Had Come Close to a Dazzling Victory

Water Oaks Pond, where hundreds of wounded soldiers on both sides crawled to get a desperate drink of water at Shiloh. This image was taken on April 6, 2019, the 157th battle anniversary of the battle’s first day in dawn’s dreamy mist. Photo by Chris Heisey

Without a second passing after the question is asked: What is my favorite battlefield park or site to visit and photograph, my answer is Shiloh, in southwestern Tennessee along the Mississippi border? It’s a battlefield that just still feels like 1862 wedged between two creeks and flanked by the Tennessee River that oddly flows north. When I was a kid some 50 years ago now, I got hooked on the Civil War mainly through the writings of Bruce Catton. His way of weaving words and stories was perfect for this kid eager to read about a fascinating war.

“On paper,” Mr. Catton writes in superb This Hallowed Ground, “Shiloh was a draw; actually it was one of the decisive battles of the war. It was a battle the Confederacy simply had to win. For it had been a blow struck to restore a disastrously lost balance, a desperate attempt to re-establish the Confederate frontier in the Kentucky-Ohio Valley. It had failed, and the fact that it had come close to being a dazzling victory did not offset the failure….”

Shiloh National Military Park is located 11 miles south of Savannah, Tennessee, the county seat of Hardin County, which was founded in 1819 and named after a Revolutionary War veteran, Colonel Joseph Hardin. In 1860, census records tallied only 11,200 residents in the county mostly of whom were farmers who eked out a living farming land that was shallow and humus poor hardly ideal for sustaining huge farms or plantation-based agriculture. In the 2010, the census counted just over 26,000 residents and neighbors next to a national treasure – Shiloh.

7 Responses to Had Come Close to a Dazzling Victory

  1. I agree with you, Chris. Even though I live in the East and go regularly to Gettysburg and the Virginia battlefields, as a battlefield experience Shiloh is my top choice. It looks much closer to how I believe it appeared in the 1860s than many of the other sites. There are pieces of all the minor and elements of the major battlefields that have been not been disturbed by subsequent years.
    Of many evocative elements at Shiloh, the famous “Bloody Pond” is most moving. I do have a certain sympathy for the terrified Union soldiers, many new to battles, who huddled at the bottom of the bluff at Pittsburg Landing.
    Your photograph is beautiful.

  2. I was surprised to read the opinion that the battle ended in a “draw” after the Confederates failed to achieve their objective and retired to Corinth under hot pursuit through Fallen Timbers. I have visited the National Military Park twice; there are few battlefields as preserved as this one(perhaps Spottsylvania shares that distinction)

    1. Good observation, and excellent discussion point: “Was Shiloh a Draw?”
      It can be argued that Federal forces under U.S. Grant won a tactical victory: overcame early reverses and pushed the attacking Rebels off the field of battle, leaving both sides nearly equally depleted on 9 April 1862. And it can be argued that Beauregard won a strategic victory, because his forces (initially commanded by Albert Sidney Johnston) performed the unthinkable in attacking Grant’s position (where complacency and hubris ruled) and came within coo-ee of winning the contest on 6 April. And importantly, the near-surprise Rebel attack upset Henry Halleck’s master plan: 1) clear organized Rebel forces out of Missouri; 2) achieve victory at Island No.10; and 3) front up at Pittsburg Landing and personally lead the combined forces of Grant, Buell (and Pope) to Final Victory. Major General Halleck departed the Western theatre in July, riding on the laurels of major achievements… but not the BIG one. And Beauregard (and then Bragg) lived to fight another day… for one more entire year.

      1. Mike: Those are good points but I think it’s a reach. The battle ended on April 7, not April 6. Tactically, the Rebel army was driven from the field. From a strategic perspective, the ultimate result was the Confederate loss of the important rail hub of Corinth in May – which they desperately and unsuccessfully sought to re-take 6 months later.

      2. I know… there is so much about Shiloh that is unsatisfying, and incomplete. The Federal tactical victory was diminished due to Sherman’s lackluster pursuit of the withdrawing Rebels on April 8th. The Rebel veterans of Shiloh returned safely to Corinth and were soon joined by Van Dorn from Arkansas, the combined forces presenting the NEXT serious problem… or opportunity. Because “gathered together at Corinth” meant the Rebels were not in force at New Orleans City, or Fort Pillow, or Vicksburg. And they mostly sat waiting for Major General Halleck’s ponderous approach.
        A major strategic objective of the Rebel forces at Shiloh: foreign recognition. Agents from England, France and other European powers were on extended holidays at Richmond, awaiting news of the result in Tennessee. And soon as Beauregard sent his “complete Victory” telegram on April 6, efforts commenced, spearheaded by President Jefferson Davis, to claim “the significant Rebel victory at Shiloh” as grounds for that recognition. And that hard-sell effort persisted through all of April 1862.
        Meanwhile, Brigadier General Ormsby Mitchel (of Buell’s Army of the Ohio) walked into Huntsville Alabama April 11th and cut the Memphis & Charleston Railroad; and the Mobile & Ohio Railroad had been steadily diminishing in length from its northern end (at the time of Shiloh, only in Rebel control south of Union City.) The five-foot by five-foot patch of ground where those lines crossed at Corinth was steadily losing significance. And when Beauregard evacuated Corinth end of May 1862, there were no rail lines crossing at that Mississippi village. [Call it a victory for Halleck, but it was not achieved at Shiloh.]
        Strategically, the Rebels failed to gain foreign recognition: efforts to promote “Confederate Victory at Shiloh” ended with the LOSS of New Orleans to Farragut’s forces, end of April. But Federal strategic goals went begging, too. The reason for Halleck’s collection of such a massive force at Savannah, Crump’s Landing and Pittsburg Landing, temporarily under command of U.S. Grant, was not to sit waiting for a battle to occur at Shiloh; but for Henry Halleck to take personal command of that massive force, leading Grant, Buell and John Pope to Final Victory over the Rebels of the Western Theatre at Corinth. Obviously, this did not happen. And Flag-officer Farragut misread his orders, and he failed to take possession of an almost empty Vicksburg. The “crushing out of Rebellion in the West” did not take place by June 1862 as planned; instead the Rebels gained an additional year of vitality. [Call it a strategic victory for the Rebels, even though it was not the strategic victory of recognition they were after.] And it was TIME bought due to their audacity in attacking at Shiloh.

      3. I don’t disagree with any of those points but – without expanding the strategic level beyond the Western Tennessee/Northern Mississippi theater in Spring 1862 – I think the narrow fact is that the Confederates lost the battle and then lost Corinth. Those were both significant defeats. No doubt that they could (and maybe should) have been even bigger defeats, but I doubt that anybody in Richmond was feeling good about any of the results – as opposed, possibly, to a sigh of relief about some.

  3. At the south end of the park, looking out toward where the Confederates launched their first attack, it feels like it’s that initial moment when they appear. Love this park.

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