In Hebrew, a place of peace.
In the hushed, early gray-dawn hours of a Sunday, a battle began that left nearly 24,000 dead, wounded or missing from 21 states.
Today, it’s a landscape of beauty with rolling verdant hills and tranquil skies.
Monuments and gravestones mark the triumphs and the fallen. The Bloody Pond now lies still, moistened only by rainwater. The Tennessee River no longer hosts Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s floating headquarters but serenely borders the silent battlefields.
Travel back to February 1862.
After their losses at Forts Henry and Donelson, the Confederate troops under the command of Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston withdrew to western Tennessee, northern Mississippi and northwestern Alabama.
In response, Grant advanced his 48,894-member Army of West Tennessee (later called the Army of Tennessee) north along the Tennessee River in early March. The regiment was instructed to meet up with the 17,918 men of the Army of the Ohio, which was marching south under the command of Maj. Gen. Don Carols Buell.
The Union soldiers were to combine forces and seize the Memphis & Charleston Railroad, the only major east-west supply line linking Memphis, the Mississippi Valley and the Confederate east coast cities.
While Grant waited for Buell at Pittsburg Landing, Tenn., about 30 miles north of the Mississippi border, his troops lived in bivouac style and spread out around the small log church, Shiloh Meeting House.
The one-room Shiloh, fitted with primitive folk furnishings, had been erected by the Southern Methodists in 1853, just nine years after the congregation split over one of the main causes of the battle on its doorstep — slavery.
Days passed by with drills, but no entrenchment or defense was developed. Grant was already known for caring more about his own plans than those of the enemies — and this encampment proved to be the worst instance of his lack of concern.
Buell’s army was still almost a month from Pittsburg Landing.
Meanwhile, Johnston had organized the infantrymen gathered at Corinth, Miss., about 20 miles southwest of Pittsburg. Nearly 55,000 men made up the Army of Mississippi.
Johnston’s second in command, P.G.T. Beauregard, pressed to surprise Grant with an attack. As such, Johnston sent 44,699 of his men to ambush Grant before Buell could arrive.
Heavy rains and poor roads slowed the journey of the troops by two days. Beauregard was afraid the extra time had caused the ambush to lose its surprise factor, but Johnston pushed on.
The Rebel tools of warfare were crude and out-dated. Henry Morton Stanley (of the “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” fame) recalled, “Our weapons were the obsolete flintlocks, and the ammunition was rolled in cartridge-paper, which contained [gun] powder, a round ball and three buckshot. When we loaded, we had to tear the paper with our teeth, empty a little powder into the pan, lick it, empty the rest of the powder into the barrel, press paper and ball into the muzzle and ram home.”
Still, the men were jovial and even laughed as some of the enlisted arranged violets in their caps for protection from the approaching battle.
That soon changed.
Before the sun had a chance to rise and while the dew still clung to the violets, a Federal reconnaissance team exploring an old wagon trail found the Rebel soldiers readied for battle along the Corinth road only a mile from the Union camps. Before they could report their findings, Johnston launched his offense.
After roll call, the Rebels crept through the skeletal forest, still showing the signs of a harsh winter barely past. The men were quiet, solemn and thoughtful as they tramped through the reverent stillness of the woods on that Sunday before daybreak.
Too quickly for these state volunteers, the peace was shattered.
Stanley wrote: “Before we had gone 500 paces, our serenity was disturbed by some desultory firing in front. It was then a quarter-past five. ‘They are at it already,’ we whispered to each other. ‘Stand by, gentlemen,’ — for we were all gentlemen volunteers at this time, — said our captain, L.G. Smith.”
Their pace quickened; senses heightened. Shots rang out – some deliberate and timed, others random and scattered. The men heard the explosive blast of muskets: “That is the enemy waking up.” Bullets whizzed and sang as young twigs snapped and tender leaves rained down on the soldiers. “Bullets,” the younger ones whispered in awe, their voices trembling.
Most Union soldiers were still sleeping when metal orbs began to tear through their canvas tents. Others were up brewing coffee in tin pots over open fires. But as the birds had only begun their morning songs, hardly a man was fully alert.
Johnston had caught Grant’s men off guard. Their camp was completely unfortified and open to any attack.
By 6:30, a skirmish forced the Confederates back, but only to regroup.
Believing the best way to conquer was to divide, Johnston sent eight brigades to attack one of the Union camps.
Fighting and skirmishes flared.
By the time the sun was fully up and beginning its ride against the blue sky, victory seemed within the grasp of the Southern troops. Union frontlines were failing as the men surrounded and captured their camp.
Despite their likely fate, the Federals did not give up. Determined and proud, they offered stark resistance to Johnston’s efforts, especially those in front of the church. His brigades pounded on the Union’s right flank. Grant’s men, however, stood fast: They gave up some ground but never broke.
The artillerymen peered calmly through the gunfire’s smoke while the bullets flew around them. Many of the volunteers crouched and shot around the log cabins, now scarred as the shots scraped the wood and ricocheted, sometimes into the troops.
The Northern men crouched, not in fear, but because they wanted to live, as though in defiance of the Confederate infantryman waving the Rebel flag.
The frustrated cavalrymen looked on, unable to help their brothers because they couldn’t penetrate the heavy undergrowth of the weeds and thickets.
Men from both sides met to drink and bathe their wounds at the shallow pool of water that became known as Bloody Pond; for so much blood ran into the waters, they were stained crimson. Many knew that would be their last sight before they surrendered to death.
Meanwhile, Johnston’s brigade was stalled in Sarah Bell’s peach orchard. As the bullets whizzed through the trees branches, the flowers in full bloom fell like fragrant snow around the men.
Next to the floral blizzard lay the dense oak forest called the “Hornet’s Nest” by the Rebels, as their faces burned from the metallic sting of rifle fire.
As the afternoon sun beat down, Johnston was fatally shot while directing his troops from atop his horse, Fire-eater. He was carried 100 yards from underneath a giant oak to a ravine. In the shade of an ancient oak, he bled to death, dying in minutes.
After that, the Rebel spirit slipped — and so did their plans.
Grant surrendered some ground after seven hours of attacks into the late afternoon. Even so, Johnston’s plan to separate Grant from the Tennessee River and its supplies backfired. Grant was forced closer to the water.
As the sky darkened and dusk settled in, the Federal troops were in a strong position. They had set up a firm front along Pittsburg Landing and had held off the last of the Rebel attacks for the day. The officers knew help was on its way.
By daybreak, 22,500 reinforcements from a reserve division joined the already battling Union volunteer soldiers.
On the second day of fighting, it was Grant’s turn to surprise with his aggressive counterattack. Nevertheless, Beauregard was able to rally 30,000 of his battle-worn men, who by this point were mostly jumbled and in chaos, and prepared a dogged defense.
Despite causing massive casualties on the Federals, the Confederates could only briefly slow the Union’s progress. The siege guns, the heaviest weapons in the battle, pounded heavy iron balls into the Confederate flanks; their accurate range of 2,000 yards proved to be a strong advantage over the South’s ordinary cannons’ range of 1,100 yards.
The exhausted Confederate soldiers could only stare as the fresh Federal troops pressed them back to the Shiloh church. It was useless to fight anymore. They were tired and ragged; in sheer number alone, they were trumped. It was time to retreat.
Under cover of darkness, the remaining Rebels slipped back to their equipped headquarters at Corinth, a beaten and much smaller group.
Victory, as it was, went to Grant and his state militia volunteers.
Custody of the gruesome battlefield passed to the Union. With possession, came the only joys of taking back Grant’s camps and setting up a bivouac surrounded by the dead.
Grant later reflected, “It would have been possible to walk across the clearing in any direction stepping on dead bodies without a foot touching the ground.”
Shortly after, Beauregard asked Grant to allow him to bury his dead. The victorious general replied, “Owing to the warmth of the weather, I deemed it advisable to have all the dead of both parties buried immediately …. Now, it is accomplished.” Reportedly, many are stacked seven bodies deep.
The Battle of Shiloh foreshadowed the long and costly battles to come in the War Between the States.
We must wonder if the soldiers found irony in the carnage surrounding them on the front lawn of a church named Shiloh, a place of peace.