SHILOH, Tenn. – On this lovely spring afternoon, it is hard to believe such a beautiful pastoral place was once a bloody battlefield.
Even the name doesn’t suit it. Shiloh means “place of peace” in Hebrew. What happened here was anything but peaceful.
On a shore excursion from the Grande Caribe to Shiloh National Military Park, the horrors of war were brought home. “It was the first great battle of the Civil War,” said Shiloh tour guide Ken Hansgen.
Bending over to admire a violet growing like a purple carpet at his feet, Ken tells a chilling tale of how even the lovely flower was caught in the grips of this terrible war.
Almost on this very day 150 years ago, 17-year-old Henry Parker waited with other soldiers as the sun rose over the serene fields and forests. “Pointing out the flowers at his feet, the young soldier told the man next to him – Henry Morton Stanley – that it might a good idea to put a few of the flowers in his cap,” Ken said.
“Perhaps, the Yanks won’t shoot me if they see me wearing such flowers, for they are a sign of peace,’” Ken quoted the Confederate youth as saying.
“Capital,” 21-year-old Stanley replied. “I will do the same.”
The two men picked a bunch of violets and arranged them in their caps, while other men in the ranks laughed good naturedly at the proceedings. Then all hell broke loose.
For two days – on April 6 and 7, 1862 – the battle raged near Shiloh church. When the fighting ended, 23,746 men were dead.
“General Grant described, ‘It would have been possible to walk across the clearing in any direction stepping on dead bodies without a foot touching the ground,’” Ken said. “Shiloh left no doubts that the conflict would be increasingly bloody and long lasting.”
A Northern editor wrote that “the South never smiled again after Shiloh,’” Ken said. “General Albert Sidney Johnson died here and many say that the death of Johnston may be a major reason why the South lost the Civil War.”
Now a part of the National Park Service, Shiloh National Military Park covers 4,400 acres with monuments, war weapons, memorials and graves. The battlefield tour starts at the visitor center, where exhibits and a 32-minute film introduce the battle and the war.
Tour guides and a useful battlefield map help visitors follow the battle and troop movements before and during the two-day battle. The two opposing leaders were Union General Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston.
At dawn on April 6, Johnston’s troops surprised Grant in an attack that slowly pushed the Union troops from the high ground they occupied towards the Tennessee River. Fighting was fierce, especially around the whitewashed Shiloh church. In a wooded thicket the Confederates labeled “the Hornets’ Nest,” Northern troops struggled for nearly six hours before finally surrendering. Grant’s forces were pinned against the Tennessee River but the exhausted Confederates were short of complete victory.
“One casualty of the afternoon’s combat was General Johnson. He bled to death in that ravine,” Ken said, pointing to a nearby spot with a marker.
Seeming to be everywhere rallying his troops, Johnston was shot behind his right knee. Not realizing how serious the wound was, Johnston sent his personal physician to attend to some wounded captured Union soldiers instead. In fact, the bullet had clipped an artery and Johnston’s boot was filling up with blood. Within a few minutes, Johnston was observed by his staff to be nearly fainting off his horse, his face a deathly pale. Removed from his horse, Johnston bled to death at 2:30 p.m. on April 6.
“Johnston was the highest-ranking casualty of the war on either side and his death was a strong blow to the morale and leadership of the Confederacy,” Ken said. “With his loss, General P.G. T. Beauregard assumed control of the Confederate command and was driven from the field by Union counterattack the next day.”
As for the man – Henry Morton Stanley – who later chronicled the incident with the Shiloh violets in his autobiography, he survived the battle but was taken prisoner. Stanley went on to become one of the 19th century’s most famous foreign correspondents. He went down in the history books as the man who, in 1871, found Dr. David Livingstone, the missionary and explorer who had disappeared in Africa while searching for the headwaters of the Nile River.
“Stanley is the man who found Livingstone and asked, ‘Dr. Livingstone, I presume?’” Ken said.
The young Confederate who put the violets in his cap as a lucky protection might not have fared as well. He was wounded during the battle and his fate now seems lost in time.
For more information: Contact Shiloh National Military Park at www.nps.gov/shil/index.htm
(731) 689-5696 or Blount Small Ship Adventures at (800) 556-7450, www.BlountSmallShipAdventures.com
April 1, 2012
Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch