Sunday, June 24, 2018

'Spectres and ghosts': A Union veteran's 1883 Shiloh 'vacation'

Old War Department sign for Hornet's Nest at Shiloh. 11th Illinois Private Christian Kuhl, who fought at
Shiloh on April 6-7, 1862, visited the battlefield in the spring of 1883. (CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)
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After disembarking from a steamer at Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River and exchanging pleasantries with another veteran, 54-year-old Christian Kuhl paid respects to "fallen heroes" at Shiloh National Cemetery. Neither his wife nor daughter nor any of his former Union army comrades accompanied him to his old battleground that spring morning in 1883. The battlefield was simply too remote after all -- and thus too expensive -- to visit easily.

Headlines in The National Tribune, a newspaper 
for Civil War veterans, for Christian Kuhl's account
 of his two-day "vacation" to Shiloh in the spring of 1883. 
Still, this was a special trip for Kuhl, a former 11th Illinois private. A surreal one, too.

"Beautiful as this [Shiloh] cemetery is by daylight," he wrote in a letter to The National Tribune, a popular Civil War veterans' newspaper, "it has a solemnly weird look by night. The dark green grass and evergreens contrasted with the innumerable white headstones are calculated to make the visitor, if he is at all superstitious, think of spectres and ghosts."

Eleven years before the battlefield became a national military park and monuments and cast iron tablets sprouted in its fields and thickets, Shiloh bore many battle scars. Bullet- and shell-riddled trees were everywhere, Kuhl noted, and "immense quantities of lead and iron" were still unearthed by farmers and others. An enterprising merchant shipped "over three thousand pounds of bullets" the previous year from the killing fields, presumably making a handsome profit for his investment. In a serendipitous discovery in his 1862 camp, Kuhl found a tin drinking cup that belonged to a 14th Illinois comrade. "He is welcome to the relic," he wrote, "if he is still alive."

Accompanied by present-day images of still-remote Shiloh, here's Kuhl's account of his "vacation" to the battleground -- "two delightful days" at the place where so much blood was spilled April 6-7, 1862:

By C. A. Kuhl
14th Illinois

Several vain attempts have been made to organize excursions to the great battle-fields of West Tennessee. The remoteness of most of these historic fields from ordinary routes of travel makes it seem difficult to reach them except at great expense of time and money, and thus far the visitors have been from the near neighborhood only.

Having long felt a great desire to visit Pittsburg Landing, and despairing of being able to go in company of a large number of veterans, I set out alone to spend a vacation in once more roaming over the old battle-field.

At Evansville, Ind., I embarked on the Tennessee River packet "Clyde." Captain Duncan, and a day's ride brought me to Fort Henry, which is the first point of interest to those who were engaged in the campaign of 1862. The old fort is unrecognizable. Immense cottonwood trees have grown up along the river bank and, while the earthworks along the river are plainly visible, a large cotton field has obliterated the rest of the fort. From Fort Henry to Pittsburg Landing the country has changed very little. Savannah, the place where General Grant established his headquarters before the battle, has become quite a thriving town, and a large business is done there. I met several of the oldest inhabitants and found their conversation replete with reminiscences of Grant's stay at their town. In most of their stories, however, the interest centered around and in the guard-house.

The National Cemetery

During his 1883 visit to Shiloh National Cemetery,
Christian Kuhl visited the grave of Henry Burke,
the so-called "Drummer Boy of Shiloh."
(More on Burke | Photo: Find A Grave)
It was by the early light of Thursday, April 5th, that I caught sight, from the steamer's deck, of the tall flag-staff in the cemetery at Pittsburg Landing. The staff stands on the spot, almost, where the old log hospital once stood, and around it are arranged, in regimental groups, the remains of the soldiers who were killed in the battles and skirmishes and who died in the hospitals between Fort Henry and Florence, Ala. I was met at the Landing by Captain L. J. Doolittle, superintendent of cemetery and a veteran of the Ninety-sixth Illinois infantry. After a short stay at the Captain's beautiful home, just outside the cemetery walls, I took a stroll through the cemetery. After entering through the massive iron gate and passing an immense cannon set on end, I stood in the midst of fallen heroes. The first grave is that of little Harry [Henry] Burke, of Ohio, better known as the "Drummer Boy of Shiloh." On the 30th of May of each year the Union people from far and wide assemble here, to the number of many thousands, to decorate the graves. Do you wonder when I tell you that on these occasions the little hero's grave is fairly smothered in flowers?  A little farther on are two iron slabs, one of which contains these lines:
"The muffled drum's sad roll has beat. The soldier's last tattoo. No more on life's parade shall meet The brave and fallen few."
The other slab contains this legend: "Established 1866. Interments, 3,590; known, 1,229; unknown, 2,361."

All were Union soldiers, except four women, who lie buried under some beautiful evergreens, on the outside line of graves. These heroines lost their lives by disease while attending the wounded after the battle, but for some reason the War Department has refused to put headstones over their graves. Beautiful as this cemetery is by daylight, it has a solemnly weird look by night. The dark green grass and evergreens contrasted with the innumerable white headstones are calculated to make the visitor, if he is at all superstitious, think of spectres and ghosts. One of the boats on this river has a mate, a large, powerful man, whom neither threats nor entreaties can induce to go ashore here at night. He tremblingly relates how, one dark night, he saw several soldiers in full uniform come aboard the boat and disappear over the bow. He also strongly claims to have seen whole regiments of spirit soldiers drill on the brink of the bluff, and to have heard the hollow, solemn voices of the officers giving commands.

The Confederate dead

Hundreds of soldiers are buried in the five known Confederate burial pits at Shiloh battlefield ...
... while Federals, such as these Illinois comrades of Christian Kuhl, are buried in Shiloh National Cemetery.
The Confederate dead remain where they were buried. A few years ago the leading men in this part of the country arranged an immense mass-meeting and barbecue at the spring, near the old Shiloh Church. Resolutions were passed, subscriptions raised and committees appointed to take up and reinter all the Confederate dead that could be found. Many thousand people came here from far and wide, and the undertaking would have been a grand success, but about noon a most terrible storm arose and dispersed the crowd. In attempting to get home, a number of people, among them several children, were killed, and others badly hurt. This dampened the ardor of the projectors, and stopped, perhaps forever, the project of reinterring the Confederate dead.

I spent two delightful days at Shiloh, the last being April 6th, the twenty-first anniversary of the fight, and I was during that time accompanied in my rambles by Captain Doolittle and Rev. Thomas Cotton, late chaplain of the One Hundred and Twenty-ninth Illinois infantry. Naturally enough, the first spot I wished to see was my own old camp ground, (that of the Fourteenth Illinois infantry,) and I found it without much trouble, for all the old camps are in a good state of preservation. There, in front of our quarters, is the old cotton field where we drilled and went through dress parade. Still plainly to be seen is our company well, now still two feet deep. Plainly visible are the circles of our Sibley tents, with here and there a tent-pin remaining. The most remarkable relic of the past is a tin cup I picked up in our company quarters. Although badly rusted, it is still plainly recognized as an army tin cup, and bears on the bottom the initials "J. L. A." rudely scratched on with a pointed instrument. It no doubt belonged to my old comrade, John L. Alver, of company A, and he is welcome to the relic if he is still alive.

Relics of the battlefield

In 1883, a tree stump marked the spot where Albert Sidney Johnston was mortally wounded. This massive
monument marks the approximate spot today.
A close-up of the mortuary cannon on the Albert Sidney Johnston monument at Shiloh.
I very readily found the camps of [John] Logan's, [Benjamin] Prentiss' and [William] Sherman's divisions, and where the ground has not been plowed up the field is still littered with the very slowly decaying debris of the army. The old field where General [Stephen] Hurlbut's headquarters were located was especially familiar to me. On account of a defective title it has no owner and has not been plowed up since the battle. The tent squares and circles, cess-pools, wells and bake-ovens are plainly visible, while innumerable tent-pins, camp-kettles, leather straps, cartridge boxes, canteens, shoes, beef bones, harness, camp stoves, bayonets and other war material cover the ground. I found several well-preserved fragments of army clothing, tin plates, cartridge boxes and brass shoulder-straps. The field where General Grant reviewed the army a few weeks before the battle is in cultivation and is now owned by Mr. Thomas Walker, who has lived here, grown well off, and raised a bright family since the battle.

Not far from Mr. Walker's plantation stands the stump of the tree under which General Albert S. Johnston died. Someone has planted a small evergreen tree there to mark the spot. Near the site of the old Shiloh Church I was shown one of the most remarkable landmarks of this historic field. It is the grave of a Confederate major, whom his comrades buried, under a beautiful oak tree, then probably eighteen inches in diameter. A round place was cut smooth on the face of the tree and engraved thereon was the inscription, "T. B. Monroe, C. S. A., killed April 6th, 1862." The tree has since then grown in thickness fully six inches and the bark has gradually swelled, out and over the tablet, so as to leave now only an aperture of about six inches in diameter, through which, the old inscription is plainly visible.

Iron and lead abundant

In 1883, Christian Kuhl wrote of "immense quantities of lead and iron" -- bullets, shot and shell --
  unearthed by farmers and others at Shiloh. These bullets were also recovered at the Tennessee battlefield.
Immense quantities of lead and iron are being gathered on the field. One merchant shipped last year over three thousand pounds of bullets, and the farmers put in a great deal of idle time gathering lead. On the day before my arrival some children found an unexploded shell, which they threw onto a pile of burning brush. While away at dinner the shell exploded, after being buried twenty-one years. It is needless to say that in my search for relics I avoided unexploded shells as I would the pest.

The large trees that were so badly scarred by shot and shell still bear the marks very plainly, but the small saplings were all killed and a new growth has taken their places. The spots where minie balls lodged are grown over, but over each bullet there is a slight raise and the bark is smoother than elsewhere, so they can easily be found.

The road cut into the bluff by [Don Carlos] Buell's army on Sunday night is still in good shape, although never used. Even the indentations made by the steamers in landing are plainly visible in the tough clay bank. Near the top of the hill on the Buell road stand a number of splendid beach trees, cut all over with the names of soldiers. I plainly read the following: "O. F. Smith, Co. D, 24th Missouri, 1862; A. J. Pummer, T. Donahoe, W.P. Dean, 6th La., 1861."

Old Shiloh Church

The old Shiloh Church was torn down two years ago, and a neat frame church built in its place. It is needless to say that relic hunters have carried off every vestige of the old one. The new church is owned by the Southern M. E. Church, but to keep matters even the old (Northern) M.E. Church has a little chapel within half a mile of the former.

I quaffed a long, strong draught from the old Shiloh spring, and, sitting on a stump near its brink, I tried to discern in the ground the various deeply beaten paths that once led off to the numerous camps and to hear the foot-falls of the soldiers coming for water; but the paths are obliterated, and the only sound that greeted my ear was the creaking of an approaching cotton wagon on its way to the landing. I shall never regret the trouble and expense of my visit to Pittsburg Landing.

It would have been delightful to have had the company of a number of old veterans in my rambles over the ground; and I hope at no distant day to see a grand encampment of the Grand Army held on the old "Cloud field" at Shiloh.

Pekin, Ill., April 12, 1883.

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


-- The National Tribune, May 3, 1883.


  1. Fascinating. Were the Confederate dead ever reinterred somewhere else?

    1. No they are in their original mass graves to this day

  2. Great story John. William T Sherman's dialog with Grant after the first day of fighting has been immortalized. "Well Grant we've had the devil's own today haven't we?" Grant, "Yep, lick em tomorrow though."

  3. Great post, Thanks for these interesting blogs.