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Friday, April 6, 2012

The Battle of Shiloh's Sesquicentennial

It was the sixth of April
Just at the break of day
The drums and fifes were playing
For us to march away

The feeling of that hour
I do remember still
For the wounded and the dying
That lay on Shiloh Hill

The Battle of Shiloh Hill attributed to M.B. Smith (Co. C, 2nd Regiment, Texas Vol.). 

One hundred and fifty years ago in Tennessee, the armies of the Union and the Confederacy fought the first really great and terrible battle of the Civil War.  The carnage was appalling on both sides.  Though the war was about a year old, this battle was the worst that had been yet seen.

By the end of the war, it would not rank in the top five of the worst battles for casualties or suffering.  The National Park Service has a terrific summary of the battle here.

It was a battle that signaled the shape of things to come.  Also, it was a battle that is, for me, like a microcosm of the war.  On the morning of April 6, the Confederate forces, under Generals Albert Sidney Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard, took the Union forces, under Ulysses S. Grant (William T. Sherman was also present) by surprise, and, in fierce fighting, pushed the Union back, demonstrating a command of the battlefield.  However, by the end of the day, the Confederates, though preliminarily victorious, had lost their commanding general to battlefield injuries, and they were exhausted, ill equipped, and underfed.  Nonetheless, the day is remembered fondly in Confederate songs such as "Hold Our Glasses Steady" which is all about how big a beating the South gave the North on day one of the battle.

The problem is, that song conveniently forgets the events of April 7, 1862.  The Confederates, despite having been exhausted and hungry at the end of the first day of battle, had had little rest and provision.  They had captured some Union supplies, but through the night, they suffered bombardment from Union ironclads on the Tennessee River, which while inflicting minimal casulaties, seriously impaired the troops ability to rest.  During the night, Grant received reinforcements, and in the morning, the battle was renewed with a fierce Union counter-attack.  Ultimately the Confederates were driven from the field, at terrible cost to both sides, and the way was opened for the Union to enter the Mississippi Valley and ultimately to gain control of rail and waterways which severely damaged the Confederate cause.

However, it dawned on both sides after Shiloh, that there would be no quick victory for either side.  Nonetheless, I see Shiloh as a kind of pattern for how the war would go.  While the South might seize quick victory at first and be quick to remember the glory, the truth was that the Union was a determined giant that was ultimately unstoppable and would pay the cost to end the war with victory.

And why is Shiloh important to me, beyond it's historical lessons?

I had a third great grandfather at the battle.  He fought, from my persepctive, on the wrong side, being a private in the 21st Alabama Infantry Regiment.  He had been an overseer (according to census records) in his civilian life, which is not something that makes me proud.  My past is intimately intertwined with the great and terrible questions of 150 years ago: war, slavery, honor, duty, patriotism, rascism, so called "states rights." 

My ancestor was Burrell Hudson (some public information here) and he left his wife and children to fight for the Confederacy.  His life thereafter was tragic, just as our nation suffered a national tragedy.  On the first day of Shiloh, his unit fought with distinction ("The 21st Alabama covered themselves with glory. This regiment captured two batteries") on the first day of battle.  They retreated with the rest of the army when Grant pushed them back.  The unit saw little additional action.  I would expect that my third great grandfather's feelings might have been like those quoted by a Union soldier survivor of Shiloh: "No soldier who took part in the two day’s engagement at Shiloh ever spoiled for a fight again,” recalled one Union veteran. “We wanted a square, stand-up fight [and] got all we wanted of it.”

But my ancestor had more to suffer.  As I have written elsewhere, Third Great Grandfather Hudson was captured with most of his unit after the battle of Mobile Bay, when Admiral Farragut took the port from the Confederary.  Hudson died in federal custody in the terrible conditions of the Elmira POW camp.  Later his wife died and his children were left as orphans to be raised by his father and mother-in-law. 

So, as I remember this terrible battle from our history, I also think of the toll on my own family, and a am amazed by how much still is unresolved after so much suffering and sacrifice.  I know the Confederates were wrong, and wrong on just about every level.  Yet our nation, which is only whole because Lincoln fought to preserve the Union and successfully made the war into more than a struggle for Union, but added to it emancipation, still looks back at times with fondness for the Confederacy. 

I remember that our country can do great wrong, and that my ancestors were a part of it, and I resolve to do better.  We have paid the price, at Shiloh and other places, for our follies, and we must continue to pay.

Until we find a way to balance the ledger.

It's a long road, but one I will walk.

So I remember Shiloh.  A terrible battle, at a place that means Place of Peace; an American paradox.