Civil War Stories Come to Life

A 150th anniversary of the Civil War is celebrated in Tennessee.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Special battle reenactments and celebrations marking the sesquicentennial in Tennessee — as well as at more than 70 national parks north and south of us — will make this an anniversary to remember.

My son and I once drove to Shiloh National Military Park (two hours east of Memphis, near Savannah, Tennessee) to watch the reenactors who come each year to present living history demonstrations around the Battle of Shiloh. This bloody, two-day encounter — the largest engagement in the Mississippi Valley campaign — was the first major battle of the war. When the costumed men and women gather in their encampments at the park, it’s makes for a compelling revisiting of history.

Blue-Gray Alliance Hosts Shiloh Reenactment • March 30-April 1

While reenactors won’t be at Shiloh this year, the Blue-Gray Alliance hosts the Shiloh battle reenactment this weekend, March 30 to April 1. The event takes place outside of Shiloh (the national park system only allows military demonstrations, not actual battle reenactments.) The weekend begins at 1 p.m. on Friday, March 30, when camps will be open for public viewing from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday activities include an 1860s fashion show, two battle reenactments, and a Grand Military Ball in the evening. Tickets are $15, children under 12 are free.

Reenactors take meticulous care to dress in period costumes and often carry the guns and personal effects one would have had as a soldier or civilian during the mid-1800s. The troops set up camp and when not on the battlefield, gather in tents or around cast iron kettles to cook meals and swap stories.

Shiloh, which was fought on April 6 and 7, 1862, was located outside of Corinth, Mississippi, where the Memphis and Charleston rail line ran. This was a vital link for the transportation of goods between the Mississippi River Valley, Memphis, and Richmond, Virginia. The battle fought to gain control of transportation into the region.

Events at Shiloh National Military Park • March 30-April 8
The events taking place at Shiloh include battlefield hikes, caravan tours, and the debut of a new film, The Story of Shiloh: Fiery Trial. Most impressive will be the Grand Illumination at Shiloh on Saturday, April 7. In total, 23,746 luminarias will be lit at 6 p.m. in remembrance of those soldiers killed, wounded, and missing in action during the Battle of Shiloh. Visitors can take a 9-mile drive to view the candles, which are placed where men were killed. What made this battle so significant was the dramatic number of casualties, more than all American soldiers killed in previous wars combined, even more men than those enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1860.

“When people learned back home of this battle, they wanted answers, they wanted to know who was at fault,” says NPS ranger Chris Mekow. Many thought the War Between the States would be brief, but the tenacious fighting that happened at Shiloh indicated otherwise. Wrote one soldier who witnessed the carnage, “It was as if the Gates of Hell opened up.”

Pickwick Landing State Park will be the site for a more official commemoration on April 4-5, with an address from Governor Haslam, the digitizing of war artifacts by the Tennessee State Library, and the premiere of the Shiloh film. (Seating to these events is limited. To register: Don't forget to check out the Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center, in nearby Corinth, Mississippi.

Battle Reenactors at Fort Pillow State Historic Park • April 21-22
A second opportunity to learn about Civil War battles takes place at Fort Pillow State Historic Park on April 21 and 22, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Programs include hikes, museum tours, a battle between the North and the South, troop encampments, rifle and cannon demonstrations, and wood fire cooking demonstrations. There is also a 7 p.m. evening hike on April 21. Food and civil war vendors will be on site both days.

Through the national parks, kids can become Junior Civil War Historians. Children ages 6 and older earn a special Junior Civil War Historian patch by completing the Junior Ranger programs at two or three of the participating parks and/or completing special online activities. When visiting the parks, explore how the Civil War impacted the lives of Americans then and discover how it still affects us today.

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