A Simple Story of a Battle
April 6, 1862 – 150 years ago today – Americans came to understand that their Civil War would be not be over easily or soon. Edward Ayers, a fine historian of the war, has written that the battle near Shiloh Meeting House in Tennessee changed everything about the war.
“Thousands of men with little training and no experience in war were thrown against one another in days of inexpressible suffering and waste,” Ayers writes. When the two armies disengaged, 23,000 Americans were dead, more in a few hours than in all the wars the nation had fought to that point.
Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant “won” the battle, but the slaughter that went with the victory – 13,000 of his soldiers died – brought demands on Abraham Lincoln that Grant be removed from command. Lincoln refused, famously saying he could not spare Grant because “he fights.”
“Up to the battle of Shiloh,” Grant would later write, “I as well as thousands of other citizens believed that the rebellion against the Government would collapse suddenly and soon [if] a decisive victory could be gained over any of its armies. [But after Shiloh,] I gave up all idea of saving the Union except by complete conquest.”
As horrible as Shiloh had been, Grant began to make his reputation as a fighting general on April 6, 1862. He had been initially surprised by a Confederate attack, but by force of will and battlefield smarts he recovered. The southern army left the field and suffered a grievous loss with the death of perhaps its best solider Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston. I’ve always wondered how history might have turned out differently had the events at Shiloh been reversed and Grant died on the battlefield and Johnston lived on to command increasingly important Confederate armies.
The 19th Century writer Ambrose Bierce, one of the great writers about the conflict, captured the awful essence of Shiloh in his enduring essay “What I Saw at Shiloh.” The first line of Bierce’s story was “this is a simple story of a battle,” but, of course, it was very far from simple. The last line of his essay told the real story.
“Give me but one touch of thine artist hand upon the dull canvas of the Present; gild for but one moment the drear and somber scenes of to-day, and I will willingly surrender an other life than the one that I should have thrown away at Shiloh.”
The sesquicentennial of the horrible war gives us reason to think again about the legacy of the American Civil War and reassess the conflicts lasting meaning. The awful bloody reality of the war that never ends truly became clear to Americans on a Sunday in April 1862 – 150 years ago today.
The Vermont Humanities Council is producing a marvelous weekly piece on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. I salute them for the effort and for the rich content this week on the Battle of Shiloh.