When Blue and Gray Turned Red

Shiloh marks the sesquicentennial of a battle that shook both sides of the Civil War.

There’s heartbreaking irony in the American Civil War’s first truly horrific battle taking its name from a tiny chapel. Until April 1862, Shiloh — Hebrew for “place of peace” — was merely a tiny log gathering hall for Methodists who happened to live near Pittsburg Landing on the west bank of the Tennessee River, roughly 20 miles northeast of Corinth, Mississippi. Owl Creek and Snake Creek were crudely named waterways, trickling relief for a thirsty traveler, perhaps someone from as far away as Memphis, 115 miles to the west.

Shiloh, of course, has become a name Americans associate more with carnage than salvation. Next month — April 6th and 7th to be precise — will mark the 150th anniversary of the battle that erased any illusions, be they Yankee or Rebel, that the War Between the States would be brief or bloodless. As Shelby Foote chronicled in his definitive narrative, The Civil War, a total of 23,273 Americans were killed, wounded, or captured in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War. The Union and Confederacy suffered 23,741 casualties over those two horrific days at Shiloh. Most of them — 13,047 — wore the blue uniform of the victorious side.

Ten years ago, I traveled to Shiloh to see reenactments commemorating the 140th anniversary of the battle. (An award-winning photo essay was featured in our June 2002 issue.) Two distinct impressions have remained with me over the decade since. Those historians — amateur or professional — who partake in Civil War presentations take their subject as seriously as one would a family tree. Every detail is important. If a cavalry raid began from the southeast at sunrise, there will be no time allotted for breakfast; all “soldiers” will be on their horses before the break of dawn. (It should be noted the reenactments took place on land adjacent to what is now Shiloh National Military Park. The National Park Service doesn’t allow such performances.)

"I have seen my share of men get hit but I never saw one catch it as pretty as Pettigrew did. It was quick and hard — not messy either." — Shiloh, Shelby Foote

The other impression is the vastness (almost 4,000 acres) of Shiloh the battleground. Woods broken by fields that undulate without pattern, and trails now paved to allow visitors the 12-mile drive past monuments (more than 200) and sites that have grown with infamy over the last century and a half: the Bloody Pond, the Hornets Nest, the spot where Confederate general Albert Sidney Johnston bled to death after taking a bullet behind his right knee. (Johnston was the highest-ranking officer on either side killed over the entire Civil War.) If you don’t pause at the Confederate memorial — three figures representing Night, Victory, and Death — you haven’t taken the trip seriously enough.

And then there’s the cemetery. In 1866, the year after the conflict ended, Union soldiers were re-interred in what is now a national gravesite. Counting those buried from other wars, 3,584 American soldiers call Shiloh their final resting place. Having not represented the United States Army, the Confederate dead remain buried in the various trenches where they were covered in 1862. More irony.

The last soldier to take a bullet at the Battle of Shiloh was Confederate cavalry legend Nathan Bedford Forrest (he of the controversial statue facing Union Avenue near the Memphis Medical Center). Surrounded by the enemy, Forrest escaped death — from the original wound or subsequent attack — only by shielding himself with a Union soldier as he rode back to his men from the Fallen Timbers, about four miles from the Shiloh chapel. As quoted by Foote, Forrest provides the most fitting epitaph for the two days to be commemorated next month: “War means fighting, and fighting means killing.”

Highlights of the anniversary tribute will include the premier of a film, Fiery Trial, to be screened on April 4th at Pickwick Landing State Park; guided two-hour hikes throughout the battlefield (April 6-8); and a “Grand Illumination” on the night of April 7th, in which luminaries will be placed throughout the park to commemorate every last casualty from the epic battle.

William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.” Now 150 years after the Battle of Shiloh — perhaps especially 150 years later — the weight of a young nation’s struggle to define itself is very much alive in what today can indeed be called a place of peace in western Tennessee. We forget the events of Shiloh (or Manassas, or Antietam, or Gettysburg) at our own peril. As horrific as war remains — it still means killing — you’d like to think Americans have a better sense of who we are, and who we might become, through the lessons of Shiloh.   

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