Luck of the Irish

Posted: April 6, 2012 in Historical, Irish / Celtic, Personal
Tags: , ,

Today is the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh in TN.  It is, for me, a very personal reminder of how precarious and mercurial life can be.  My 2 times maternal great grandfather, Michael William Shanahan, of the 9th Mississippi Infantry earned distinction on the battlefield at the end of the first day.  His unit was on the right flank under the command of Albert Sidney Johnston and Braxton Bragg, northeast somewhat parallel to the river from which the Union was barraging Rebel positions with their gun boats.  Of course the objective was to stop the Union Army from crossing the Tennessee River and the main crossing point was Pittsburg Landing (the battle was later named after the small church a few miles west from the Landing, hence the name Shiloh).

Michael William Shanahan, my g-g-grandfather

I have visited this battlefield and walked in my ancestor’s footsteps.  Even though it was a quiet, warm Summer day on my visit, I could very much imagine how terrible the fight and the level of bravery it would take, on either side, to fight in such terrain.  You see, the right flank at Shiloh is a series of increasingly steep ravines perpendicular to the river that runs somewhat North/South.  In addition, the ground was wet, from Spring rains and the bottoms of those ravines would often have little temporary streams and rivulets that made footing treacherous.  While the Yanks would be hard pressed to retreat up and down those same ravines if they had too, they still had the high ground and the advantage.  They could line up at the top of each ridge and simply rain hell fire down on the Rebels trying to run those steep, wet, slippery hills with nothing but the occasional slim tree to hide behind.  There weren’t any large rocks to hide behind and very little in the way of scrub.  So no concealment and no cover.  It was simply an easy way to die.  For many Confederate soldiers this was their first real battle having been so recently recruited and trained for a couple of months beforehand and so it was for my grandfather.  But the Rebels forged on and actually pushed the Yanks back that first day, right up to the last hill before the ground leveled off and ran flat for a few miles to the River Landing.

Partial Map, Battle of Shiloh

Partial Map, Battle of Shiloh, Confederate Right Flank (see Chalmers Brigade)

At the end of that first day as the light began to fade and after having struggled for several miles making slow but steady progress the 9th Infantry was pretty spent.  In addition to the physical exertion such terrain required they would also have had to contend with things like:

  • overhead danger of the gun boat barrage
  • danger from cannon fire, randomly shot from Federal positions around their encampments
  • the ever present screaming and crying of their wounded who could not be reached until after the front had moved past where they lay
  • the lack of modern medicine to deal with very serious trauma caused by modern weapons (remember the Civil War is considered the first truly “modern” war because of the level of sophistication of the weaponry, but medicine had definitely not caught up and it showed)
  • the acrid white smoke that was present from the guns (remember they were powder loaded back then) which burned your eyes and made it hard to see
  • the deafening noise powdered packed guns make when hundreds, nay thousands are firing at the same time, not to mention the cannons used at other parts of the battlefield (not used on the right flank in the ravines, I don’t think), the bugles and bands, the cries of thousands of men in the throes of dying…it is a cacophany that would stun anyone and often would leave some soldiers hearing impaired
  • the sheer horror of seeing the blood and gore of their fallen comrades (and some of their own) mixing into the mud and water until the ground turned red

Can you imagine?  I could and it made my blood run cold.  I could see him, Michael, with the day’s light fading hunkered down near the top of the last ravine, waiting for the order to charge.  According to the stories passed down in our family and in newspapers, he heard the order but the rest of his company did not. So he stood and roused his comrades to charge down and then up again that very last hill, where they succeeded in winning the final hill and taking some Federal encampments.  Although the second day saw the South lose all of the ground they had so bravely won on the first day, Michael was noticed by everyone in the brigade.  And soon after the battle he was unanimously voted a promotion by his company to 2nd Lieutenant.

Every year on this day, I wonder….what if he had slipped and fallen in the bloody mud or if he had been caught by the 53 pound gun boat shells that mowed down trees and spread their deadly shrapnel for hundreds of yards or if he had been blindsided by an exploding cannon ball randomly fired downhill from several ridge lines away or if he’d been shot by a sniper during his call to charge….how many close misses were there for him?  Why did he not join the ranks of the 24,700 who died from both the North and South that day?  No one can ever say and I suspect he would say the same.  It is better to simply look at it as a form of grace and be grateful for every second of every day afterward. And I am very grateful and proud of him, regardless of the cause.

Here’s to my g-g-grandfather, Michael William Shanahan.   He had “Ádh na nÉireannach (aw nyear da nohk) (Luck of the Irish) and so did I on this day 150 years ago.

Source of Map:

  1. Very vivid writing here by you to describe what it was like to be in the thick of the battle your double great grandfather fought in. Your descriptions gave me just a glimpse of what it must have been like, but even just a glimpse was powerful enough to make me not just think, but to really feel something deep inside me as a reaction to what I was seeing within my mind.

    I have no known relatives that fought in the Civil War, and I’ve visited only one Civil War battlefield. But that was Antietam – where the bloodiest single day battle in American history took place. Like you did, on a sunny late spring day, I walked sections of the battlefield where the worst of the fighting took place.

    As I walked the “Bloody Lane” I felt very powerful emotion as I imagined what had taken place back then on the very same ground I was now walking. It was a deeply moving experience for me, in a sad and disturbing way. The true horror of it all was muted by over a hundred years passing, but the shadow of it’s terrible presence was still cast there, and I could feel it.

    • Drangedinaz says:

      Thanks, I have been contemplating writing about his life story as it so interesting and illustrative of the American story but have hesitated for many different, complicated reasons. Most native born people living today in the US had an ancestor in that conflict.

  2. Really interesting, Tina. I’ve been reading a lot about the Civil War recently. It’s neat you had an ancestor who fought in it, and to be able to be where he was and remember him…wow.

    I think my ancestors didn’t come over until after the Civil War. Hmm. I’m going to have to ask my mom about that. 🙂

    • drangedinaz says:

      Well the conflict was so large that odds are you did have someone fight in it….consider the fact that counting back 3 generations you are talking about at least 12 people or 6 couples. Surely at least one of those men were in the US at the time? And if not, don’t forget some women actually fought in the war disguised as men. 🙂

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