Sunday is a day of rest, or it should be–all the more so if it is Easter Sunday. April sixth, 1862 started out that way for the Union troops camped along the Tennessee River in west Tennessee. At Pittsburg Landing, where most of General Grant’s men were, all seemed placid. Most men were sleeping in; a few early risers had begun breakfast, others were just lolling about, enjoying their leisure. There had been some shots in the distance when it was still pitch black, but no one took notice—probably a nervous guard or two, is all. As men dreamed dreams of home and loved ones, blood-curdling yells broke the peace.
Men awoke, groggy and disoriented, to suddenly find a bayonet descending on them the next second.
As Ambrose Bierce observed, “many of Grant’s men when spitted on Confederate bayonets were as naked as civilians; but it should not be allowed that this was not because of any defect in their picket line. Their error was of another sort: they had no pickets.”
The outlying camps were quickly overrun. Federals who heard the commotion ran to grab their guns and rushed to the front, only to find themselves too late, as successive waves of howling Rebels outflanked and overran successive Yankee positions. By the end of the day the shattered remnants of Grants army were mostly crowded by the edge of the river, like condemned men awaiting their doom.
In the weeks leading up to the battle, Grant had had ample time to build redoubts, entrenchments and other defenses to protect against surprise attack, yet failed to do so. Grant was not even at Pittsburg Landing, making his headquarters a number of miles away at Savannah, Tennessee.
Nor did Grant’s many regiments of cavalry and infantry do any patrol work outside their own bivouacs as they may easily have done. Still, one must give credit where credit is due: Grant knew how to write a great after action report, and in it everyone but himself found some blame, save for his flame bearded—and some said crazy—friend General Sherman. Buell “went slow,” Wallace “went slow;” but apparently the Butternuts of Johnston & Beauregard’s army did not go slow that day. Luckily, the Confederates failed to overrun the riverboat landing by sunset on the first day–they were too exhausted from their stunning victory.
As fate would have it, during the night a fresh Federal army came across the river under General Don Carlos Buell to save the day—only that day would be April seventh, not the sixth.
If you read any one of the many books on Shiloh, the word that almost always comes to mind is “bloody.” While there would be many battles that would prove as gory as Shiloh, this was the first fight where the bloodletting proved to be on such a staggering scale for both sides. Many a young man with a sweetheart at home never got to hold her in his arms ; many a son was never to ever see his mother or sister. Many who fell that day earned a mass grave with other unnamed souls in unhallowed ground. Is it any wonder that ever since that awful Sunday those who have traversed the many acres that make up Shiloh battlefield have reported feeling strange feelings, hearing strange sounds and seeing strange sights?
There is, for example, the tale of the phantom drummer. I won’t recite the full story here, for it is told in full in Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground; suffice it to say that on more than one occasion visitors to the national park have heard the sound of a distant drum, pounding out the “long roll,” when no re-enactor or musician is present anywhere on the grounds. Other visitors to Shiloh claim to have heard the sounds of gun-fire, or the moaning and screams of wounded men, desperately crying out for help.
Since most visitors leave the park by sunset, only a select few have actually seen apparitions on the grounds. A few locals, driving through the terrain at night encounter strange fog and swear it’s filled with the shadows of figures slowly moving through it. Park rangers I have talked angrily deny any such things ever occur.
Park officials, of course, are always concerned about trespassers and uncanny accounts such as these could lure some folk to go where and when they aren’t allowed. Far be it from me to add to their concerns. Still, many folk believe the restless dead of Bloody Shiloh cannot so easily be mollified. So, if you go, you may only feel an eerie silence as I did; is it just your imagination? Perhaps; or perhaps there is something more that yet abides on the blood-drenched fields of Shiloh.