I am a self-admitted history nerd. I love reading it, watching documentaries of it, and have made pilgrimages around the world to see some of my favorite topics come to life. However, the Civil War is a topic that has always been much a mystery to me. Oh sure, I can name some of the famous battles, recite a bit of the Gettysburg Address, and recount a few storylines, but it ends there.
So when this trip came up and I decided to cross into Mississippi (state number 49 on my personal list!), and I had to figure out something to do there, my father recommended Corinth, in the northeastern corner of the state. “I think there was a Civil War battlefield near there,” he told me. So I looked and, just north of the town (right across the Tennessee line) is where the Battle of Shiloh took place.
I had heard of the Battle of Shiloh, but couldn’t tell you anything about it: who fought there, why, or who won. This experience changed all that.
Corinth, MS sits at the intersection of two railroads: the Ohio-Alabama running north-south, and the Memphis-Charleston, the only railroad connecting the Mississippi River to the Atlantic in the Confederacy. As such, it was THE major strategic objective in the Western Confederacy. Capture Corinth and effectively cut the Confederacy in two, preventing supplies from traversing this major east-west artery.
General Grant’s Union Army of the Tennessee was camped near the Shiloh church at Pittsburg Landing on the banks of the Tennessee River, waiting to be reinforced by the Army of the Ohio. A chance patrol wandering outside its normal route came across the scouts of General Johnston’s Confederate Army of the Mississippi, some 44,000 men strong, preventing a surprise attack Johnston had planned, on April 6, 1862. The following two days contained the bloodiest fighting in the war to that time.
Ultimately, the Union lines held just enough for them to be reinforced overnight and the following day, drive the Confederate army back to Corinth, which would be taken the following month. General Johnston was killed in the battle, one of nearly 24,000 killed, wounded, missing, or captured.
The Confederacy attacked Corinth in October of 1862, trying to retake the city. After another bloody battle in which Confederate soldiers battled uphill against artillery emplacements in 100 degree heat, the Union lines held. This battle, the field of which is now a visitor center, was the last Confederate offensive in Mississippi.
The Shiloh battlefield itself is spread over a large area of idyllic forests, streams, and fields, from the Tennessee River in the east to Shiloh Church in the west.
All cannons on the battlefield fought in the war, though not all at Shiloh. They are in positions the batteries took during the battle. In fact, signage detailing the movement of different units during ebb and flow of the battle is all over, and incredible revealing. You can pick a unit, and follow if from its encampment through the tide of battle, advances and retreats, each sign posting the time associated with that location. Signs are color coated based on the armies.
Monuments are erected to the units involved in the battle, to different events that took place during it – such as a Confederate capture of nearly 1200 Union soldiers in the area called Hornets Nest – and to the senior officers where they were killed.
It is hard to put into words the feelings associated with visiting this place. It’s natural beauty contrasts the terrible fighting that took place, fields green where they once ran red. It is a powerful experience, and can be easily done as a day trip from Memphis if so desired.
The Corinth site was a lovely museum with videos about the battles that took place in the city. The highlight is a beautiful sculpture outside. If you look closely, you will see that the stones are a timeline of the battles in the war.
I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to visit these sites. It stirs up a strong desire to learn more of this period in history, and to properly honor those who fought in this terrible war. May there never be another.