“After Shiloh, the South never smiled again.” ~ Confederate soldier and novelist George Washington Cable.
The American Civil War lasted four years and encompassed more than 10,000 campaigns, battles, actions, skirmishes and minor engagements on both land, sea and river, across creeks and fields and the thickest woods.
It began off the South Carolina coast at the shelling of Fort Sumter April 12, 1861, and ended in Indian Territory in what now is Oklahoma on June 23, 1865, when Cherokee leader Gen. Stand Watie surrendered the last Confederate force in the field.
And while school texts offer the most cursory of information on even the greatest battles of the war, from Gettysburg to Bull Run to Antietam, a killing field that occurred 151 years ago today had a most sobering effect on Americans both North and South.
Sure, the First Battle of Bull Run (or First Manassas as it was called below the Mason-Dixon Line) was a warning to all Americans the war was to be bloody and last more than 90 days. Yet, it was a small patch of soil around Shiloh Meeting House that led to the solemn words that begin this piece.
The small hewn-from-logs and whitewashed Methodist church was located near Pittsburg Landing, on the west bank of the strategic Tennessee River along the state’s southern border with Mississippi.
And on April 6, 1862, it was the site of the greatest battle ever fought on American soil to that date.
Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s army was encamped along the Tennessee River, ready to strike into the South’s heartland, awaiting reinforcements. In the early morning of April 6, a 3-mile front of Confederate infantry under Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston completely surprised the Union commander, eventually forcing the Yankees back to the river. Six hours of ferocious fighting ensued around Shiloh Meeting House and a wooded thicket labeled “the Hornets’ Nest.”
Buying time and suffering horrific losses, the Union men held out until nightfall, with the victorious yet exhausted Confederates nearly carrying the field.
But earlier in the day, Johnston bled to death from a bullet wound to his leg, severely affecting Confederate morale and depriving them of the finest general the South had in the field.
Reinforcements during the night added 22,500 fresh troops to the Union cause, and the following day, Grant was able to push the Confederates back and reclaim the field and gain a costly victory.
The famed discoverer of Dr. David Livingstone in Africa’s interior in 1872, Henry Morton Stanley on April 6, 1862, was a 21-year-old private in the Dixie Greys of the Confederate 6th Arkansas Regiment attacking Grant at Shiloh. He described that early Sunday morning as his regiment bore down on their foe just roused from their campfires and tents.
“Those savage yells, and the sight of thousands of racing figures coming towards them, discomfited the blue-coats; and when we arrived upon the place where they had stood, they had vanished. Then we caught sight of their beautiful array of tents, before which they had made their stand, after being roused from their Sunday-morning sleep, and huddled into line, at hearing their pickets challenge our skirmishers. The half-dressed dead and wounded showed what a surprise our attack had been.”
The battle along the banks of the Tennessee was a slaughter for both sides, with dead and dying and wounded littering the field.
“It would have been possible to walk across the clearing in any direction, stepping on dead bodies without a foot touching the ground,” noted Gen. Grant following the battle.
Nearly 100,000 troops had faced off at Shiloh, in an engagement of epic proportions that utterly dwarfed previous battles on the American continent — from Trenton to Saratoga, Brandywine to Yorktown during the Revolution; New Orleans and Bladensburg during the War of 1812.
Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston was the highest-ranking general on either side to fall during the entire war, and the battle also claimed Union Brig. Gen. William H. Wallace, whose men had helped save the Union Army with their gallant stand at the Hornets’ Nest.
What had looked like terrible casualties at 1st Bull Run (a total of about 4,800 men), paled to near insignificance when placed against Shiloh. On that terrible field some 23,741 were casualties — 13,047 Union men and 10,694 Southerners.
An aside — Grant said Gen. Lew Wallace bore much of the blame for the heavy Union casualties and near loss of the battle, and he eventually lost his command. Wallace later went on to write the famous novel “Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ.”
Shiloh was an ancient city mentioned in the Hebrew Bible and means “place of peace.” Yet, 151 years ago today, it simply was known as the bloody field of Shiloh.
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking