Coming up at ShilohPosted: October 15, 2022
The sky had cleared, the clouds raveled to tatters, and at four oclock the sun broke through, silver on the bright green of grass and leaves and golden on the puddle sin the road; all down the column men quickened the step, smiling in the sudden burst of gold and silver weather.
So goes the first sentence of Foote’s book. You hear about things being unraveled, but “raveled” not so much.
From Stuart Chapman’s biography of Shelby Foote:
Faulkner would tell his son-in-law that Foote wrote as if he had been there himself.
He knows what he’s talking about.
We must agree, there are parts of Foote’s novel that are very vivid and feel very real.
Winston Groom is perhaps most notable as the author of the novel Forrest Gump. Don’t sleep on his narrative histories. They are terrific: compelling, clear, human, personal, funny even sometimes. Winston Groom was in the Vietnam War. When it comes to battle he writes like he knows what he’s talking about.
Civil War battlefields can be some of the most peaceful places in America. Some days tour buses or school groups must crowd the roads, but driving and walking around Shiloh in the late afternoon, a random Wednesday some days ago, I had the place to myself. On beautiful marked roads, stopping wherever I wanted to read some information. Walking in the woods, looking at the water, or the mowed fields. I was in a nine square mile park, quiet, undisturbed. Preserved landscape.
That the landscape is spooky, haunted, a burial ground, only adds to the draw. Certain places, certain moments, you can feel the reverie. A break in the veil to the past. Is there something worrying in being drawn to that? This place was the scene, for several thousand people, of the most traumatic event in their lives. At the end of the first day, there were something like two thousand dead bodies on the ground. An even higher number of people with an arm or a leg blown off or other mangling wound. And that’s not to mention the horses. Ambrose Beirce said dead horses were everywhere. Several soldiers in their accounts remembered some pitiful moment or another involving a hurt horse.
At night, after the first day ended, thunderstorms rolled in:
Flashes of lightening showed hogs feeding on the ungathered dead.
as they put it in the PBS Civil War series (holds up, Shiloh is in episode two).
If you want to visit a place where that happened, are you a bit of a sicko?
In War of the Worlds Tom Cruise’s son says:
Dad, I need to see this!
“Seeing the elephant.” Bruce Catton, asked to explain why boys joined the armies, says we shouldn’t overlook the simple fact that they were bored.
Shiloh is the cosmic joke answer to that desire. The twisted reward to a Devil’s bargain. Oh, you want to see what a war is like? Here you go!
One of Abraham Lincoln’s great and compelling qualities was a resolve to find some meaning in these events. Suffering and horror on this scale had to be worth something. Had to be made to be worth something.
Shiloh was decisive. Grant’s army could’ve been driven into the Tennessee River, or surrounded in the swamps and forced to surrender or retreat. Grant or Sherman could’ve been killed. Albert Sidney Johnston was killed. Many considered him the best of the Confederate generals. His conduct on the first day had changed the outcome of the battle, but then he was shot, and not realizing the extent of the wound he bled to death. Johnston has the biggest monument at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin.
Sherman was shot three times on the first day. One bullet passed through his hat. In his memoirs Grant gives much credit to the way Sherman conducted himself. Facing disaster the two of them, Grant and Sherman, managed to keep their cool.
At close to the last possible second, Union reinforcements arrived. The second day, their commander dead, the Confederates were driven away.
That would be more or less the furthest the Confederacy got in the Mississippi Valley. Some weeks after the battle, the Confederate army abandoned Corinth, Mississippi. Corinth was key: it was the crossroads where the railroad from Memphis to Charleston intersected the railroad that ran from the Ohio river to the Gulf port at Mobile, Alabama.
The crossroads at Corinth: it all connected here.
In the aftermath of Shiloh, the South was cut in half. Grant, assessing the situation years later in his Personal Memoirs:
The Confederates were now driven out of West Tennessee, and on the 6th of June, after a well-contested naval battle, the National forces took possession of Memphis and held the Mississippi river from its source to that point. The railroad from Columbus to Corinth was at once put in good condition and held by us. We had garrisons at Donelson, Clarksville and Nashville, on the Cumberland River, and held the Tennessee River from its mouth to Eastport. New Orleans and Baton Rouge had fallen into the possession of the National forces, so that now the Confederates at the west were narrowed down for all communication with Richmond to the single line of road running east from Vicksburg. To dispossess them of this, therefore, became a matter of the first importance. The possession of the Mississippi by us from Memphis to Baton Rouge was also a most important object. It would be equal to the amputation of a limb in its weakening effects upon the enemy.
By May 1862, something like this was the situation:
Once Vicksburg fell (not easy, Winston Groom has a whole book about it) it was all over but the crying. Of which there’d be plenty, there are places in the former Confederacy where they’re still crying.
The ground at Shiloh can be confusing. Almost every part of the battlefield was in the hands of different armies at different times. The Shiloh church for instance was the headquarters of the Union’s Sherman and the Confederate Beauregard at different points.
The church at the park today is a reproduction. The original was damaged, bloodstained, torn apart for souvenirs. You’ll notice all the pictures of the church are taken at the same angles. This is because no one wants to spoil the 1862 time travel aspect of their photos by including the modern Methodist church that sits just out of frame.
From the church’s Facebook page.
Everyone who was at the battle of Shiloh found it weird:
Everything looked weird and unnatural
recalled John Cockerill years later. He was sixteen at the time.
Actions took the grotesque form of a nightmare
remembered another veteran. Groom tells us:
At least two soldiers’ accounts report a lone woman walking across the battlefield in the midst of heavy fighting
In one forested part of the battlefield there are old Indian mounds. There were used as vantage points by Forrest’s cavalry, among others. At the time they were widely believed to be burial mounds, thus participants could believe they were fighting on an abandoned Indian burial ground.
It occurred to me that the closest thing to a battle I’ve been at is a huge concert festival. Ridiculous comparison but go with us. Take away the maiming and the killing: there were over 100,000 people at Shiloh. How many times in US history prior had there been a gathering of that size? Ever? I’m not aware of any Revolutionary battle that was close to that size. There were revival meetings, some even in the same area, but they never exceeded 10,000 or so.
Pittsburg Landing, where Union reinforcements under General Don Carlos Buell disembarked late on the first day of the battle, ensuring Grant’s salvation, is stop 22 on the driving tour. The National Park Service must have good reasons for that. But if you want to follow the battle as a narrative, take Pittsburg Landing as the starting place.
Follow the journey of Ebenzer Hannaford. Hannaford was in the Sixth Ohio. On Sunday April 6, they woke up near Savannah, Tennessee, broke camp, and marched ten miles. Late in the afternoon, maybe around five PM or so, an hour before sundown, he and his comrades boarded a steamboat and were ferried across the river. As they got close, they saw probably five thousand Union soldiers who’d taken themselves out of the battle and were huddled by the river, warning the guys coming over that they were doomed:
The same scene was witnessed by Ambrose Bierce, coming the same way as Hannaford:
Along the sheltered strip of beach between the river bank and the water was a confused mass of humanity—several thousands of men. They were mostly unarmed; many were wounded; some dead. All the camp-following tribes were there; all the cowards; a few officers. Not one of them knew where his regiment was, nor if he had a regiment. Many had not. These men were defeated, beaten, cowed. They were deaf to duty and dead to shame. A more demented crew never drifted to the rear of broken battalions.
A detail stuck out to Hannaford, when he wrote an account two years after the event, published as “Coming Up at Shiloh” in The Continental Review :
The antic drummer boy sticks in the mind. Shelby Foote may write like he was there, but in the end it’s pretend. Hannaford was there, and what he remembered was a boy pounding away on his drum, “to what purpose we could none of us divine.”
Travel tip: if you are visiting Shiloh, I recommend approaching via Corinth, MS. The Corinth Civil War Interpretative Center, built in 2004, is a stunning building and the film, exhibits and National Park staff there do a great job putting everything in context. They told me their site is designed to be a starting point on a journey to Shiloh. There’s a tantalizing library there for the serious buff:
The NPS guy in Corinth had so much integrity he would not recommend a lunch restaurant due to “favoritism,” but he allowed that The Rib Shack in Corinth was very popular. I recommend The Rib Shack in Corinth.