Shiloh – A Breathtaking Reenactment

The following article appeared in the Daily Iowegian – Seth Clark and Brad Clark, correspondents.

Federal Artillery at Shiloh

Federal Artillery at Shiloh

The Shiloh 150th Anniversary Reenactment is over and our southern Iowa group is home.  They participated as Battery C, 3rd Iowa Light Artillery and were part of an amazing record-setting event.  This was the largest Shiloh reenactment ever with over 23,000 spectators and 8,000 reenactors on Saturday plus more huge crowds on Sunday.  The 140 cannons on the field were the most cannons assembled at Shiloh since the Civil War.  When the massive cannon barrage started and all the rifles were firing, the huge battle field reverberated with a heavy roar.

As we watched the Reenactment and took photos, we were impressed by the shock waves from the cannons and the thundering rumble of rifle fire.  Then massive lines of soldiers started to cross the green field, Confederates troops then Federal troops, moving at one another like unstoppable waves, both beautiful and sobering.  We were beginning to get a vision of what the young men from Centerville and Oskaloosa and Albia and Ottumwa and Knoxville witnessed back in 1862.  So, let’s dial back the clock and visit the Hornet’s Nest, one of the places where southern Iowans in the 7th Iowa Infantry spilled their blood.

The Hornet’s Nest

The first day of the reenactment had a number of battle engagements, culminating with the assault on the famed Hornet’s Nest.  Some 150 years ago, starting at around 9 A.M., the Union’s center was held by General Benjamin Prentiss and General WHL Wallace‘s divisions.  They formed a defensive line along the “Sunken Road”.  During that spring day on April 6th, 1862, the Confederates reportedly assaulted the Union’s position along the “Sunken Road” anywhere from 8 to 14 times.

The Confederates concentrated over 50 artillery pieces, firing at close range on the Federals in what would later be called the Hornet’s Nest (aptly named by Confederates who said there were so many enemy bullets buzzing by them, they sounded like swarms of angry hornets).  Union troops held out for seven hours.  They faced the ferocity of charge after charge and unrelenting artillery fire.  Thousands of Iowans were caught in the raging jaws of death.  Eventually, after being surrounded on three sides, General Prentiss surrendered his remaining 2200 troops.  His fellow commander on the line, General Wallace, and many others died at the Hornet’s Nest.

Federal Water Wagon at Shiloh

Federal Water Wagon at Shiloh

Those who witnessed the reenactment saw thousands of blue and gray infantry face one another – the slow, steady advance of the Confederate lines – fierce exchanges of musket fire – the falling back of the Federal regiments – the explosive artillery exchanges – the loud pops and cracks on the field as ranks of infantry fired their Enfield and Springfield rifles.  The Union reenactors were under heavy assault late that afternoon; they fell back in retreat to the woods.  That day, the Confederate army won the day.

Spectators were able to see, in a small way, the scale of these armies marching at one another in tight ranks.  The chaos of the deafening muzzle flashes, the concussion from the cannons, the massive haze from all the guns firing black powder and the ranks of soldiers who disappeared in the haze – this was truly breathtaking.

Now, back to 1862 – stretch the battlefield in each direction and pack another 100,000 soldiers into the area.  Put real cannon balls and canister in the artillery and load mini balls in the rifles.  The fields would be covered with mangled bodies – the dead and the dying.  One wonders about the truly indescribable costs that boys wearing both blue and gray must have endured on those fateful days some 150 years ago.  The true horror is impossible to reenact.  We were happy to see Shiloh – the 2012 version.

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