By George Arnold
I recently had occasion to travel to Memphis, Tennessee, to visit family and decided to leave a day early and drive 120 miles beyond Memphis and take in the Shiloh battlefield as a side trip.
I’d been to Shiloh before, but it was many years ago. I wanted to refresh my memory of the geography of the place and spend a leisurely day driving and walking the battlefield.
The Battle of Shiloh was a key engagement in the second year of the American Civil War. It occurred on April 6-7, 1862, when Confederate forces led by General Albert Sydney Johnston surprised the Federal Army of the Tennessee under the command of General U.S. Grant. Grant’s army was encamped near Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River, with the army’s camps extending from the landing south about two miles to include a log church named the Shiloh (place of peace) Meeting House.
Although surprised by Johnston’s attack, elements of the Union army put up a stiff resistance. Then, driven back almost to the landing itself by nightfall, Grant was reinforced through the night with the timely arrival of General Don Carlos Buell’s Union Army of the Ohio. On the following day, fresh Union troops counter-attacked the disorganized Confederates — Johnston had been killed on the first day — and drove them from the field. What had begun as a potentially overwhelming Confederate victory had turned into a clear defeat for the Rebels.
The battlefield is located in south Tennessee, on the western bank of the Tennessee River, about 20 miles north of Corinth, Mississippi, a major rail hub of the Confederacy and the original objective of Grant’s and Buell’s armies. The battlefield is “out in the country” and the nearest town of any size is Savannah, Tennessee, on the opposite side of the river, about 10 miles from Shiloh itself.
Above is the sign at the main entrance to the park.
A short drive takes you to the visitor center, above, where a 40-minute film explains the importance of the battle and its major developments. The visitor center is located at the rear of the ridge above the landing, where Grant formed his final line of defense on the first day of the battle.
Above is a view of Pittsburg Landing, looking down-river (north) along the Tennessee River. Here was where General Buell’s men landed during the night of April 6-7, having been transported from across the river.
The day of my visit was overcast and windy, although the temperatures were pleasant enough.
Above is a view from the landing up toward the ridge where Grant’s final line was placed. When General Buell crossed the river in the night, he was shocked by the thousands of Union stragglers covering this slope, having run from the fierce fighting on the battlefield.
Up from the landing and along the ridge, siege guns such as these and other artillery made Grant’s final line impregnable to the exhausted Confederates.
The driving tour now goes two+ miles south to where the Confederate army first smashed into the Union camps. Above is an historical marker and a view across Fraley’s Field. An alert Union brigadier had sent a scouting force toward the field the night before the battle, having heard the sounds of the approaching army. A skirmish developed, then the Union scouts were driven back to their camp as the whole Confederate army of 40,000 men burst from the woods and charged forward.
(While much of the Shiloh battlefield is wooded, with dense undergrowth, there are, and were, numerous cleared farm fields scattered across the battlefield, such as Fraley’s Field.)
Above is a reconstruction of the Shiloh log church, which gave the battle its name. Union General William T. Sherman’s division was camped around this church before the Confederate assault. It then was used as the headquarters of Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, Johnston’s second in command.
Johnston ordered Beauregard to direct the battle from his headquarters at the church, while Johnston rode forward to personally direct troops on the front lines. In the afternoon of the first day’s fighting, Johnston was struck by a stray bullet, possibly fired by his own men. He was helped from his saddle, but his aides were unable to locate the wound behind his right knee which had cut an artery. Johnston bled to death in a ravine near the above monument and command of the army passed to Beauregard.
At the time of his death, Johnston had been ordering troops attacking the Peach Orchard at one end of what became known as the Hornets Nest, where Union troops put up fierce resistance during the first day of the battle. The view above looks south through the Peach Orchard in the direction from which the Confederate troops advanced.
Above is a view looking toward the edge of the position that came to be known as the Hornets Nest, where Union defenders delayed the Confederate attack on the center of the Union line. The heavy thickets in the position made it difficult for the Confederates to engage their enemy there.
And above is a view of the so-called “sunken road” at the south edge of the Hornets Nest. The road was actually nothing more than a rude wagon track, but it proved to be a defensible position for Union troops.
Eventually, Confederate General Daniel Ruggles assembled 53 guns in a line facing the Hornets Nest and attempted to blast the Union defenders out of their position. The above view shows the location of Ruggles’ “battery” facing north.
Finally, here is a view from behind a pair of Ruggles’ guns, looking north toward the Sunken Road and the Hornets Nest behind it. The Hornets Nest would finally be subdued and many of its defenders captured, but they had bought Grant enough time to establish his final line of defense. Before the Confederates could reorganize and advance much farther, night was falling, their attack had stalled and Buell’s reinforcements were beginning to arrive.
The next day would see the Confederates pushed out of the positions they had occupied the previous day and the Union armies recapturing the ground they had lost. So ended the Battle of Shiloh.
It was a bloody affair. Of the estimated 63,000 Union troops engaged, some 13,047 were casualties, including 1,754 killed. Of the 40,335 Confederates participating in the battle, total casualties were 10,699, including 1,728 killed. Of course, many more on both sides would eventually die of their wounds, adding to the butcher’s bill.
The casualties amounted to more — in two days of fighting — than U.S. troops had suffered in all the wars before the ACW.
The casualty lists had a profound effect on both sides, which began to fully realize that the war was going to be a long and bloody one. U.S. Grant probably said it best: “Up to the battle of Shiloh, I, as well as thousands of other citizens, believed that the rebellion against the Government would collapse suddenly and soon if a decisive victory could be gained over any of (the Confederate) armies. … (After Shiloh) I gave up all idea of saving the Union except by complete conquest.”