It was a two-day battle that unfolded 150 years ago this weekend, in the newly greened forests of southwest Tennessee.
On April 6th, 1862, the Union Army, 40,000 strong, steadily arrived by boat at Pittsburg Landing, near Shiloh. Further south in Mississippi, the Confederate Army gathered its troops at the Corinth crossroads, where railroads vital to the South’s survival converged. The Confederates were hoping to turn back Grant’s Army, one that had been tenaciously pushing deeper into the South, forcing troops in Nashville and Fort Donelson to surrender.
At Shiloh, the two sides would clash in furious battle.
If President Abraham Lincoln believed this War Between the States would be won easily without much bloodshed, Shiloh would prove otherwise. Two days later, as the booming cannons and muskets fell silent, more men would lay dead and dying on this battlefield than in all previous American conflicts combined. The carnage — 23,746 reported dead, wounded, or missing in action — as one soldier wrote, was “like looking into the Gates of Hell.”
Now, the importance of this major battle is being told anew. As part of the state of Tennessee’s 150th anniversary celebration of the Civil War, Shiloh National Military Park has developed a 50-minute film entitled, Shiloh, Fiery Trial.
The film’s premiere, which took place this past Wednesday night at Pickwick Landing State Park, was part of a signature event presented by the Tennessee Sesquicentennial Commission. The 24-member group has been working for the last four years, identifying the most important aspects of the war in Tennessee and developing conference events that feature speakers, music, and conservation efforts, all to give the public a more in-depth appreciation for how the Civil War evolved across the state.
Prior to the screening, hundreds of guests mingled on the red carpet with reenactors, some of whom dressed as the characters they portrayed in the film. All wore period clothing; exact down to the vests, buttons, shoes, and side arms they carried.
Ronnie Fullwood, a dentist from nearby Selmer, Tennessee, helped to enlist the 350 men who appeared on camera, most of whom came from Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama reenactor groups. Since many are older and slightly more rotund than the soldiers the crew sought to cast, in some instances, sons stepped into their father’s uniforms to appear on set. But all respected the event they were trying to capture.
“We were constantly thinking about how we could do this to honor the fallen soldiers,” says Fullwood. “Our aim was to represent them.”
To determine the film’s direction, Producer/Director Chris Wheeler met with Shiloh Park Superintendent Woody Harrell and Chief Park Ranger Stacy Allen to gain insight about the battle and the men who fought here. Their work would replace the original interpretive film created more than 50 years ago, which focused largely on the fighting at the Hornet’s Nest (so named for the sound the musket balls made as they whizzed past one’s head).
Some of the early knowledge of Shiloh was passed down from Civil War veterans who had fought here. (Shiloh was established in 1894 under the War Department and was among the nation’s first military parks.) Since many survived the Hornet’s Nest, that became the focus, noted Dr. Carroll Van West, co-chairman of the Tennessee Sesquicentennial Commission.
Much more is understood about Shiloh today, so the new film offers a broader, more nuanced depiction of the battle, one that is both entertaining as well as historically precise. “The challenge was to tell the story at the level of the general with his chess moves, but also the soldier’s story,” says Superintendent Harrell. To that end, the film moves back and forth between scenes of the battle and graphics of troop movement, to the telling of two soldiers’ stories, one Union, one Confederate, who share from their diaries tender observations of war.
To add to the film’s authenticity, the National Park Service allowed Great Divide Pictures to make the entire movie at Shiloh Battlefield. (Battle reenactments at national military parks are generally strictly prohibited.) Yet doing so presented a unique set of challenges.
“The first hurdle is that you’ve got 150 monuments, 660 plaques, and 220 cannons,” noted Superintendent Harrell. “We had to figure out how you film around that layer of commemorative material.”
It turned out that strategically placed Sibley tents worked best for camouflaging modern-day trappings. In addition were restrictions on how firearms could be fired, which meant creative editing during the post-production process.
And while the cast included 350 actors, 40 horses, and 12 artillery pieces, it was just sizeable enough to capture a feel of war.
“In the real battle, there were 40,000 men on each side. “It’s hard to get my head around that idea, of how chaotic it must have been,” said Wheeler. “But on April 7th, we were filming scenes exactly where what we were trying to reenact had happened. Everyone recognized it was a special day, a special place, a rare, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to recreate this battle.”
Funding for the film, which cost about $500,000, came from the entrance fees paid by visitors to Shiloh Battlefield as well as the park’s cooperating association, Eastern National.
Civil War enthusiasts Chris Merck, and his father Karl, who traveled from Jackson, Mississippi, to take part in the two-day event, were impressed with the way the battle was portrayed. “In the original film, the soldiers were using guns from WWII,” said Chris Merck with a laugh. “But it’s also important to have a film like this, because I think we’ll see fewer people who appreciate this history as time goes on.”
As part of the sesquicentennial celebration, the Civil War Trust deeded 167 additional acres to the park. The 55,000-member organization raises funds to permanently protect important battlefields in 20 states, many of which are in danger of being encroached upon by development. The organization has assisted in the preservation of 138 battlefields to date.
Said president emeritus John Nau, “There is no more lasting tribute than to save these sites where this battle was fought — so our children and their grandchildren can walk these fields unblemished.”