Leaving Oxford, we rode northeast to Corinth, Mississippi. I didn’t bring chain lube on this journey and I was paying the price with all of the heavy rain scrubbing my gears clean. Stopping at an auto parts store, I picked up a can of lube and proceeded to soak my chain in their lot. A friendly gentleman approached and, realizing we were tourists from our plates, suggested we stop at the Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center just down the road. Great tip! The 15,000 square foot facility features Civil War soldiers cast in bronze, interpretive films of key local battles, and full scale reproductions of field fortifications. A man-made series of small, flowing cascades representing major battles of the Civil War is on an outdoor patio. Admission is free.
Continuing northeast along Mississippi Route 2 we soon cross into Tennessee. Ten additional miles on highway 22 and we entered Shiloh National Military Park on the west bank of the Tennessee River. This location is the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.
Shortly after their successful campaign at Fort Donelson in February 1862, and the subsequent fall of Nashville, the Federals set their sights on Corinth. With the South’s loss of ports along the Cumberland River, the railway line through Corinth became a vital link between the western Confederate territories and Virginia. During March 1862, Ulysses Grant mobilized 45,000 troops while Brigadier General Don Carlos Buell marched an additional 25,000 men from Nashville to converge on Corinth. Grant arrived before Buell and set up a position at Pittsburg Landing on the western shore of the Tennessee River, twenty-two miles northeast of Corinth. Most of his men set camp near a country meeting-house known as Shiloh Church.
Realizing their dire situation, the Confederates assembled 50,000 men at Corinth under the command of General Albert Sidney Johnston. Hoping to destroy Grant’s position before Buell arrived, Johnston marched from Corinth to give battle. At dawn on April 6, 1862, Johnston’s forces attacked. Unprepared and totally surprised, the Federal forces were routed and nearly pushed into the Tennessee River. Despite devastating losses, Grant appeared cool and calm in the aftermath of the day’s battle claiming “The enemy has done all he can do today. Tomorrow morning we will finish him up.” His prediction would prove to be correct.
Control of the Tennessee River was in Federal hands thanks to the support of the gunboats Tyler and Lexington. Buell’s forces arrived that night and with assistance of a steamboat fleet under gunboat cover, they were successfully transferred to Grant’s aid. In the morning, with 25,000 additional men, the Federals counterattacked. By mid-afternoon, Southern forces were in full retreat back to Corinth. The Federals, equally devastated, could not pursue. Up to this date, in terms of human loss, the battle was the costliest ever fought on the American continent. Over 100,000 soldiers fought at Shiloh. The Federals had 13,000 casualties to the Confederate’s 10,700. Grant wrote of the battle “I saw an open field so covered with dead it would have been possible to walk across the clearing, in any direction, stepping on dead bodies, without a foot touching the ground.” By wars end in 1865, it ranked 9th in terms of lives lost.
The horrific loses sustained by the Union were mostly attributed to Grant’s unpreparedness and the fact that he was utterly surprised by the attack. A Pyrrhic victory, many in Washington called for his resignation. But the end result was the retreat of the South and western Tennessee was now controlled by the North. Consequently, Lincoln supported Grant stating, “I can’t spare this man; he fights.”
A tour of Shiloh National Military Park is sobering and somber. There were three distinct features that had the greatest impression for me:
- The Confederate mass graves, many with over three hundred dead each.
- The rows of canons. There are 229 authentic pieces of artillery here, positioned as they were during the battle.
- The U.S. National Cemetery with row after row of “Unknown” graves.
Born and raised in Illinois, I am well aware of the Civil War. Illinois was well represented in Civil War battles. In fact, there are 409 Illinoisans buried at Shiloh with Ohio a distant second at 238. And there were over 36,000 Illinoisans engaged in the battles at Vicksburg: more than any other state. But Illinois didn’t have any significant campaigns fought on its soil and so there are no graveyards or parks as there are in the South. And it only takes one look at a field of tombstones that stretches as far as the eye can see to feel the true impact of war. Each grave representing a life not too different from mine it is often difficult to grasp the true magnitude of it all. Whereas I felt somewhat isolated at Vicksburg, I was immersed at Shiloh.
We left Shiloh and proceeded to Hagy’s Catfish Hotel for a late lunch. As the crow flies, Hagy’s is only a few hundred feet north of the National Cemetery at Shiloh. Not an actual hotel, Hagy’s is a restaurant in a modern wooden structure with some nice views right on the banks of the Tennessee River. Service was prompt and cordial and the fried catfish and hushpuppies were perfect: moist on the inside and crisp on the outside.
We then faced the final leg of our journey and rode on to Franklin, Tennessee. Next morning we loaded up the bikes for the long drive home.