Thanks to a local history buff and good friend, I was able to check off a bucket list item earlier this month.
Dr. Pete Sparks of the Guntersville Historical Society took me, my brother JD and fellow Historical Society member Neal Johnson to tour the Shiloh Battlefield back on Oct. 7.
Shiloh is a place I’ve read about for many years and watched several documentaries on. As a history buff, Shiloh and other Civil War battlefields around the country have always been places I’ve wanted to visit. The historic significance of all these sites like Shiloh, Gettysburg, Antietam, etc., can’t be overlooked when it comes to understanding America as it is today.
When I began working at the Advertiser-Gleam once again, Dr. Sparks visited our office and said, “One of these days soon, we need to plan a trip to Shiloh.” This was a day in late August and Dr. Sparks’ suggestion was all I needed to start planning immediately. We set the date for Oct. 7 right then and there and I began doing my homework.
Over the next several weeks, I read a few books about the battle loaned to me by Dr. Sparks. I already had a good sense of how it started, how the battle transpired and what the outcome was. However, the plethora of details I learned from these particular books and Dr. Sparks was almost overwhelming.
We set a course for northwest Alabama at 7 a.m. sharp and left Guntersville. JD and I were practically giddy the whole way there at the thought of all the new knowledge we were going to gain by day’s end. After a stop for breakfast, we arrived in Corinth, Mississippi, around 9:45 a.m. Dr. Sparks showed us the exact area where the Confederates led by Gen. Albert Sydney Johnston began their march to Shiloh.
The details of the battle and why it all happened isn’t something I’ll get into here. Suffice it to say Dr. Sparks was thorough on those details. We stood in several different areas of the battlefield that Dr. Sparks deemed important. If you’ve been to Shiloh, you know how beautiful the grounds are. If you’ve never been, it’s hard to imagine such a terrible battle happened on a landscape most Southerners would consider heavenly.
The rolling hills of the battlefield are outlined in tall pines, oak trees and some of the most incredible monuments I’ve ever seen. The battlefield is also littered with smaller markers showing specific details from both the Northern and Southern perspectives. Dr. Sparks told us that veterans of the battle of Shiloh were brought back to the battlefield in 1890 to mark all these spots. So, there’s no denying the accuracy of each marker.
We stopped at some of the most infamous areas of the battlefield like Bloody Pond, the Hornets Nest and of course the spot where Johnston died. All of those spots were incredible to see, however, the stops that had the biggest effect on me was the mass Confederate graves and the national cemetery above Pittsburg Landing. There’s a solemnness to those areas that’s hard to describe. Ten years ago, I would have looked at those graves and thought, “I can’t imagine being involved in such a terrible fight at such a young age.” Now, at the age of 30, my thoughts were, “I can’t imagine either of my boys having to go off and fight such a battle.”
As a historian, it’s common to use books and television to form your point of view of the Civil War. It was a war which tore the country apart for four years that ended with the North victorious. However, going to one of these battlefields puts the war into an actual human perspective. The monuments to the dead at Shiloh are a sober reminder of the sacrifices made on both sides.
We finished up the tour by looking at the monument constructed at the site where General Ulysses S. Grant made his camp the night after the first day of battle on April 6, 1862. It was in the spot where he had the famous conversation with William T. Sherman.
Sherman: “Well Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?”
Grant: “Yep. Lick ‘em tomorrow though.”
That was a real treat to see the actual ground where such a significant moment in the entire war occurred. We then walked down the hill to see Pittsburg Landing, which was also a highlight.
Honestly, there wasn’t a single moment that wasn’t a highlight. Dr. Sparks is an unbelievable historian and story teller as well. He really made the whole area come alive on a day when barely anyone was on the grounds and oh yeah, we were about 158 years removed from when the battle actually happened.
My suggestion: Take the not so distant trip over to Shiloh whenever you get a chance. Because of it, I’ve officially caught the Civil War battlefield bug and can’t wait to go see another one. Of course, I’ll probably be heading back to Shiloh before too long to soak it all in once again.