THIS GREAT BATTLEFIELD
History, Memory, and the Establishment of a Civil War
National Military Park.
By Timothy B. Smith. Univ. of Tennessee Press. 178 pp. $28.95
Visiting Shiloh National Military Park last Fourth of July weekend, I was apprehensive about having to wade through crowds to see the Hornet’s Nest, the Peach Orchard, the Sunken Road, and other highlights of the Tennessee battlefield. I needn’t have worried. The visitors’ center and the picnic area had attracted a few people, but the battlefield itself was deserted. I could have waded into Bloody Pond and caught carp for supper without attracting notice.
Now, as in 1862, Shiloh is a seriously isolated place. Timothy B. Smith, a historian on the staff of the park, even titles his first chapter “Isolation.” Shiloh was so hard to reach that General William T. Sherman, camping there on April 5, 1862, scoffed at the idea that Confederate troops might be nearby. But 44,000 enemy were camped next to him. On the 6th and 7th, they fought Sherman’s forces in one of the most terrible battles in the history of North America, a confrontation that produced some 24,000 casualties.
After the Civil War, veterans on both sides fought to preserve Shiloh and other sites where their comrades had died and, in many cases, still lay buried in unmarked and forgotten graves. In “an effort to limit controversy over the war,” writes Smith, Congress in the 1890s created national military parks at Antietam, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Shiloh, and elsewhere.
Smith dedicates his book to the father of the Shiloh park, the indefatigable David W. Reed. A veteran wounded at Shiloh, Reed became secretary and historian of the park. Between 1900 and 1908, he wrote and positioned interpretive markers in the fields and woods. The markers still dominate the battlefield, even though, according to Smith, they’re probably wrong. Reed’s “subjectivity and desire to create tangible points of interest for visitors caused him to create myths” about the fighting, myths now graven in stone. The Hornet’s Nest, which Reed deemed the most important site in the battle, turns out to have been the scene of comparatively light fighting. Bloody Pond, now one of the most popular sites in the park, isn’t even mentioned in contemporaneous accounts. The scenes that visitors find deeply affecting may be largely Reed’s inventions.
When I first visited Shiloh, in the winter of 1997, the peach trees in the orchard stood barren against a leaden sky. When I returned last summer, the sun was blazing and the peach trees were gone, replaced by tiny saplings. It was a lesson in preservation. Unlike artifacts and buildings, battlefields are organic. They grow and die and evolve.
This Great Battlefield of Shiloh is a fascinating study of the institutional forces that created our battlefield parks, a social history of the era of their formation, and a meditation on time, change, and conservation.