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 forces camped along the Tennessee River. 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. To be sure 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. Then, even as men dreamed dreams of home and loved ones, ear piercing yells broke the silence.
Men awoke in their beds, disoriented, only to find a bayonet descending on them the next second. As one witness 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 ran to grab their guns and rush to the front found they were too late, as successive waves of howling Rebels outflanked and overran successive positions. By the end of the day, the shattered remnants of Grants army were mostly crowded by the edge of the river, 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. He 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 and 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 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 see her again; many a son never was ever to see his mother or sister; many who fell 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, it is told in full in Strange Tales; suffice it to say that on more than one occasion visitors to the national park have heard the sound of a distant drum, rolling 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. But park rangers I have talked vehemently deny any such things occur.
Park officials, of course, are always concerned about trespassers and strange tales 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. But still, the restless dead of Bloody Shiloh cannot so easily be mollified. Likely 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 there.