Arts & Culture

A Trip Back in Time: At the Battle of Shiloh, Iowans held the line

You can feel proud when you visit Civil War military park and cemetery

Civil War Union soldier re-enactors use caissons to transport cannons to the battlefield near Shiloh during the 150th an
Civil War Union soldier re-enactors use caissons to transport cannons to the battlefield near Shiloh during the 150th anniversary re-enactment of the Civil War battle, in which Iowa soldiers, fighting for the Union, played a prominent role. Civil War cannons usually were manned by five to nine soldiers. (Mark Mathis III)
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I sat in the parking lot of the Shiloh National Military Park and Cemetery on the banks of the Tennessee River. I looked at the license plates: Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana and Georgia.

My Iowa plates looked a little out of place. Yet I should have felt right at home in this battlefield memorial some 600 miles from Iowa.

I was born in the heart of the South in Tuscaloosa, Ala. As a child, my grandfather would point to my bellybutton and say, “That’s where a Yankee shot you.” No one told me differently for years.

The Civil War was a regular topic of conversation in my family. Let’s just leave it that people from the South care much more deeply about Civil War history than people from the North.

Yet Iowans should care deeply about the battle around Shiloh Church. It was our Alamo.

The battle happened on April 6-7, 1862. More than 6,600 Iowa soldiers in 11 regiments were engaged in the conflict.

Iowa casualties totaled 2,409 killed, wounded and missing in action. One of every four Union soldiers killed was an Iowan. It is thought to be the greatest loss of Iowans in any battle of any war.

Yet few Iowans even know about the battle or the memorial park.

SURPRISE ATTACK

The battle started with a surprise attack by Confederate soldiers in the early morning of April 6.

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Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Union army had arrived at Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River and set up camp on April 5 near Shiloh.

During the first day of the attack, the Union army retreated toward the river. Iowa soldiers formed a defensive line 600 yards along a “sunken road.” There was a small rise and deep undergrowth to the Iowans’ backs.

Heavy fighting occurred along the line for hours that included eight distinct Confederate charges toward the Union line. More than 60 cannons concentrated fire on the Iowa line.

Confederates named the location the Hornet’s Nest because so many bullets were being fired that it sounded like a swarm of angry hornets.

As the Iowans held, other Union defenders to Iowa’s left and right flank fell back, allowing some 2,000 troops to be captured late in the day. But they had been successful in delaying the Confederates, giving much needed time for Grant to regroup his Union soldiers and ready the entire army for the next day’s counterattack, which would win the battle for the North.

More than 13,000 Union soldiers and approximately 10,000 Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded, captured or missing. The combined casualties of 23,000 was far greater than the other key battles earlier in the war.

WOODS, FIELDS

Today, the line the Iowans helped hold is marked by large monuments, emblazoned with our state’s name at the top.

Each monument has two plaques on each side describing who fought there and what happened. Our state seal is cast in bronze on each monument; an Iowa Civil War Union soldier is featured at the center of Iowa’s state seal even today.

The first thing you’ll notice as you drive around the area and into the park itself is its natural feel. There are no tall buildings and no fast-food restaurants. In fact, few restaurants are around the park so you may want to pack a lunch.

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The undisturbed nature of the land adds to the park’s beauty and realism. You can easily see how the battle progressed and what it might have been like.

In many other parks, you can see signs of modern life. At Shiloh, you see only woods and fields and more than 200 cannons.

immense pride

As I walked through the park’s first-class visitors center, one of the workers asked me where I was from.

When I said Iowa, he was visibly delighted. He told me the history of the park and that the person who oversaw the park’s creation and its first superintendent was an Iowan. David Reed was a member of the 12th Iowa who fought at Shiloh.

Walking around the park as an Iowan, you feel an immense pride. There are 12 monuments dedicated to Iowans in the park.

The largest and the park’s most impressive monument is dedicated to all Iowans who fought in the battle of Shiloh.

On this day at the park, you could receive a tour of the battlefield, experience a cannon team in action or meet a soldier in full uniform (Confederate, of course), who showed how muskets were loaded and shot during the battle.

piece of Iowa

Shiloh is not on a natural travel route. There is no interstate system nearby. Memphis is two hours to the west. Nashville is two-plus hours to the northeast. From Iowa, you can drive to Shiloh in about nine hours. There are a few small hotels within 30 miles. I prefer to stay in Jackson, Tenn., which is an hour away.

There is also a national cemetery in the park. It’s estimated 260 Iowans are buried in the park and 64 are identified with headstones. Walking the cemetery, you cannot help but feel for the soldiers who fought and died. In the deep South, there is a little piece of Iowa that will always remain and will always be remembered.

Mark Mathis III, a partner and chief creative officer of Amperage Marketing & Fundraising in Cedar Rapids, is a Civil War buff and has written a fiction e-book, “Civil War Re-enactment,” about a modern-day battle at Shiloh.

If You Go•

• What: Shiloh National Military Park and Cemetery

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• Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. all year, except for holidays; the park is temporarily closed because of the coronavirus; check the website for reopening

• Website: nps.gov/shil/index.htm

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