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By Richard White
The trees are in bloom and the promise of spring again hovers over Tennessee. For most of my life, this time of year has meant a pilgrimage of sorts to Shiloh National Military Park in Hardin County, southwestern Tennessee. Being a native Tennessean, with strong family connections to the state’s history, the story of Shiloh was relayed to me at a young age. I was too young to remember my first visit, which exists now as only a faint family story. My parents took me because they felt it was important that I start to understand history at an early age. Since then, I have traveled to Shiloh many times in many different capacities, with a host of people I have managed to drag along. The promise is always of a good day to be had, traipsing through the woods and looking at monuments. I am happy to say that no one has been disappointed in the experience.
Shiloh National Military Park (Photo from TNVacation.com)
Those experiences, and my understanding of the events of the war, have changed and evolved over the years. They have gone from a child-like wonder to a deep-seated interest in the battle, the men who fought it, and the park itself. It’s an interest I know I will continue to engage with for the rest of my life.
Because a pandemic now grips the world, we must all find new ways to experience and engage with our passions during this trying time. I will not be making my journey to Shiloh this year. Instead, I have been reflecting on artifacts in the Museum’s collection connected to the battle, and my own evolving relationship to those artifacts.
Fought on April 6th and 7th of 1862, this year marks the 158th anniversary of the battle of Shiloh, a fight that in many ways changed the course of the Civil War. It was the first battle of its size during the war. Twenty-four thousand men were killed, wounded, or listed as missing from the two-day battle. That is more men killed and wounded than all the previous American wars combined. The toll was so high and the location so remote, that Shiloh serves as an early example of large-scale field hospitals being used. Ulysses S. Grant, in his memoirs, reflected that the outcome of Shiloh convinced him the war would be long and costly. Up until that time, most participants, on both sides, thought the war would be short and would not cost many lives.
When I was a child and traveled to Shiloh, my interest generally focused on the place. Here was this beautiful and bucolic landscape filled with manicured fields, glistening monuments, and well-kept fence lines; a stark contrast to the horrific scenes that played out there over those April days so many years ago. Like many novice Civil War students, my earliest view of the War was top-down: generals leading armies to victory or defeat; that glittering illusion of glory. So initially, exploring the Tennessee State Museum collection, I would have been drawn to artifacts related to Ulysses S. Grant and Albert Sydney Johnston, the Union and Confederate commanders, respectively. The night before the battle commenced, Grant was headquartered in the Cherry Mansion is Savannah, Tennessee. This star pattern quilt, brightly decorated with red, green, and yellow, was located on the bed Grant slept in throughout his time in the home.
This star pattern quilt, 1855-1860, came from the Cherry Mansion in Savannah, Tennessee. (Tennessee State Museum collection, 80.177)
A more direct battlefield relic from the collection is associated with Johnston. The Confederate commander would lose his life on the first day of the battle when a bullet grazed his leg, severing a major artery. Johnston bled to death under a tree that serves as a stop on the battlefield tour. Tennessee Governor Isham Harris was with Johnston when he died. This small cap pouch was Johnston’s and was carried by him when he was killed. Cap pouches served to hold the percussion caps needed to ignite the powder in a firearm.
Carte de visite of Albert Sydney Johnston, by E. & H. T. Anthony, 1862, and a cap box belong to Johnston. (Tennesee State Museum collection, 188.8.131.52 and 4.950)
As I grew older and my knowledge of the conflict widened, my interest turned toward the common soldier in the ranks and their experiences, be it on the Union or Confederate side. A teenager can conjure all sorts of images of war when they begin to see the men that fought as the same age as them. In 1861, a 16-year old from Madison County, Tennessee named John (Johnnie) James Campbell enlisted in the 6th Tennessee Infantry, C.S.A. with all the promise of adventures to come. Campbell’s first major battle was Shiloh. It cost him his life. The family story explains that Johnnie was killed while attempting to bring water to wounded Union soldiers. Little can be known about his life from the record, but his C. F. Martin parlor guitar, made in 1857, illustrates that he had knowledge of music and likely regaled his regimental mates with camp songs around the fire.
This enlarged, tinted photograph is John James Campbell from Madison County who joined the 6th Tennessee Infantry, C.S.A. in 1861. This C. F. Martin parlor-style guitar, made in New York in about 1857, belonged to Campbell. (Tennessee State Museum collection, 2017.33.2 and 2017.33.1.1)
In my adult years, my attentions turned to the veterans. They came back to Shiloh by the thousands in the years following the war, until their numbers dwindled with age. These men, from both sides, were proud of their efforts on the field and enjoyed sharing their stories with comrades, as well as a whole new generation of young people. My father carried the same traditions over to me so the connections have become stronger as I’ve aged. These veterans fought to have their stories remembered and struggled to have the land preserved for themselves, as well as the countless generations of visitors that would come after them. It’s a way to combat the anonymousness that poet Walt Whitman speaks to in “The Million Dead, Too, Summ’d Up” from the Specimen Days collection: “… everywhere among these countless graves—everywhere in the many soldier Cemeteries of the Nation … Northern and Southern, after the great battles—not only where the scathing trail passed those years, but radiating since in all the peaceful quarters of the land—we see, and ages yet may see, on monuments and gravestones, singly or in masses, to thousands or tens of thousands, the significant word Unknown.”
Photograph of Veterans of the 24th Tennessee Infantry, C.S.A. on the field at Shiloh, 1880s, and a Shiloh Battlefield Association Medal, 1880s, (Tennessee State Museum collection, 2007.152.3 and 90.5)
As I look out my home window on this sun-filled day in the spring, my thoughts drift to that bloody landscape of 158 years ago. I can rest assured that Shiloh has had a similar impact on other students and visitors over the years as thousands visit the park annually. As we all shelter in place during these trying times, there is comfort on a spring afternoon to let your mind drift and wander to those places of your youth and the people who were there with you. For me, lately, that has been Shiloh, that sprawling battle and that pristine park, a place where the past comes alive and history speaks to you. When this passes, and it assuredly will, I look forward to seeing you all out exploring.
Richard White is the Tennessee State Museum curator of 18th and 19th Century History