Friday, April 06, 2007

The day peach blossoms fell like snowflakes

The one room log church building rests on a small incline and looks almost like an afterthought. The church contains no pulpit, no stained glass. It was built simply as a place for Methodists to worship, its name a Hebrew word meaning "place of peace."

One hundred and forty-five springs ago, this quiet stretch of land overlooking the Tennessee River witnessed the bloodiest fighting ever seen in North America to that time. More soldiers fell on this West Tennessee land at a two-day battle during that most uncivil of wars than had been killed in all previous American wars combined.

Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's army had found Middle and West Tennessee to be easy pickings during the early months of 1862. After capturing Ft. Henry and Ft. Donelson, Grant headed south toward the railroad line at Corinth, Miss., where Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston and 40,000 men were waiting.

Johnston hoped to reverse Confederate fortunes at Shiloh and decided to take the offensive by attacking Grant's army, which was stationed near Pittsburg Landing, Tenn., on the morning of Sunday, April 6, 1862.

The original 25 x 30 foot log Methodist church for which the battle is named is no longer standing, having been destroyed in the battle. A replica has been built by the Sons of the Confederate Veterans near the current church, where the Rev. Danny Adkisson holds services each Sunday at 9 a.m.

Behind the church is a cemetery, sprinkled with graves of church members and others lost to history. One large marker sports a familiar name. Former Tennessee governor Ray Blanton, who was born here, is buried at Shiloh.

He rests underneath a marker that reads "Friend of the People."

"It should say 'friend of the prisoner,'" an onlooker said.

Just down from Shiloh Church is Fraley Field, where Major James Powell and a Union patrol of 200 men stumbled into Confederate pickets at 4:55 a.m. the first morning of the battle (April 6).

Grant did not believe Johnston would attack, thinking he would stay at Corinth. One suspects he was hoping so, given that the bulk of his troops that day were raw recruits he was quickly training, many of whom had not yet, as the soldiers of the time would say, seen the elephant.

All that became academic in Fraley Field. The Federals were taken completely by surprise.

The Confederates routed the surprised Union army at first, pushing many of them back to the Tennessee River. By noon that Sunday, the Federals finally dug in along a sunken road, taking cover behind oak trees, undergrowth and a fence line.

For the next 11 hours, Confederates advanced 11 times in what a placard at the battlefield calls "some of the most desperate and deadly fighting of the war." Johnston's army dubbed the spot The Hornets Nest because of the minie balls one said was swarming the area like hornets.

The battle stood at a stalemate until late afternoon, when Confederate Gen. Daniel Ruggles pointed 62 cannons at the Union line, the most ever in a North American battle at that time.

After more than an hour of bombardment, the Confederates flanked the Union line and captured 2,250 men from Gen. Benjamin Prentiss' division. The South, however, had just lost arguably its most important casualty.

Around 2 p.m., Johnston rode forward to encourage his advancing troops to attack the Federal line. Tennessee Gov. Isham G. Harris, a volunteer aid, saw Johnston reel in his saddle.

Advancing to his side, Harris asked Johnston if he was wounded. "Yes," he said, "and I fear seriously."

Forty-five minutes later, Johnston was dead, an artery in his right knee torn by a minie ball that could have been fired by his own men. He was the highest-ranking officer of either army to die in battle during the war. Confederate president Jefferson Davis would go to his grave believing Southern fortunes turned with Johnston's passing.

Near the tree where Johnston fell, heavy fighting had taken place throughout the day in a peach orchard, where peach blossoms disturbed by the fighting fell like snowflakes.

"Everywhere around us the storm began to rage," a Union soldier later wrote. "The very trees seemed to protest against it."

As the sun set April 6, wounded soldiers from both armies crawled to a small pond near the orchard for a drink of water and to tend to wounds. A light rain began to fall. Eyewitnesses said later the pond water stained crimson as a result of the blood, thereafter becoming known as Bloody Pond.

"All the wretched debris of battle still littered the earth as far as one could see in every direction," wrote Ambrose Bierce, then a 20-year-old soldier in the Army of the Ohio. "Men? There were men enough; all dead."

During the night, Union Gen. D.C. Buell arrived at Pittsburg Landing with reinforcements. The Union army was 55,000 strong as dawn broke April 7. Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, who replaced the fallen Johnston as commander, was unaware that Buell had arrived and ordered his troops to attack the Federal line at 6 a.m.

The advancing Confederates were at first successful, but were soon stopped by the superior Union force. A final Southern attack at Water Oaks Pond could not break the Union line.

With 15,000 of his troops dead, wounded or missing, Beauregard ordered a retreat to Corinth. The battle was over.

At the battlefield, Grant ordered a quick mass burial of Confederate and Union soldiers because of the heat. Union soldiers were dug up in 1866 and buried in the national cemetery sits on the battlefield site.

The Confederates remain. At one such site, the remains of more than 700 Confederate soldiers are stacked in layers seven deep.

Although some in the north labeled Grant a butcher after Shiloh, he left West Tennessee for Vicksburg, Miss., which would fall on July 4, 1863. President Abraham Lincoln, who liked the way Grant fought, would make him top Union commander. By 1868, he would be president of the United States.

The Confederates were not so fortunate.


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