The 150th anniversary of the Civil War is mostly passing quietly, commemorated by battle reenactments attended by the nation’s numerous Civil War buffs. Last year’s reenactment of First Bull Run (Manassas, Va.), the war’s first major clash, outside Washington, D.C., attracted a large but still less than expected crowd, thanks mostly to the oppressive July heat. That battle’s participants had felt a similar heat but lacked the option of not attending.
Fifty years ago, the Civil War Centennial was celebrated but afterwards was mostly remembered as a dud. Battle reenactments then lacked today’s panache. And social tensions lingered. The last veterans had only died a few years before. Their children were still numerous and active, such as U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Sam Rayburn. The son of a Confederate soldier, he worried that reenactors in blue and gray would spark renewed regional hostility. And of course, the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. Defiant southern segregationists had appropriated the Confederate battle flag as their emblem.
Today’s remembrance of the Civil War is more dispassionate. The anniversary of Shiloh was in April. It’s not so much recalled as Gettysburg or Antietam. But it was at the time, in 1862, the bloodiest battle ever fought in North America, and probably the Western Hemisphere. Across 2 days over 23,000 were killed, wounded, captured or missing. Reputedly the South “never smiled” afterwards. And neither north nor south could then pretend the war would be short with minimal cost.
A recent visit to Shiloh, located at the bottom of Tennessee near Corinth, Mississippi, reveals a bucolic park nestled over the Tennessee River. The National Park Service’s typically immaculate maintenance of America’s battlefields often makes recalling them as scenes of mass carnage difficult. There is a national cemetery there, along with a stately visitor center resembling an antebellum mansion, countless monuments plus cannons, and acres of trees. Today’s battlefields, like most of America, are almost always more forested now than then, when farmers more thoroughly cleared their land for tillage or livestock.
Like First Bull Run, Shiloh was fought on Sunday around a Methodist church. At Bull Run, parishioners were heading to worship at Sudley Methodist when Union troops began streaming by, eventually seizing the church as a hospital. At Shiloh, where hostilities began before dawn, parishioners presumably knew better than to head for their simple log sanctuary, around which General William Sherman was encamped. Today, there is a recreation of the log church, alongside the modern Shiloh United Methodist Church, which looks old, made of stone and brick, but which was actually built in the 1940s. Its cemetery seemingly is favored by Civil War aficionados; even recent grave stones tout Confederate ancestry. The Sudley United Methodist Church at Bull Run also remains active, though sadly the original sanctuary, with its blood stained floors, was replaced in the 1920s.
Sherman was just one of several major characters at Shiloh. His commander was Ulysses S. Grant, by then already a celebrity for having captured only 2 months before Forts Henry and Donelson, which respectively guarded the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. At Donelson he had demanded and received “unconditional surrender,” which became his new moniker, neatly fitting his initials. The surrendering Confederate general at Donelson was Simon Buckner, a pre-war friend to Grant who was offended by the ostensibly ignoble demand. Bucker’s son would become a U.S. Army general who died at Okinawa 83 years later, the most senior American commander to die in combat during World War II.
The most senior commander to die in the Civil War arguably was Confederate commander Albert Sidney Johnston. “If he’s not a general, we have no general,” Confederate President Jefferson Davis reputedly declared. Robert E. Lee at this time was still relatively unknown, and Johnston could have become the South’s most celebrated hero. He moved his troops undetected within one mile of Grant’s unfortified army, and he easily swept through Sherman and others as he launched his surprise attack.
When his troops stopped to ransack evacuated Union camps, Johnston grabbed a Union tin cup, pronounced it sufficient booty for himself, and rallied his troops by clanging the trophy against their raised bayonets. Always at the front, he ignored a bullet wound to his leg, until he collapsed from his horse from blood loss, quickly dying. General Pierre Beauregard, the commander from First Bull Run, took command. Despite his regale name and appearance, Beauregard lacked Johnston’s audacity. Prematurely Beauregard telegrammed Jefferson Davis of a great victory at Shiloh.
Having been thoroughly surprised and whipped during the day, Grant that night, as his troops huddled along the Tennessee River, defiantly muttered, “Not beaten yet by a damn sight.” His subordinate, Sherman, told him, “We’ve had the devil’s own day.” But Grant reiterated: “Lick ’em tomorrow.” This scene was re-created in the 1962 movie How the West was Won, with John Wayne portraying Sherman.
Thanks to Grant’s defiance, for which he would be celebrated countless times throughout the rest of the war, and reinforcements arriving throughout the night, the Confederates were routed the next day, retreating to Corinth. “Federal troops sprouted from the ground like mushrooms,” one Confederate would recall. Among those reinforcements was the command of General Lew Wallace, who had seemingly wandered lost with his troops on remote roads throughout the battle’s horrendous first day.
Always insisting he was faithful to his orders, Wallace spent the rest of his life seeking to redeem his reputation. He eventually succeeded by writing the massive best seller, the biblical epic Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ, which would famously become a 1959 film starring Charlton Heston. Its story has a Hebrew prince falsely accused and sold into slavery, only to reclaim his reputation in a chariot race against his Roman accuser, and later finding salvation by witnessing Christ’s crucifixion. Supposedly General Wallace, who also experienced Christian conversion, was autobiographically relating his own journey of recovery through the drama of Judah Ben-Hur.
“It all seemed like a dream,” later related one Confederate memoirist of his first exposure to combat at Shiloh. A new movie at the Park Service visitor center tells the battle’s story set to the tune of the resolute old 19th century hymn, “How Firm a Foundation,” a favorite for General Robert E. Lee and countless others of the time. The opening scene, thanks to the magic of computer graphics, shows dozens of chugging northern steam ships ferrying Grant’s troops down the Tennessee River to Shiloh after his great victories at Forts Henry and Donelson.
The Civil War was the first great industrial war in which massed armies moved with relative ease by steamship and locomotive, targeting strategic rivers and railroads. Against the unparalleled mechanized might of the north, the South never really had a chance, despite the audacity of commanders like Johnston and Lee. More than half a million more men would die after Shiloh, but the result was almost preordained.
Commemorating the Civil War’s 150th anniversary, and visiting battlefields such as Shiloh and Fort Donelson, itself a beautiful bluff over the Cumberland River with massive Confederate artillery still aimed north, are ways to pay an important tribute to the slain who built our nation.