Friday afternoon I drove to Savannah, Tennessee, to spend a couple of days at the Shiloh battlefield. It is my custom every summer to read about the Civil War — more than once I’ve read Shelby Foote’s three-volume history of the war, and I’ve read McPherson’s one-volume history as well. Hattaway and Jones’ How the North Won is a great military history of the war, and David Potter’s The Impending Crisis is the best history of the events leading up to it. This summer I focused on Shiloh, reading Cunningham’s Shiloh and the Western Campaign of 1862, Daniel’s Shiloh: the battle that changed the Civil War, Sword’s Shiloh: Bloody April, and other works.
So I had been planning to make a visit to the Shiloh battlefield for some time, and this weekend turned out to be my best opportunity. Of course, it also turned out to be the hottest weather of the year for the area — high temp on Saturday was 99 degrees, with a heat index of 109. I got up at 5 AM to ride my 16 miles for the TDF/2 Stage 19. It’s pretty flat country, so it was an easy ride across the Tennessee River bridge, down toward the battlefield, and back to Savannah.
I had originally planned to ride the LHT around the battlefield, carrying my cameras in the panniers, but the weather changed my mind. Instead I drove, carrying a cooler with Powerade in it and all my gear in the car. I used the excellent War College guide to the battlefield, following the book’s chronological tour of the first day’s action. After two months reading about it, it was very moving to see the actual locations. At times it was almost overwhelming to stand in the places I’d read about. The battlefield is phenomenally well marked; veterans erected markers at the sites of all the major actions only decades after it occurred, and there has been little development to encroach on it. Everywhere you look there is a tablet or monument commemorating an event that took minutes, or hours. Lives were lost and changed at a breathtaking rate in this place.
Below is a view of Shiloh Branch. The Confederates came up this narrow little ravine and attacked Sherman and McClernand’s positions at Shiloh Church — it’s only a few hundred yards to the north. Accounts from just after the battle say that you could have walked anywhere in the area without touching the ground by stepping on bodies. I met a family with fishing poles and a cooler, going to spend the day in this shady spot. They had twin boys about 5 years old dressed in camo overalls, who were very curious what I was doing down by the creek.
Late in the day (I spent 9 hours in the park) I wound up hearing a ranger give a tour of the National Cemetery at Pittsburg Landing, on the high ground where Grant’s forces spent the night of April 6 before pushing the Confederates back the next day. I was a little embarrassed to find myself getting choked up thinking about the young men who didn’t come back from this spot almost 150 years ago.
I rode the bike down again on Sunday morning and rode through the major roads of the battlefield. It was the last stage of the TDF/2, and instead of ending at the Champs-Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe, I found myself in this place where nobody really won. It did lead to Grant taking command of the Union armies, and Sherman’s march through Georgia and the Carolinas, the freeing of the slaves, and a fundamental change in the relationship between federal government and the states. For the people fighting, many of them teenage boys, it just demonstrated that war wasn’t going to be as glorious as they had thought. Iowa’s monument below shows Fame inscribing the names of those boys.