To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh, two teams of re-enactors engage on separate fields, while the National Park Service plans its moving tribute.
by Michael Ream
The sounds of one of the most horrific and bloody battles of the Civil War will explode again at its 150th anniversary this spring. Just as in April 1862, the sound of cannon and rifle fire from thousands of Confederate and Union troops will echo for two days across the countryside just north of the Tennessee-Mississippi border in two separate re-enactments of the Battle of Shiloh.
Above: Larger-than-life statues at Shiloh National Military Park remind visitors of the epic battle fought on site 150 years ago. Tennessee Tourism photo
Below: A previous re-enactment of the battle depicts the fierce fighting and confusion that marked the Battle of Shiloh. National Park Service photo
“Spectators will be in the center of the field and less than a hundred yards in each direction, there will be infantry lines blazing away, and they’ll be able to see everything,” said Mark Way, chief of staff for Cleburne’s Division and part of the Blue-Gray Alliance, which is helping to put on one of the re-enactments. “It’s going to be close enough to hear it, smell it, and really feel it. We’re actually going to do a full 30-minute artillery barrage just like (Confederate Gen. Daniel) Ruggles did.”
“The big guns are loud,” said Rick Revel, who will serve as narrator for the second re-enactment, sponsored by the Armies of Tennessee. “They shake the ground.”
He also emphasized the closeness of spectators to soldiers. “They’ll be marching right in front of you; you could touch them.”
The re-enactments and related events take place March 29–April 1. On Saturday at 2 p.m., each event will focus on the pivotal “Hornet’s Nest” action, the climax of the entire battle that saw the death of Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston.
Johnston earlier led the Confederates out of Corinth, Miss., moved north into Tennessee, and then commenced a surprise dawn attack against the U.S. army of Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, whose troops were camped on the Tennessee River known as Pittsburg Landing.
“You’ll see just about everything that existed during the war,” said Way. “We try to replicate it as closely as we can.”
The actual battle sesquicentennial will be the following weekend, April 6–8, and events at Shiloh National Military Park are planned for the commemoration, beginning with the premier of a new Shiloh film, “Fiery Trial,” at 7 p.m. on April 4 at Pickwick Landing State Park, about 15 miles southeast of the national military park. It will replace “Shiloh: Portrait of a Battle,” which has been shown at the national military park since 1956. Regular showings of the new film will begin April 6 at Shiloh’s visitor center.
Battlefield hikes led by national park rangers will be offered April 6–8. Following the troops’ maneuvers, rangers will share stories of the fighting units during the two-hour hikes. Participants should be prepared to hike over easy to difficult terrain.
A moving tribute to the battle is set for April 7. Shiloh’s Grand Illumination will showcase 23,746 luminaries–one for each battle casualty–that will be placed around the battlefield. The observance begins at dusk and lasts until 10 p.m.
“We think this is a wonderful and very moving commemorative event,” said Haywood S. Harrell, park superintendent.
Gettysburg of the West
Ultimately, Shiloh involved some 100,000 troops “slamming away at each other,” in a “disorganized, murderous fistfight,” as historian Shelby Foote put it in Ken Burns’ epic documentary, “The Civil War.” The first large-scale battle of the war’s Western theater, Shiloh involved soldiers who were overwhelmingly young and inexperienced, contributing to one of the more memorable phrases of the time.
“When a guy got in battle for the first time and really got a good taste of it, they’d say he ‘saw the elephant’,” said Way, adding that he felt some of the ghosts of the battle when participating in a previous re-enactment of Shiloh.
“It makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck,” said Way, who in civilian life works in real estate in Florida. “Especially when you’re right in the middle and you’re behind the infantry line and the muskets are going off and the cannon smoke’s hanging in the air and you’ve got the boom going on and there’s mass hysteria and confusion.”
Both battle re-enactments will feature the Union counterattack, which repelled the Confederates and led to their retreat back to Corinth.
“Shiloh was pretty much the Gettysburg of the West,” said Tom Doss, a commander with the Army of Tennessee and a physician’s assistant in Tennessee. “It was a very bad defeat for the Confederacy.”
In the months after the battle, Union forces took Corinth, which was the crossroads of two railroads that served as crucial Confederate supply lines, and eventually moved on to the siege of Vicksburg, which ended with the entire Mississippi River Valley under Union control and cut the Confederacy in two. Just as significant, Shiloh forced both sides to reassess their outlook, and commanders on both sides realized the war would not be a quick and easy fight, but a long, bloody slog.
Nearly 24,000 men were killed, injured or listed as missing at Shiloh, more casualties than in all of America’s previous wars combined. Shiloh’s Confederate dead still lie in mass graves, dug on the field after the battle. In 1866, many Union dead were moved from similar graves to the new Shiloh National Cemetery.
Of the cemetery’s approximate 3,600 Civil War dead–2,357 remain unknown soldiers. In the 1890s, many Shiloh veterans returned to place more than 150 monuments and 650 historical plaques in tribute to their fallen comrades.
As Grant wrote after the battle, “The ground was so covered with dead that it would have been possible to walk across the clearing in any direction stepping on bodies without a foot touching the ground.”
Today, the ground of the former battlefield is quiet and peaceful, but it still echoes with the memory of those who fought and fell there. With a visit to Shiloh, you can hear it for yourself.
Michael Ream is a contributor from Des Moines, Iowa.
|Mar/Apr 2012 Issue
|BEFORE YOU GO
For information about Shiloh National Military Park and its events, call (731) 689-5696 or visit www.nps.gov/shil/shiloh-150th-anniversary.htm.
The National Park Service also operates the nearby Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center (662-287-9273, www.nps.gov/shil/history culture/corinth.htm), which has simulated outdoor fortifications and numerous displays and video programs related to Shiloh and the war.
The Armies of Tennessee will hold its re-enactments on March 30 and April 1 in Counce, Tenn., about six miles from Shiloh National Military Park. Admission to the site is $10 for adults, $5 for children 6 years and older. For details, visit http://shiloh150th.com.
The Blue and Grey Alliance will stage its events March 29–April 1 at a site just outside the national military park on the northwest side of the intersection of Highways 22 and 142. Admission is $15 for those 13 years and older. More details are online at http://shiloh150.org.
For visitor information, contact the Corinth Area Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) 748-9048 or visit www.corinth.net, and McNairy Regional Alliance (Selmer, Tenn.) at (731) 645-6360 or www.mcnairy.com.
To visit Shiloh National Military Park, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides.
Order free information about Mississippi through the Free Travel Information Card, found online.