When the newly formed Confederate States fired on Fort Sumter to begin the conflict known as the Civil War citizens gathered on the verandas and balconies of the homes along the Battery in Charleston to celebrate what they believed would be a very short engagement. Almost a year later the battles lingered on and it would be three more years before the bitter feud between what had once been united states finally ended. The cost would weigh heavily on both sides, especially in terms of the lost treasure of young men.
In 1862, both Confederate and Union armies had been gathering in a place that was unfamiliar to most people. In Corinth, Mississippi the convergence of two railroads provided the main supply routes between both the north and south and the east and west of the Confederate states. It was imperative to the rebel troops to hold that city in their grasp. It was also understood by the federal troops that to gain a foothold there would be a major blow to the Confederacy.
Thus General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union’s Army of the Tennessee had been moving troops into the small town of Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee while General Albert Sydney Johnston, commander of the Confederate Army of the Mississippi, had massed troops in Corinth which was only a short distance away. In a bold and somewhat surprising move General Johnston and his men attacked the Union encampment on April 6, 1862. During a long and bloody day of fighting Johnston’s troops unleashed a canon barrage unlike anything ever before seen. The battle was so intense that bodies were strewn across fields and in ravines. Among the dead was General Johnston who had bled out from a wound in his leg. While the rebels were devastated, the general feeling was that they had won the day and that surely General Grant would retreat, insuring the victory.
General P.G.T. Beauregard took command of the Confederate troops assuming that the bulk of the fighting was over and that his men had won. During the night Union General Buell arrived on steamboats with reinforcement troops who would continue to swell union ranks all throughout the following day. By the morning of April 7, General Grant signaled his unwillingness to retreat and the battle began anew. This time the fighting favored the federal forces with the fresh troops from the Union Army of the Ohio. By three on that afternoon it was apparent that the ragtag Confederate soldiers were nearing exhaustion. General Beauregard gave the order to retreat back to Corinth and the Union had scored a major victory. The epic battle eventually became know as Shiloh, named after a small log Methodist meeting place that stood on a field in the midst of the fighting. Ironically Shiloh means “Place of Peace.”
The two days of struggle had produced three thousand dead and over twenty six thousand casualties. In that one battle more American men were killed, wounded, and missing than is all of the nations previous wars combined. The carnage would stay in the minds of anyone who had been there for the rest of their lives. Even General Grant often said that it may well have been the most horrific battle of the entire war.
My great grandfather, Lt. John W.S. Smith, was under General Buell’s command. His unit of the Army of the Ohio arrived at Pittsburg Landing just as the fighting was drawing to a close. He and his men were tasked with the horrible job of burying the dead. It was described by many eye witnesses as being a sight that brought nightmares to even the most hardened souls. The troops had to quickly dig shallow graves and draw outlines of the placement of Union bodies to identify who had been buried where. The Confederate soldiers were put in mass graves. Almost two thirds of those who had died would never be identified. Eventually a group of veterans would help to create a national cemetery where the dead would receive proper and respectful burial.
My great grandfather suffered from chronic bad health linked to the terrible conditions that he found there. The area was swampy. There were heavy rains. The water was scarce and often tainted with the blood of those who had fought. It is difficult to even imagine what he must have seen and how he felt as he buried all of those mostly young and inexperienced men.
There would eventually be a battle to take Corinth. My grandfather would be there. The Union army would successfully take the town and control the railroads effectively cutting the Confederacy in two. That battle too would be hard fought and the aftermath would be marked by harsh conditions for the troops.
Today the Shiloh battleground is quiet and peaceful. It is one of the largest preserved battlefields in the country. Through eye witness accounts of veterans the battles were reconstructed so that even today visitors may have a view into the past. The graves of those who died lie under the shade of trees that were there when brothers drew one another’s blood. The fields hold the cannonade and mark the camps and positions of the combatants. It is difficult to read about the events without feeling a strong sense of emotion and wonder that our country was once so fractured its citizens were willing to die for their political philosophies.
I see all too much of the same kind of anger that drove people to war back then in today’s disagreements. We seem unable to work together and to compromise to gain victories for all citizens. While some joke about seceding I think of what I saw at that sacred ground and realize that we never want to find ourselves in that kind of situation again. We must find ways to control our bitter feuds. Incitement to anger is far too destructive. If we learn nothing from battles such as the one that ensued at Shiloh then our ancestors have died in vain.
The fields may be quiet now but the rumblings of our disagreements continue to threaten our unity as a nation. Before the Civil War the people would say, “The United States are…” Today we say, “The United States is…” We found a way to stay whole as a nation because in the end we realized what a hopelessly disastrous mistake it had been to cleave our country in two. I hope and pray that we will never have to face the kind of horror that my great grandfather so valiantly endured. We the people must be certain that we never forget what happened at Shiloh. It is in that story that we learn the importance of working together and electing leaders who unite us rather than divide us.