Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Shiloh, 2015

I am just back from the Shiloh National Battlefield near Savannah, Tenn. Savannah is in the southwest corner of Tennessee but still 50-60 miles from Memphis. If you locate where Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama all come together you are in the right place.

Like Gettysburg Battlefield, there are endless books, opinions, and Monday-morning general-ing. So much so that I am one of those persons who is reluctant to even admit I’ve been there rather than starting an argument. I would suggest reading Winston Groom’s “Shiloh 1862” and Shelby Foote’s “Shiloh” for two good perspectives. Before them all was Bruce Catton’s “Grant Moves South.” That ought to be enough re-writing of Shiloh to fill about any obsession.

After Shiloh so much was said about how neither side destroyed the other. This argument continues. I did find I was fascinated by all the maneuvering and movement during the two-day battle. Part of the outcome was caused by the fact that troops became separated from each other. Three days of marching and preparation by the Confederate troop ended in a twelve-hour burst that when finally exhausted could not be rebuilt. Marching into battle is one thing. Staying in battle turned out to be something else.

No one envisioned 3,400 dead brothers, sons, husbands, and fathers. No one would have guessed that the battle would last only 34 hours. We might tend to think of the mighty clashes of the Greeks and the Trojans or Napoleon and Wellington. The scale of the fighting and dying was unknown in the states at the time and, for all the saber rattling on both sides, the carnage was beyond imagination. The awful slaughter convinced both sides that the Civil War was going to be long and unpleasant.

Yet, the two armies separated on Saturday night as if to lick their wounds and then waded in to each other again on Sunday. For the Confederate troops, it just wasn’t going to be a good weekend. The Union had more fresh men. The Confederate troops apparently had one good fight in them. The Union only lacked confidence. The Confederates were lacking most everything. Steam power versus man power. The Union could easily ferry troops against the river current. By Sunday afternoon it was all over.

Today, Shiloh is surrounded by a sleepy countryside. This is farmland with more horses and cows than people, it seems. But also it is easy on the eye. The air is clean, the sky blue. There is a bit of barge traffic on the Tennessee. The mighty Tennessee River which started at the other end of Tennessee, at Knoxville, and has swept west through northern Alabama, here turns north and, in a funny way of thinking about, flows downhill, of course, towards Land Between the Lakes and the Ohio River. Which makes Shiloh, Huntsville, Alabama, and Knoxville and all of us in east Tennessee part of the Mississippi River watershed.

The birding in southwest-central Tennessee isn’t much different than here in upper east Tennessee. On this trip spring was just a bit ahead of us but not by much. Mostly, we’re talking the difference in seasons over a distance equal to the height of Tennessee. They are a little more likely to have flyway birds than us but we also get mountain-migration birds they probably do not get. It was nice to see the wildlife management-type pockets but they were also disconnected unlike what we see in the mountains.

Civil War battlefields are everywhere. Some of them very insignificant. But Shiloh and Gettysburg stand out for their terrible slaughter. “Terrible Swift Sword,” is the title of one of Bruce Catton’s books on the Civil War and the sword and cannon were very terrible in the 34 hours of Shiloh.

Photograph: Is from the notorious hornet's nest looking towards the Confederate line charging directly towards the sign and to the sign's right all the way to the horizon. The 62 cannon barrage is from the left of the field. The Union troops were hunkered down in the woods to the right as the Confederate line approached. I took this photograph in late March 2015 and I suspect it shouldn't be much off from April, 1862.


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