A Traveler’s Guide to Shiloh National Military Park

By Audrey W. | Arcadia Staff

In early April 1862, a battle between Union and Confederate forces erupted in southwestern Tennessee. At the time, the Battle of Shiloh saw the highest number of casualties of the war, only later passed by the Battle of Gettysburg. Today, the park has been expertly preserved. Sitting just outside Savannah, Tennessee, Shiloh National Military Park welcomes their guests to explore the history of the land, and learn of the people who gave their lives to defend their beliefs. This is your traveler’s guide into the past and present of Shiloh National Military Park. 

How it Began

 During early 1862, the Confederate Army faced detrimental defeats at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson. General Albert Sidney Johnston saw troops through both battles, and later retreated with them to Tennessee near the small settlements of Shiloh and Corinth to forge a new plan of attack. Corinth was an important site for the Confederacy, as they utilized the town’s railway station to transport goods and troops between the Mississippi River and the Atlantic Ocean.
In early March of that same year, Union Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Don Carlos Buell received orders to attack the railroads near Corinth. Grant would lead his troops through west Tennessee up the Tennessee River toward Savannah, where they would await the arrival of Buell’s forces from Ohio. The two generals would then leader their combined forces into battle.

Confederate general Albert Sidney Johnston.For the Confederacy, General Johnston was one of the most qualified and experienced leaders in the army. Suspecting these plans for attack, he focused an estimated 55,000 troops around Corinth and Shiloh - just 20 miles from where Grant’s troops camped. The day before the attack, 40,000 Confederate soldiers set out for Shiloh, hoping to attack Grant before Buell’s army arrived. The two armies were evenly matched in manpower, but the Confederacy lacked the modern artillery and weapons that the Union army sported. In addition, compared to the Union soldiers, those in the Confederacy had very little fighting experience. As it would turn out, their general’s fiery determination to force out Grant’s troops would prove inadequate.

Three Days of Fighting

Before dawn on April 6, the Confederate Army began moving toward where the Union troops had set up their camp. Even though Johnston’s army hadn’t bothered to hide their noise in the days leading up to the attack, they were successful in catching Grant’s troops off guard. Not a single person on the Union side knew there was a Confederate camp nearby. Day one of the battle was a clear victory for Johnston and his men, and they successfully pushed Union soldiers back from the Mississippi River. That night, Grant sent a telegraph to his commander revealing his dismay, claiming he hadn’t the slightest hint that they would be attacked. 
Throughout that night, small forces of Union soldiers were sent out to scour the land. They quickly learned of a massive collection of Confederate troops. They returned to their commanders early the next morning, where the Union forces were moving forward preparing for battle. In their confusion from a rapid counterattack, the Confederate troops were scattered. However, due to little coordination between leaders on both sides, and terrain that was difficult to navigate, neither side emerged victorious. After a series of missteps, Union soldiers were forced to retreat even further, making victory a distant notion.
Throughout that night, Buell’s army began to arrive. Now, the Union army had nearly twice as many men as the Confederate army. Unaware that the Union army had then doubled, Confederate commanders allowed their soldiers a night of much-needed rest. Early the following morning, they were woken by a counterattack from the Union army. The two sides fought relentlessly until the evening. Finally, low on ammunition and food, the Confederate army retreated.

One of three known photographs of the Shiloh battlefield.The Battle of Shiloh resulted in a suffering of Grant’s reputation in the North. Newspapers called him a coward, accused him of being ill-prepared, and demanded his removal. Buell was credited as a hero of the conflict. The Union army witnessed 13,047 casualties, while the Confederate army saw 10,699, making it one of the most devastating conflicts of the Civil War.

Experiencing the Battlefield Today

Shiloh Battlefield
In 1864, Congress established the military park to honor the Battle of Shiloh. Until that moment in the Civil War, it was the bloodiest battle the country had witnessed, with over 23,000 deaths. Today, there are over 4,200 acres of preserved land for visitors to explore. Countless monuments and relics from that era of American history exist on these grounds. Visitors have the option of taking self-guided tours, or being escorted through the grounds by a Battle of Shiloh expert. 
Shiloh National Cemetery
Congress announced the Shiloh National Cemetery in 1866 to commemorate and bury the dead from the battle. In total, the cemetery has 3,584 dead from the Civil War, with 2,359 of those graves marked unknown. While exploring, visitors should note that tall headstones mark the known dead, while short headstones mark the unknown dead. 
Shiloh Native American Mounds
Long before the Battle of Shiloh took place, Native Americans lived on the land. In the Shiloh plateau, there are seven mounds built on top of the earth and dozens of houses from the old Native American tribes. These mounds, shaped like rectangles and flat on the top, were most likely used as bases to build important structures for the village. Further to the south are round mounds that were likely where leaders of the community were buried. 
Over 150 years ago, two sides of America with conflicting views of slavery clashed in several places throughout the country. Only a few of those battlefields have been preserved today. As one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, the battlefields and memorials at Shiloh are an important part of this country’s history. Shiloh National Military Park offers visitors a glimpse into one of the most devastating and transformative times in American history.