Local Tourism: Shiloh National Military Park

Union soldiers set up camp in the fields and woods above Pittsburg Landing, surrounding the Shiloh church. The Confederates attacked the Union camps at 4:35 in the morning of April 6, just as soldiers were waking up and eating breakfast.

One of the things I am always curious about when visiting battlefields is “why did a battle occur here, in this location?” In the case of Shiloh, Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston had concentrated troops in Corinth, Mississippi, a strategic Confederate railroad hub located 22 miles south of Shiloh, and Union General Ulysses S. Grant had steamed up the Tennessee River to Pittsburg Landing to wait for General Buell before commencing an attack on Corinth.

Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River. This was as far upriver as a boat could go. General Grant kept his headquarters in a riverboat tied up here.

The Confederate army hoped to defeat General Grant’s Army of the Tennessee before it could be reinforced, resupplied, and advance toward Corinth. The Confederates attacked Union forces by surprise early in the morning of April 6, 1862, and made considerable gains on the first day of battle. However, General Johnston was killed later that day, and by nightfall Grant’s army had not been eliminated. During the night, Grant was reinforced by a division stationed farther north and also joined by General Don Carlos Buell and some of the Army of the Ohio he commanded. The Union forces counterattacked the morning of April 7 and reversed the Confederate gains of the previous day. Exhausted, Confederate troops withdrew south and although the Union began a modest pursuit, that ended the next day (April 8) leading to an eventual battle and siege at Corinth.

The original old Shiloh church still stands.

Occurring early in the Civil War, the Battle of Shiloh in southwest Tennessee was a harbinger of how bloody and long the Civil War would be, perhaps the battle’s most important legacy. Taking place over the period of just two days, between the Union and Confederate armies casualties totaled 23,746, an unheard of number up to that point in time. Named for a small Methodist church located in the battlefield, Shiloh ironically means “place of peace.”

Monuments to both the Union and Confederate forces cover the battlefield. There are (replica) cannon everywhere as well. The large monument on the center right above is the main Confederate memorial.

Monuments to the soldiers who fought and died at Shiloh appeared almost as soon as we entered the park, as well as plaques with information about what happened during the battle. The plaques were color coded: blue for Grant’s forces (Army of the Tennessee), red for the Confederates (Army of the Mississippi), and yellow for Buell (The Army of the Ohio). Large rectangular plaques gave historical information, small rectangular plaques told of troop positions on the first day, and small oval or round plaques gave troop positions on the second day. The memorial monuments ran the gamut from small and simple to huge and ornate, and were everywhere, even placed deep in the woods. I don’t think you could go five feet without seeing one, and most were to honor Union soldiers, although there were a few to commemorate different Confederate divisions.

Iowa monument at The Hornet’s Nest, where the fighting was at its fiercest for a while on the first day. The woods were much denser back then; these days prescribed burns are done to thin and protect the woods from forest fires and other natural disasters.
The Sunken Road: located next to the Hornet’s Nest, this road was a key defensive position for Union forces
The Peach Orchard: Larkin and Sarah Bell’s farm was located right at the center of the battle, and their peach orchard marks the furthest Confederates were able to drive the Union soldiers back on the first day. General Johnston was killed near the orchard that day.
The Bloody Pond: Both Union and Confederate soldiers came to this calm place to drink and bathe their wounds during the battle, staining the water red from their blood.

At the Visitors Center we picked up the map for a self-driving tour of the battlefield, which consists of both fields and forest. The route was easy to follow, and took us around two hours to complete as we stopped at many of the spots for closer looks. There was far more information though than we had time to read and absorb. We were lucky to visit on an absolutely beautiful, warm spring day when there were no crowds, and at times we felt like we had the entire battlefield to ourselves.

Tall stones mark the known dead and square, short stones denote unknown soldiers.

Close to the Visitor’s Center is the Shiloh U.S. National Cemetery, a beautiful location that overlooks Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River. To be buried in the cemetery, one had to have either died at Shiloh or fought there or in other battles along the Tennessee River. The cemetery holds 3,584 Civil War dead, 2,359 of them unknown. Confederate dead were buried in trenches around the battlefield. There are thought to be twelve of these, but the location of only five are known and marked.

One of the five known Confederate burial trenches.

Battlefields, while interesting, are always places for deep thoughts about what occurred there and why, and for the lives given. Brett and I were grateful for the opportunity to return to Shiloh (we visited twice in the late 1970s, when we were stationed at the Memphis Naval Air Station), to once again experience this historic place.

6 thoughts on “Local Tourism: Shiloh National Military Park

  1. Thanks for the “tour” and pictures. You did have a perfect day. The happenings there are really sobering, aren’t they? I wonder what those calling for civil war (or national divorce) even know of our history. I remember watching Ken Burns’ Civil War series on PBS and being very affected by it.


    1. We had a great visit to Shiloh – it is a very interesting and sobering place to visit. The fighting there was brutal, but both sides learned how fiercely the other side could and would fight. I think those calling for succession, civil war, etc. these days would be smart to remember how brutal and bloody the Civil War was.

      Ken Burns’ Civil War series remains one of my favorite all time shows. I’d love to watch it again.


  2. My late husband loved visiting historic sites, mostly Civil War, and while I thought it was really interesting, it could be depressing and exhausting. We compromised on how many, how long, and what other things we could visit. There are almost always good restaurants of all types nearby- and in most Southern towns! And scenic roads and trails, too.
    The pain, loss, and heartaches from every war are so incredible. Who said something like “those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it”?


    1. I’m the one interested in the Civil War in our family. Not sure why exactly but I always have been. Our family visited Gettysburg when I was 13 years old and I was hooked.

      Battlefield visits can be exhausting, and yes depressing. Sometimes there’s a lot to take in, sometimes not enough information (which can be equally frustrating). There was almost too much information available at Shiloh, and the area is flat so it was hard at times to keep our sense of direction. But, I had recently finished the Ron Chernow biography of Grant, where the battle had been discussed in detail, so had a somewhat better understanding this time of what had happened when and where the armies were.

      We did not stop to eat either coming or going, a first for us! I remember stopping and eating some good food on our earlier trips, but this time we just weren’t hungry.

      The surprise for both the Union and Confederates at Shiloh was how fiercely the other side fought those two days. Both had underestimated the other, and both sides up to then believed the war would be over quickly. I believe the same is true today, that both sides of our current divide underestimate the other, and what could result if a “hot” civil war broke out, something some seem too eager to have happen IMO.


  3. When I lived in Memphis, I visited Shiloh several times and several times when we lived in Savannah. We need to go back. I want to visit Vicksburg in Mississippi.


    1. Shiloh is worth a re-visit. We got so much more out of our time there this past visit than we did in the past.

      We are also hoping to visit Vicksburg before we leave Tennessee. It’s a six hour drive for us (we would take the Natchez Trace), so a three- or four-day trip. It’s hard right now with our grandkids’ schedules to find a block of time to get away, and we have other trips planned for this year and next. I think we’ll make it happen though – Vicksburg, along with Gettysburg, was one of the most important battles of the war, with immense consequences and I would regret that we didn’t make the time to visit while we’re here.


Comments are closed.