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Published: September 17th 2014
As you drive northward from Corinth MS, you pass through rolling, low-lying hills, through lanes and roads of mostly neat lawns and gardens surrounding small nondescript houses or mobile homes. The landscape is dotted with small churches with names like Mt. Moriah and Bethel and Calgary. But it was another church we sought, a small wooden meeting house with the name of Shiloh, which incongruously means "place of peace". We came because this small church has lent its name to the site of a Civil War battle and battlefield that shocked America, and still stands as one of the most gruesome chapters in America's history, a battle that was the most hard-fought in the western theater of the Civil War and set a new standard for carnage.
Today, the battlefield drowses in the early autumn afternoon, silent except for the occasional birdsong, intermittent sounds of cicadas, and the shuffle of our feet. Thick woods surround fields and meadows, with monuments and old cannon sited here and there. But in early April 1862, it thundered with the roar of cannons, the crack of musketry, the clash of steel on steel. And then with the screams and groans and gurgles of the
wounded and dying.
After capturing Fort Donelson and Fort Henry, Gen. Grant decided to move down the Tennessee River by boat, saving weeks of marching, and thereby advance on the vital rail junction at Corinth. Gen. Albert Sidney Johnson decided to take the battle to Grant rather than waiting for the fight to come to him. Hoping to achieve surprise, he marched north from Corinth with about 43,000 men to confront Grant with about 39,000. He did indeed achieve surprise, and in the first day of fighting was successful in driving the Union troops back to defensive positions. In a single wooded area known as the Hornet's Nest, the fighting was beyond bitter. Men died, and 2000 Union troops were captured. Eventually the position was lost. But by their courage and sacrifice, they bought Grant the time he needed to reorganize his defensive position. On the second day, the Confederates were driven back and eventually had to abandon the battle and begin a dispirited trudge over the 24 miles back to Corinth. Corinth itself then fell in short order.
Gen. Johnson was shot behind the knee and refused medical attention, sending the attendants off to help others. He
bled to death because of a severed artery, and to this day remains the highest ranking American officer ever killed in battle. The carnage was unspeakable. About 3500 men were killed out right, and hundred more would die soon from their wounds. Total casualties (killed, sounded, and missing) were about 23,746, surpassing the numbers in all previous American wars combined. Unfortunately, it was just the harbinger of what was to come. The Civil War would include 5 battles with even greater losses, culminating in the 51,000 casualties at Gettysburg. While the Civil War is sometimes romanticized, it should never be forgotten that in fact it was a brutal conflict in which 620,000 soldiers lost their lives, some 4% of the male population in the US at the start of the war.
Leaving Shiloh, we drove diagonally across the state of Tennessee to Middlesboro KY. On the way, a brief sojourn on the Natchez Trace Parkway serendipitously took us to the site of the suicide and burial of Meriwether Lewis.
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