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).
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.
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.