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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.

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Road trip: Fort Donelson August 29, 2011

Posted by Jenny in Civil War, history, travel.
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Dover Hotel, where Buckner surrendered to Grant

For an account of the battle overall, go to a post I authored a couple of years ago titled “The battles of water, ice, and steam.” There you will find a brief  introduction to the incredible follies of two Confederate generals: John B. Floyd and Gideon J. Pillow. The first was a “political general” and the second had a somewhat dubious record of service in the Mexican-American War. The exploits of these two gentlemen are described in more detail below.

After visiting Dolly Sods Wilderness, I spent the night in Charleston, WV, and drove across Kentucky to the Land Between the Lakes. This is the narrow strip of land that lies between the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers shortly upstream of where they merge into the Ohio. The pattern of water flow has changed with the building of the Kentucky Dam, and the rivers are now called Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley. They are not really lakes, though—they are flooded rivers.

I thought it would be interesting to drive the length of the Land Between the Lakes. I turned out to be wrong. I spent 45 minutes or so passing through a rather humdrum oak forest—as I should have realized, the whole point of going there is to make a turnoff to one of the lakes for boating or swimming. As I drove, I never saw the great bodies of water that lay just a short distance to either side. I discovered just one interesting feature: a couple of herds of bison. I don’t know how they came to be there, and since I have seen great herds of bison out West (and I wanted to get to the battlefield), I didn’t stop to investigate.

The battles of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, fought in February 1862, were Grant’s first important victories. Fort Henry is now submerged in Kentucky Lake. As it happened, it had been constructed on low-lying land in the first place and was partially flooded when Grant’s gunboats arrived, which is part of the reason he achieved an easy victory there. The gunboats had already pummeled the fort into submission by the time the Federals marched in. Most of the Confederates escaped overland to Fort Donelson, where they had a much better defensive position.

River battery at Fort Donelson

I described in my earlier post how on February 14 the Confederate river batteries pounded the gunboats, this time inflicting much damage. However, with Union reinforcements coming in, the Southerners were in imminent danger of being surrounded. On February 15, the Confederates battled furiously in a breakout attempt. But just as they succeeded in cutting through the Union encirclement, General Floyd and General Pillow inexplicably ordered them back to their entrenchments. No one has ever been able to fully explain this decision. My personal theory is that Pillow, a man who invariably favored appearance over reality, felt that a victory had been achieved and that everyone would now take a polite pause while he and Floyd telegraphed the news of their glorious triumph to General Albert Sidney Johnston. Grant did not in fact pause; he promptly retook the lost ground and even gained new positions.

Many Confederate soldiers occupied these windowless log huts

Interior of hut

As night fell, it became clear that the Rebels were nearly trapped. At 1:00 a.m., Floyd called a conference of senior officers. Over the next hours, they heard dire reports from scouts (some of which turned out to be erroneous—a line of fencing at a distance had been mistaken for a line of Union infantry). The most competent man present, Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest, determined that he would take his cavalry out via Smith’s Ford, which he had learned was not more than “saddleskirt deep” despite warnings of flooded conditions. Meanwhile, the others dithered.

An informative and entertaining pamphlet by Edwin Bearss* details the story of Floyd’s and Pillow’s discussions with the third in command, Simon Bolivar Buckner. It is quite clear from the start that Floyd and Pillow had already determined to make their personal escape—regardless of whether any troops could accompany them—and were attempting to burden Buckner with the chore of actually surrendering.

Bearss recounts the conversation in the small hours of the morning.

Pillow stated, “Gentlemen, if we cannot cut our way out nor fight on there is no alternative left us but capitulation, and I am determined that I will never surrender the command nor will I ever surrender myself a prisoner. I will die first.” [He doesn’t actually mean that he will fight to the death. What he means is, he doesn’t care for the idea of being a prisoner.]

Gideon J. Pillow

Floyd chimed in, “Nor will I: I cannot and will not surrender, but I must confess personal reasons control me.” [The personal reasons are that he is afraid he will be charged with treason if captured, because he had transferred arms to southern arsenals while Secretary of War under Buchanan.]

John B. Floyd

General Buckner replied, “But such considerations should not control a general’s actions.”

Floyd acknowledged that personal considerations influenced his decision, “but nevertheless such was his determination.”

General Pillow spoke up, informing the officers that “he thought there were no two persons in the Confederacy whom the Yankees would prefer to capture than himself and General Floyd.” [In fact, Grant was later to say facetiously that Pillow need not have been so anxious to escape. “If I had captured him,” Grant said, “I would have turned him loose. I would rather have him in command of you fellows than as a prisoner.”]

Pillow then asked Floyd’s opinion as to the propriety of his accompanying him. To this inquiry, Floyd replied, “that it was a question for every man to decide for himself.” Next, Pillow addressed the same question to Buckner [who actually had a sense of responsibility]. The Kentuckian remarked he “could only reply as General Floyd had done, that it was a question for each officer to decide for himself, and that in his own case he regarded it as his duty to remain with his men and share their fate, whatever it might be.”

Simon Bolivar Buckner

[After a few more rounds of posturing, Floyd then says to Buckner] “General Buckner, I place you in command; will you permit me to draw out my brigade?” “Yes, provided you do so before the enemy act upon my communication,” Buckner remarked.

Floyd, facing Pillow, stated, “General Pillow, I turn over my command.”

Pillow exclaimed, “I pass it.”

General Buckner said, “I assume it; bring on a bugler, pen, ink, and paper.” The general then sat down at the table and began to draft a message addressed to General Grant.

Floyd made his escape by commandeering a steamboat and ordering the raw Confederate troops it carried to go ashore, quite bewildering them. He then forced his way aboard with a brigade of fellow Virginians, unsheathing his saber to clear the way. Meanwhile, Pillow obtained access to a small flatboat and escaped across the river with a small contingent of his staff. He met up with Floyd’s group, and the two journeyed to Nashville together.

Buckner’s message to Grant read, “Sir: In consideration of all the circumstances governing the present situation of affairs at this station I propose to the commanding officers of the Federal forces the appointment of commissioners to agree upon terms of capitulation of the forces and post under my command, and in that view suggest an armistice until 12 o’clock today.”

Grant’s immediate response was: “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.”

He was known thereafter as “Unconditional Surrender Grant.”

* Edwin C. Bearss, “Unconditional Surrender: The Fall of Fort Donelson.” Reprinted from the Tennessee Historical Quarterly, vol. XXI, March, June, 1962, nos. 1 and 2. Reprinted 1995, 2000, 2004 by Eastern National.

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.

Confederate Memorial at Fort Donelson

The battles of water, ice, and steam July 25, 2009

Posted by Jenny in Civil War, history, Uncategorized.
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Harpers Fort Henry

This post is one of an occasional series about Ulysses S. Grant—and about Gideon J. Pillow.

The battles of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson were fought in February 1862.  The weather stayed sodden over those weeks, meandering up and down around the freezing mark, and the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers flooded their channels.  Fort Henry was on the Tennessee and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland, in that peculiar place where those two large rivers flowed close to each other but resisted merging before emptying into the Ohio.

By capturing the two forts, the Federals could generally control things upstream.  They could blow up railroad bridges, disrupt river traffic, and occupy towns as far up as Nashville on the Cumberland and Muscle Shoals on the Tennessee.  In the narrow strip between the rivers, the forts were located on broken terrain covered with bare, bleak hardwood forest where the trees threw their long shadows under the feeble winter sun.  Every stream valley was filled with deep, muddy water.

The rainclouds were imitated by the puffs of steam rising from the gunboat smokestacks.  The fleet had evolved halfway from the age of wood to the age of steel—some boats were all wood and some had an exoskeleton of iron—but all of these boats lived in the age of steam.  They had pressure gauges, steam intake valves, boilers that might possibly explode when struck by a shell.  That would of course fill the gunboat with scalding steam, as happened for instance during the assault on Fort Henry.

There was steam and rain and snow and mud.  Fort Henry had been built on low-lying land by a slow-witted engineer, and it literally filled up with water at about the same time that its earthen embankments were made porous by incoming shells from the gunboats.  That surrender came easily, but Fort

Gideon J. Pillow

Gideon J. Pillow

Donelson might have been impossible if General Pillow hadn’t helped out his foes.

The problem for the attackers on Fort Donelson was the cold.  On the eleven-mile march over from Fort Henry, a lot of the Union soldiers had jauntily tossed away their heavy overcoats and blankets because it happened to be sunny and warm that morning.  But by nightfall, as they camped (no tents) around the fort, it started to rain out of the dark purple sky, and then the rain changed over to snow, and the ground changed over from brown to white.  They weren’t allowed to have campfires that would make their positions visible.  Some of the men said later that the cold at Fort Donelson was one of the worst things they ever had to go through in the war.  You might think battle itself would be worse, but that doesn’t seem to be the way things were experienced.  Brute physical discomfort outweighed danger: the clothes that got soaked all the way through to the skin, the fingers too stiff to move.  Bruce Catton wrote in “Grant Moves South”:  Men of the 12th Iowa recalled that they spent most of the night trotting around in circles just to keep from freezing, with regimental officers improvising strange new tactical commands: “By companies, in a circle, double-quick, march!”

Andrew H. Foote

Andrew H. Foote

The next afternoon, navy officer Andrew Foote took three ironclads and two wooden gunboats splashing and puffing upriver to Donelson and attacked the fort.  Foote darted in and out of the flagship’s pilot-house with a megaphone, shouting out echoey commands.  But this time the defenders got the better of them.  The flagship was hit 60 times, one of the shots passing through the pilot-house, killing the pilot and wounding Foote.  Another vessel had its tiller-ropes destroyed.  Those two vessels, both ironclads, drifted helplessly downstream like big dead turtles.  The other boats had their share of damage and retreated with them.

Nathan Bedford Forrest

Nathan Bedford Forrest

General Pillow lost no time in telegraphing Richmond with news of a splendid victory.  But even at the time, he and General John B. Floyd and the junior but much smarter officer Nathan Bedford Forrest realized they were actually in a tight spot.  The Union forces encircled the fort entirely and looked as though they might be settling in for a siege.  The only way out was toward the south by the road that led through the village of Dover.

The weather that night went maliciously colder.  All the ruts in the muddy roads froze solid, all the men spent another night stamping and shivering and marching in little circles to stay warm.  In the morning Grant was several miles away from the lines consulting with Foote when Pillow launched his assault, sending 10,000 men out to attack the Union right, south of the fort and close to the river.  Within a few hours the Federals had fallen back.  As Grant returned from his visit to Foote, he heard the drumming metallic sound of musketry and rode into thick clouds of gray battle smoke.  He found clusters of men standing about, demoralized and lacking ammunition.  The regiments on the right had suffered at least 2,000 casualties—men in blue lay everywhere, bleeding into the snow.

Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant

But ample stores of ammunition lay nearby.  The inexperienced men had been too panicky to pause and refill their cartridge boxes, and their inexperienced officers had not ordered them to do so.  As Grant described it in his memoir: “I directed Colonel Webster to ride with me and call out to the men as we passed: ‘Fill your cartridge-boxes, quick, and get into line; the enemy is trying to escape and he must not be permitted to do so.’  This acted like a charm.  The men only wanted some one to give them a command.”

Grant thought the Confederates must have spread themselves thin on other sides of the fort, having concentrated their forces for the assault.  (So simple, this observation that turned around a dark situation.  So easy for anyone to

Charles F. Smith

Charles F. Smith

see who isn’t surrounded by the battle’s noise and confusion.)  He ordered General C. F. Smith to attack the rebel line on the west side of the fort.  And so Smith did, right away, in a fierce battle up a steep icy ravine.  According to Bruce Catton, Smith yelled at his men, “You volunteered to be killed for love of your country and now you can be.” And his men followed him and they got through the enemy line.

At the same time, General Pillow, having broken through to the south, ordered his men back into the fort.  This decision was a wonderful and mysterious thing.  General Floyd reversed Pillow’s order but, after a discussion with Pillow, reversed the reversal.  It seems that Pillow’s decision must have been caused by his chronic favoring of appearance over reality.  He had achieved “a brilliant and brave assault on the enemy,” and now that act of the play was over and the curtain could come down.  It did not seem to be connected in his thinking with the actual necessity of getting out of the fort, or maybe he thought the Union forces would wait during the intermission until he could raise the curtain on the next act, “the valorous escape of our men in gray against overwhelming odds.”

In the small hours of the night, Floyd and Pillow held a conference with the

Simon Bolivar Buckner

Simon Bolivar Buckner

third in command, General Simon Bolivar Buckner.  Floyd was nervous about being captured, for the straightforward reason that he had taken actions as the former War Secretary that made him subject to charges of treason.  So he decided to escape, and he turned over his command to Pillow.  But Pillow decided that he would prefer to escape as well, so he turned over the command to Buckner, who was a responsible man and accepted it. Floyd and Pillow slunk out of the fort at 2:00 in the morning and got away in boats across the river.  Bedford Forrest escaped with his cavalry through a swamp to the south, undoubtedly cursing Pillow as he went.  Before dawn Buckner sent a message to Grant proposing a cease-fire and discussion of terms of surrender.

Grant’s reply became famous.

SIR:—Yours of this date, proposing armistice and appointment of Commissioners to settle terms of capitulation, is just received.  No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.  I propose to move immediately upon your works.

I am, sir, very respectfully,

Your ob’t servant,

U. S. Grant,

Brig. Gen.

Battle of Fort Donelson

Battle of Fort Donelson