Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Shiloh: First Impressions and the National Cemetery

On Monday my Dad and I got back from our epic Tennessee trip. We saw several Civil War sites, but by far the highlight was seeing Shiloh. We spent two days there, heading down to see the NPS Interpretive Center at Corinth, Mississippi, as well. As I have said before, being born on the 125th Anniversary of Shiloh, I have always wanted to see the site of one of the most dramatic and compelling battles in American history.

While it would have been incredible to be there on my birthday, April 6th, for the actual 150th, the fact that it falls on Easter Weekend and the knowledge that we would have to battle enormous crowds to see the field convinced us that going a few weeks early was the best option. We were certainly correct. We had perfect weather (70 degrees, no clouds each day), and for most of the time we were pretty much the only people on the battlefield. I can't think of a better way to see Shiloh than that. Besides, I won't complain about being there 149 years, 11 months, and a few days after the battle; I think that is still pretty darn good. 

While I won't recount everything about the visit or the battlefield, I must say that a few areas stood out for me in terms of their beauty and serenity. Rather than recounting the entire experience in one blog post, which would drag on forever (I took over 400 photographs during the trip), I think a series of posts will allow for me to better tell the story of my experience during my first visit to Shiloh. I do not profess to be an expert on the battle, simply someone who has always been fascinated by the battle and its story.

One thing I must say first is that this trip reminded me of how I felt as a kid when I would go to visit Gettysburg or Antietam. The excitement of seeing such a beautiful and important place for the first time is really a special thing. As a kid, I remember how excited I was when we neared the Gettysburg battlefield, coming in on Route 30, gasping with excitement upon first seeing McPherson's Ridge west of the town, getting goosebumps upon seeing the Buford Monument next to the road, realizing that I was really at Gettysburg, the place I had read about for so long. Driving up to Shiloh was quite similar. After reading about the battle for years, to finally see legendary places such as the Hornets Nest, the Peach Orchard, Shiloh Church, and the various fields on which so much blood was shed was really a breathtaking experience. There is truly nothing like fulfilling a child hood dream to remind you of why it is that you became a historian.

Being able to do such a trip with by Dad was one of the best parts of the experience. He has been one of my major supports in my attempts to turn my interest in history from a part time passion to a full time career. From telling me of my ancestor's service in the Civil War when I was young to taking me to battlefields, he is one of the main reasons why I have such a passion for history. This trip was one which I will remember for a long time, and the fact that it was to Shiloh is not the only reason why.

Now, let's get to the photos...

After flying to Nashville on Thursday the 8th and touring Stones River National Battlefield that afternoon, we got up early on Friday morning and drove a few hours south to Shiloh. The state of Tennessee is quite beautiful, and we were in some very remote locations. During the drive to Shiloh my GPS must have thought to itself, "OK, now which God forsaken Civil War site am I taking you to?" Regardless of how lost we may or may not have felt at times, we pulled through just fine, and arrived at Shiloh before noon on Friday.

Our first stop was the Shiloh Visitor Center and the nearby National Cemetery. The Visitor Center was nice, with a small museum and the legendary Shiloh film which has been shown continuously since April of 1956 (a new film premiers on April 4th of this year for the 150th). Unfortunately, the separate bookstore was closed (perfect timing, being just a few weeks before the 150th), leaving us to pick over a smaller temporary store in the Visitor Center instead (bad news for me, good news for my wallet).

The first main site that we saw was the National Cemetery. Located just across the parking lot from the Visitor Center, it drew us in immediately. It is easily one of the finest national cemeteries I have seen. Set upon hills overlooking the meandering Tennessee River, it is both picturesque and heart wrenching to see the graves dotting the rolling hillside.

 Shiloh National Cemetery (Gates placed by War Department in 1911)

On April 8, 1862, the day after the battle, Ulysses S. Grant issued verbal orders to begin the burial of Shiloh's dead. Nearly 4,000 bodies covered the landscape, and many more would soon die in field hospitals. Such a human toll, combined with increasingly warm weather, created a major health hazard. Quick burials were done across the battlefield for Union and Confederate alike. Federal dead were largely given individual burials, most of them being identified. Confederate dead were interred in burial trenches with no identification.

With the Civil War taking such a dramatic toll on the country, efforts began in the latter years of the war to memorialize the nation's dead through creating national cemeteries. As one of the largest and bloodiest battles of the war, Shiloh was a perfect place for such a cemetery. In 1866, Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs issued orders creating National Cemeteries at numerous battle sites, including Shiloh. Originally designated the Pittsburg Landing National Cemetery, work began at Shiloh to find and rebury the dead in 1866. Work parties traversed the fields, finding graves all across the once battle torn landscape. Searching only for Union dead, those in Confederate burial trenches were largely left alone (a future post will cover this aspect of the battle and battlefield). In the fall of 1866, the 25th U.S. Colored Infantry began the work of exhuming remains and relocating them to the new national cemetery. Bodies from locations across the region were gathered as well, from places such as Fort Henry in Northern Tennessee, and Muscle Shoals, along the Tennessee River in Alabama.

The work of re interring the dead was complete in 1869. Altogether, 3,584 Civil War soldiers were buried in the then Pittsburg Landing National Cemetery, two thirds of them reburied as unknowns. In 1873, permanent stone headstones were created, replacing the prior wooden headboards which had marked the graves.

Work continued on the cemetery through the years. Additions of a stone and brick wall surrounding the cemetery, a lodge building, artillery guns, and monuments all added to the importance of the site. 

 One of the guns which keeps watch over the cemetery, looking down toward Pittsburg Landing below. This gun was retrieved from a sunken riverboat in the Tennessee.

 The American flag is the centerpiece of the Shiloh cemetery, and appropriately so. It can be seen from every spot in the cemetery, reminding the visitor why these men gave their last full measure of devotion.

 For many years, management of the Shiloh National Cemetery was divided between the War Department staff of the Shiloh National Military Park (created in 1894), and a local cemetery staff. In 1933, when the battlefield became a National Park Service site, the operations were combined, and the Park Service has managed the battlefield and cemetery ever since.

 Over the years, American dead from 20th century wars have been interred at Shiloh as well. In fact, there are even American dead from wars prior to the Civil War; a soldier from the American Revolution is buried on the northern side of the Cemetery, beyond the ridge and flag pole in the above picture. 

 Two thirds of the Civil War dead at Shiloh are buried as unknowns.

 The beautiful Tennessee River is the perfect backdrop for the cemetery at Shiloh.

 Graves of 6 Wisconsin Color Bearers overlooking the Tennessee River

One aspect of the National Cemetery which I found particularly moving was the monument signifying the location of Grant's headquarters on the evening of April 6th. The famed story of Sherman finding Grant sitting under a tree near his headquarters that evening in the midst of a rain storm is one of my favorite stories of the Civil War. While the Union forces were still holding the field near the landing, the day had not gone well for them; a patrol at 5 a.m. discovered the Confederate attack on the Union camps, and the next twelve hours were spent being driven back slowly across the fields, forests, and ravines surrounding Pittsburg Landing. Being disturbed by the work going on at a nearby field hospital, Grant decided to go outside under a tree in the pouring rain. Across the landscape the dead and the dying were out in the driving rain storm; some of those who were still alive spent the night fending off local livestock trying to feast on their flesh. It was by all accounts one of the most dismal nights of the entire war. Nursing an injured ankle from a mishap aboard a steamboat a few days prior, Grant stood with a cigar in his mouth, his collar up, and rain dripping off his hat that evening. Sherman was no picture of health either; his face was covered with the dirt and grime of battle, and he had a large bandage wrapped around one of his hands from a wound he suffered that morning. It had been a long and grueling day for each man.

Upon finding Grant, Sherman told his friend and commanding officer, "Well, Grant, we've had the devil's own day of it, haven't we?" Looking up, Grant, replied, "Yes," and after falling into silence for a few moments, he continued, "Lick 'em tomorrow, though." For each of these men, this was a pivotal moment, not only for the Battle of Shiloh, but for their careers and their lives. Had the Union army been driven from the field at Shiloh, Grant's success at Fort Donelson would have been the zenith of his career and Sherman's public fall from grace in Kentucky from late 1861 would leave us with a memory of him as a neurotic and worrisome commander, not the fiery field general of legend. Yet, on April 6th at Shiloh, Sherman had fought well on the Union right, helping to slow the Confederate advance all day long, despite being wounded in the hand early on that day. Grant had managed to organize his forces and create considerable resistance, forming a last ditch defensive line near Pittsburg Landing late in the day which, along with help from Federal gunboats, ultimately stopped the Confederate advance. The next day, with the help of reinforcements from Don Carlos Buell's Army of the Ohio, the Union army would counterattack and drive the battered Confederate army from the field. That evening, despite being surrounded by death and destruction, Grant managed to still exude ultimate confidence in victory. The bond formed between he and Sherman on that rainy night at Shiloh sparked what became the partnership that in 1864 saw the simultaneous pinning of Lee's army at Petersburg and the evisceration of Georgia and South Carolina. Grant and Sherman were the partnership that won the Civil War, and their bonds were forged on that rainy and gruesome night of April 6th near Pittsburg Landing on the Shiloh battlefield.

 Behind the Grant headquarters monument, one can see the Tennessee River and the stone and brick wall erected around the cemetery in the 1890s.

The monument indicates that its placement coincides with the location of the large tree under which Grant rested on the evening of the 6th. As the above photograph shows, the river is just a few hundred yards away from this location.

This post is the first of many regarding my trip to Shiloh. Stay tuned for lots more photos and stories regarding the trip and the battlefield.

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