moustaches pasted to their faces.

I drove around the points of the auto tour, picking and choosing according to my whim, as I had at Gettysburg. I soon passed a statue with an interesting figure on the side of it.

Figure inscribing words on the monument

These were the words she was writing.

Brave of the brave... (click for zoom)

I passed the Confederate memorial.

A somber memorial, with downcast faces

The Shiloh Meeting House was a log Methodist church, whose surroundings were the scene of desperate fighting on April 6. The church was destroyed soon after the war, and this is a replica.

Imagine the sounds of fierce fighting all around this spot

The Methodist congregation now occupies the structure shown below, located right next to the log building. Construction of the present church began in 1929, but it stopped due to lack of funds, and the building was only completed in 1952. You can see the dividing line between the starting construction with local fieldstone and the later brick construction.

Stone in the lower section, brick in the upper

The Shiloh battlefield is very well organized in its method of presenting information. This sign near the church explained the system.

I like the use of the word "tablet" for the informational signs

The Hornet’s Nest seemed such an anonymous spot. It is a good exercise of the imagination to visualize the Federal divisions that fought so desperately to hold their ground here. It was the Confederates who gave the spot its name.

The contrast of past and present is great

This statue helps in the effort to visualize the participants

The Sunken Road was similarly nondescript. In the photo below, it appears as a line of relatively bare dirt.

Over time, the road has largely filled in

Each of the leading officers who was killed in the battle is memorialized by the same construction of four piles of cannonballs placed equidistant from a central column. This one is for General Albert Sidney Johnston, the widely revered Confederate general who died at 2:30 in the afternoon on April 6.

The memorial to Albert Sidney Johnston

The nearby tablet explained the details of locating the exact site of his death. Isn’t it interesting how significant it seems to us to identify the spot rather than to say “He died somewhere in this vicinity”?

A red, square tablet in accordance with the battlefield's symbology

I found a single morning glory growing on the spot. I saw no others anywhere else on the battlefield.

This was growing on the spot where Johnston died

I visited another place that saw brutal fighting in the battle, now very peaceful. New peach trees have been planted on the site.

Peach Orchard

Here are a few lines from my earlier post about Shiloh: Throughout the long hours Grant had been moving incessantly among the cardinal points of the battlefield to talk with his division commanders. Those points had names that have taken on an allegorical flavor. The Peach Orchard, the Hornet’s Nest, the Sunken Road, Owl Creek. (Peach blossoms drenched in poison…the youth treads on the nest…the road sinks down and down…the owl flees the dark woods.)

A cabin stands near the orchard, fronted by ancient, contorted cedars.

Cabin at the Peach Orchard

Next stop was Bloody Pond, whose name hardly needs to be explained. It is an unattractive pond, but of course it would have been exponentially uglier during the battle.

Thirsty men drank here despite the bodies that lay in it

Because of the sequence I’d followed on my drive, I hadn’t seen the Tennessee River up to this point, even though the visitor center is close to it. General Don Carlos Buell’s men arrived at the river on the night of April 6.

Tennessee River

My final stop was at the National Cemetery, whose entrance was marked by an elegant sign.

A staircase leads to the cemetery

I saw that a group was at work in the cemetery, digging up headstones. A ranger was supervising a group of young interns or volunteers. I asked them about their project, and the ranger explained that some of the headstones were starting to tilt, and they were lifting them out with a block and tackle to replace them in an upright position. I was pleased to hear that so much care was taken for these graves. The soil, nearly pure clay, retained its sharp corners after the headstones were removed—but the ranger said the roots of the giant old ash tree behind them had been a big problem. I said, “That ash must be really old.” he said, “None of the trees in the cemetery date to before 1909. A tornado that year destroyed every tree in the cemetery.” They timed their work to be under the shade of a tree in the afternoon, he said—the previous week, the heat index had been in the 120s.  I marveled at how the portion of each headstone above ground consisted of only about half of the length of the stone. As I turned to go, one of the young women started singing a made-up song about how hard the work was.

They will make sure the headstones stand exactly upright

And so my visit concluded.

To see all of the posts about my August 2011 road trip, type road trip: (with the colon after “trip”) in the search box at right and scroll down.

The morning trees of Shiloh March 5, 2009

Posted by Jenny in Civil War, history, military history.
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When I think about Shiloh, one thing always stands out to me among the countless assorted multicolored bits which that large event radiates out.  It is the phrase, “the trees were full of music.”  It comes from the writings of a youthful Union soldier named Jesse Bowman Young, describing the morning of April 6, 1862.

The robins had been chirping in the woods since dawn, and the trees were full of music, when suddenly a sound not so melodious broke in on the ears of the soldiers, an occasional shot from the picket line a mile beyond the camp….  As the firing continued…wild birds in great numbers, rabbits in commotion, and numerous squirrels came flocking toward the Union lines as though they were being driven from the woods.*

Within minutes, the music had given way to the dismembered sounds of shouts and screams—the sounds of  “a terrible battle fought between great armies,” as Grant described it.

“The trees were full of music.”  The poet Gerald Stern once described something like what the young soldier heard:

I would say there are two dawns,

one, if it’s late April, if it’s in the East,

it’s night still, there is a kind of thin blue

over the hills; and two, the true dawn, then

the trees are almost shaking with noise, the sun

is spread out, light is everywhere….**

Or, as Homer said in the Iliad, Dawn in her saffron robe came spreading light on all the world.

I am trying to triangulate.  If I take the map of the battle, with its white and black rectangles that represent troop positions, and then I take a few words that describe a moment for one individual in the battle, I will arrive at the junction of the objective and the subjective, and I will come closer to understanding the battle.

I also add in my own private question, which I ask even though it involves something impossible in both time and circumstance.  If I had been standing near Jesse Bowman Young that morning, when the massive unexpected charge of rebel soldiers came crashing through the woods, would I have stood my ground and fought, or would I have fled with the thousands of stragglers who cowered under the sheltering bluff of the Tennessee River?

Certain major historical events come with a controversy attached as a sort of bonus, and Shiloh is one of them.  Shiloh is permanently linked to the question: Did Grant fail to anticipate and prepare for a rebel offensive that morning?  If the question is rephrased, it has a definite answer: In hindsight, would Grant have done anything differently?  Yes, he would have made his troops dig entrenchments.  That would have saved many Union lives.

Grant thought the Confederate forces were too weak and demoralized to stage an offensive, and that turned out to be the worst mistake he made in the whole war.  He was waiting for the arrival of reinforcements under General Don Carlos Buell before moving 20 miles south into Mississippi to attack the rebels at Corinth.  That was where the Mobile & Ohio Railroad crossed the Memphis & Charleston Railroad (giving it a railroad importance of x squared).  Grant’s opponent, General Albert Sidney Johnston, had 40,000 rebel troops there; Grant himself had 37,000; Buell had another 35,000, of whom 20,000 clean-faced soldiers would reach Shiloh to join their smoke-begrimed, blood-clotted comrades after the first day of fighting.

Grant knew Johnston from the Mexican war (all of these gray and blue generals knew each other), so he probably should have realized that Johnston, a proud man, was burning for a success.  Johnston had recently come under criticism after his subordinates Floyd and Pillow had bungled the battle of Fort Donelson.

Johnston died bravely at Shiloh.  Grant lived on to face the newspaper reports, which described “visions of horror seared upon the eyeballs and burned indelibly on the brain.”  The Confederates had overrun the camp and bayoneted sleeping soldiers in their tents, the newspapers said.  Grant had either been absent from the battlefield most of the day, or drunk through the whole thing, or both.  He had botched his orders to his subordinates.  And so on.  (But none of these things were true.)

Throughout the long hours Grant had been moving incessantly among the cardinal points of the battlefield to talk with his division commanders.  Those points had names that have taken on an allegorical flavor.  The Peach Orchard, the Hornet’s Nest, the Sunken Road, Owl Creek.  (Peach blossoms drenched in poison… the youth treads on the nest… the road sinks down and down… the owl flees the dark woods.)  He had spent the night of April 6 under a tree in a drenching rainstorm.  When he went to seek shelter in a small log cabin, he found that it was being used for performing amputations, and he decided he liked his rainy tree better.  The next day, with Buell’s reinforcements, he and his troops once again fought desperately and finally pushed the Confederates back.

The robins chirping… the trees full of music… if only that moment could come back, but it was a cracked bird’s egg that could never be reassembled…

* Quoted in Voices of the Civil War by Richard Wheeler (Meridian, 1990).  **In Bread Without Sugar (W.W. Norton, 1992).

This post is one of an occasional series about Ulysses S. Grant.