Civil War Road Trip

The Beauty and Horror of Shiloh
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Oct. 4 2010 4:50 PM

Civil War Road Trip

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Click here to launch a slideshow on bloody Shiloh.

John Swansburg John Swansburg

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor.

After our tour of Vicksburg wraps up, we drive north to Oxford, Miss., home of the Ole Miss Rebels—at least until they pick a new, more PC mascot—and stay at a bed and breakfast just off the town square, in a room presided over by a portrait of Robert E. Lee. Departing early the next morning, we head north to Tennessee. Our destination is the Shiloh National Military Park, site of one of the bloodiest engagements in the Civil War's Western Theater.

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At the visitor center, we meet up with Jimmy Whittington, who is outfitted in shorts, a golf shirt, and a canvas safari hat. A native of the area—he's the former mayor of nearby Selmer, Tenn.—Whittington's been giving tours of Shiloh for 20 years. His rate for his services is "whatever you think it was worth."

Whittington starts us out with some background. As is the case with many Civil War engagements, the ground on which the Battle of Shiloh was fought was not of particular significance. The real prize wasn't here in Tennessee; it was 20 miles to the southwest, in Corinth, Miss., the site of a strategic railroad crossing the Confederacy was determined to hold and the Union was determined to take. Ulysses S. Grant landed his troops here at Shiloh because he was moving his men down the Tennessee River by boat, the river was swollen due to heavy rains, and this was a decent place to get their boots on dry land. Our first stop is the spot where his troops came ashore. But to get there we have to walk through the Shiloh National Cemetery.

Shiloh National Cemetery.
Shiloh National Cemetery

It's the first moment on the road trip when we're confronted head-on with the carnage of the Civil War. This is fitting, in a way, because the death toll at Shiloh came as a shock to the nation; in the spring of 1862, the war was barely a year old. The 20,000 casualties—soldiers killed, wounded, or missing—over the course of two days of fighting here doubled the total suffered at the four previous major engagements combined.   Some 3,500 Union soldiers are buried in the Shiloh cemetery, 2,300 of them in graves marked "unknown."   National cemeteries are reserved for veterans of the U.S. military, and in 1866, when the cemetery was established, soldiers who had served the Confederate States of America were still considered traitors. After the battle, Union troops buried the Confederate dead in 11 or 12 mass graves on the battlefield, where they remain today. Only five have been found and marked.

We now pile into Whittington's Ford and head to the southern edge of the battlefield, where the battle began in the early morning of April 6. Grant was confident that Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston wouldn't have the nerve to march his 42,000 men out of Corinth and attack. Yet Johnston believed that his best chance to defeat Grant was to surprise him—and to do so before reinforcements arrived. (Grant had 40,000 men with him; 35,000 more, under the command of Don Carlos Buell, were on their way.) We get out of the car and walk down a wooded path. Whittington explains that we're now retracing the footsteps of a small detachment of Union scouts sent by Col. Everett Peabody, who had a feeling that, despite his superior's assertions that the Rebels were in Corinth ironing their uniforms, something was afoot. Peabody's scouts came to this clearing …

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… and discovered a column of 10,000 Confederates advancing on the Union encampments, where the main concern was what's for breakfast. (Hardtack? Again?) The writing of a skilled historian can make a moment like this play out cinematically in the mind's eye. But to stand where that handful of Union soldiers stood and imagine that field suddenly teeming with gray uniforms is to experience the moment viscerally. On our way back to the car, Whittington has us walk shoulder-to-shoulder through the trees, to give us a sense of how difficult it would have been for the fleeing Federals to stay in formation with the Rebels nipping at their heels, the branches scratching at their faces.

The Confederate surprise succeeds, at least at first, but the Union forces eventually regroup—thanks in part to the steady hand of William Tecumseh Sherman.   Sherman will be wounded twice at Shiloh as he rallies his men to stand and fight, at one point catching a bullet in his hand. (A shot from the same volley killed Sherman's orderly.) Says Whittington, "When we have people come here from Georgia, and they hear that story, they say, Dang!"

A day of vicious fighting ensues. Whittington keeps a collection of weather-beaten, corkboard-mounted maps in the back of his truck, the positions of the Union and Confederate divisions marked by pieces of blue (Union) and red (Confederate) tape. At each stop, he pulls them out and orients us, showing us how the battle lines are redrawn as the day progresses.

Jimmy Whittington.
Jimmy Whittington

Whittington becomes especially animated when debunking what he considers to be bad history.   Toward midday, we arrive at the so-called Sunken Road, a country lane where, tradition holds, the battle's heaviest fighting occurred, at a position that came to be known as the Hornet's Nest.   Whittington doesn't buy it. The Hornet's Nest was in the center of the Union line, but he says there is ample evidence that the majority of the Confederate brigades engaged at Shiloh spent the day pressing the Union's left and right flanks, leaving precious few Rebels to fight in the center. How, then, could the deadliest fighting have taken place there? Whittington notes with a wry smile that the Union troops who fought at the Hornet's Nest—mostly Iowans—played a suspiciously pivotal role in writing the battle's history after the war.

Shiloh is remote—120 miles from Memphis, Tenn.; 140 from Nashville, Tenn.; 180 from Birmingham, Ala.—but as we crisscross the battlefield, I begin to understand why buffs make the pilgrimage. Unlike Vicksburg, which today doesn't look much like it did in 1863, the Shiloh battlefield still appears largely the same as when Grant landed here 148 years ago.   This makes imagining how the battle unfolded that much easier. Shiloh is also strikingly beautiful, though some of the loveliest corners of the field in 2010 were the ghastliest during the battle. At one point in the day, Union and Confederate troops confronted one another in a picturesque peach orchard. The fighting there was so fierce that a nearby pond came to be known as Bloody Pond, as it was said to have turned red with the blood of the fallen. Whittington dismisses this story, noting that there are no contemporaneous accounts of a pond soaked with blood. Regardless of the story's veracity, however, today an algae grows in the pond that gives the water a burnt-red hue, making it at the very least a powerful symbol of the awful events that transpired near its banks.

Bloody Pond.
Bloody Pond

Before embarking on this road trip, I'd expected that Civil War tour guides would be boosters for their home battlefields—if you give tours of Shiloh, it's only natural to start to think that it was the most important clash of the war. But that's not the case with Whittington. At the end of our tour, he grows pensive, confessing that he's not sure what, if anything, was accomplished by the fighting he's just described. The Confederates fail to rout the Union before the sun sets on the first day of hostilities. Union reinforcements arrive overnight, allowing the Federals to counterattack in the morning. They push the Rebels back, but they also fail to score a decisive victory. So what has changed between April 5 and April 8, 1862, Whittington asks. Albert Sidney Johnston, the Confederate commander, is dead, the highest-ranking officer on either side to be killed in battle during the war. Grant is about to be effectively demoted for having allowed the Confederates to get the jump on him. More than 3,000 soldiers are dead, more than 16,000 wounded. And the Confederates are back in Corinth, the Union still encamped at Shiloh.

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On that cheery note, we bid farewell to Whittington. Before getting on the road to Chattanooga, Tenn., we duck into the park service bookstore, where the biography section is conveniently divided into Union and Confederate shelves. I purchase a map of the battlefield, a book-length study of the battle, and a hat emblazoned with the logo of the USS Shiloh. (What can I say, I'm caught up in the moment.) At the register, I strike up a conversation with a clerk named Charlie. Parker Hills, our Vicksburg guide, has asked me to pass along his best wishes to the folks at the Shiloh park, so I do.

This prompts Charlie to tell me an old story about Vicksburg: One day during the long siege, a minié ball fired from the Union lines hits a Confederate soldier, passes through his genitals, and lodges in the groin of a young lady who had the misfortune to be standing nearby. Nine months later, this young lady gives birth to a baby boy, swearing all the while that she's still a virgin. Charlie says he once asked Parker Hills if he thought the story was true. "It doesn't matter if I believe that story," Hills responded. "It doesn't matter if you believe that story. All that matters is whether that young lady's parents believed that story."

For the record, you should not believe that story.

If you visit:

  • Jimmy Whittington doesn't maintain a Web site, as some of the other Shiloh guides do, but you can reach him through the National Park Service. Or try him at home: (731) 645-7521.
  • We ended up paying Whittington $250 for a five-hour tour. Guides at other battlefields on our itinerary had quoted us rates ranging from $25 to $35 an hour, but Whittington had given us an outstanding tour, and his willingness to let us determine the price inclined us to err on the side of generosity.
  • Shiloh is in the middle of nowhere, but if you're ever in Nashville, Tenn., and have a day to kill, consider making the trip. From Nashville, you can drive down a segment of the Natchez Trace Parkway that is hands down one of the most beautiful stretches of road in the entire country.

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