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Have You Ever Sneaked Into Shiloh National Military Park?


General Ulysses S. Grant commanded the victorious Union Army of the Tennessee at the Battle of Shiloh. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs division, digital ID cwpbh.01058; photo by The Mystery Man via Wikipedia.

Established on December 27, 1894, Shiloh National Military Park was transferred to the National Park Service in 1933. Some Civil War fans have a very interesting way of visiting this park.

On April 6, 1862, Confederate forces under Generals Albert Sidney Johnston (killed on the first day of the battle) and P.G.T. Beauregard launched a surprise attack against General Ulysses S. Grant’s Union Army of the Tennessee at Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River. The ensuing Battle of Shiloh (also called Battle of Pittsburg Landing) was the first large scale battle of the Civil War. The two opposing armies brought nearly 110,00 troops to this battlefield.

“Bloody Shiloh” yielded horrific casualties totaling 23,746 killed, wounded, or missing. After significant losses the first day, a heavily reinforced Union army prevailed the next day, but it was a very near thing for Grant and his Army of the Tennessee.

Today the 5,065-acre Shiloh National Military Park preserves this historic battlefield and offers visitors an automobile-convenient opportunity to see the battlefield at first hand. In 2007, nearly 369,000 people came to the park to tour the battlefield and learn about the remarkable feats of bravery and daring that took place on this hallowed ground. The battle month of April is always the busiest or second-busiest month at the park.

Being a breed apart, Civil War buffs are inclined to take their Civil War battlefield visits a good deal more seriously than the average visitor. And Shiloh, one of the most celebrated of all Civil War battlefields really brings this tendency to the fore. The battlefield is remarkably well preserved, with the roads, fields, and wood lines being just about the way they were in April 1862. The undergrowth today is thicker than it was then, but that’s about the only major difference. There is also an extensive system of historical plaques and troop position markers.

One of the things that hard core Civil War buffs want to do is get a feel for the battlefield as it was at the very onset of the fight. To do this properly, you need to walk the battlefield from the starting hour of the battle.

The problem is, the Battle of Shiloh commenced at a very inconvenient time. It was still full dark ( official records put the time at 4:55 a.m.) when Federal troops on reconnaissance ran into Confederate outposts at Fraley's Field. The opening shots were fired at 5:15 a.m., which was almost precisely at dawn ("first light"). Since the park doesn’t officially open until dawn, it’s impossible to enter the park at opening time and still make a timely arrival at Fraley's Field. What’s a dedicated Civil War buff to do?

For some, the answer is simply to sneak into the park before it is officially open. No precise records are available, of course, but Civil War buffs know that this happens a good bit. Rangers know that it goes on and seem to accept it, either because the practice is deemed to be basically harmless, or because it’s too much bother to prevent it.

Traveler tip: After touring the Shiloh battlefield, consider taking a side trip to Corinth, Mississippi, to visit the Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center (one of the newest visitor centers in the National Park System), tour Battery Robinett, and learn about the strategic importance of Corinth and its relationship to the battle at Shiloh. A caveat is in order. Though visiting Corinth is a must for the serious Civil War buff, Corinth is not a very appealing destination for general interest tourism.


5:15 on April 6, 1862 was not pre-dawn in southern Tennessee, it was to the minute the beginning of dawn, defined as the sun standing 6 degrees below the horizon. This is enough light to read a newspaper. Calculation made by

Cripes, MRC, you are really a stickler for detail. I can see that I had better be more careful if I want to keep you off my back! First, let me say that you are not wrong. As to whether you are exactly right, well, I've still got some room for weaselspeak, so here it is. The term I used in this article is "pre-dawn twilight." I used that particular term because I thought that what they had at 5:15 a.m. on that day was nautical twilight (for which the term pre-dawn twilight is appropriate), and you can't assume that the average person knows what the hell nautical twilight is. (I happen to know what it means because I used to teach meteorology, though not necessarily very well). Now, MRC, you've enlightened me (pun intended) by telling me that 5:15 a.m. on the opening day of the battle was actually civil twilight, just a few ticks of the clock removed from nautical twilight and therefore entitled to be called dawn instead of pre-dawn. Or maybe we should just call it "daybreak" and let it go at that? What the heck; I'm just going to delete "pre-dawn" from the article and pray that twilight will suffice to indicate that it was not yet full daylight.

I thought it would be fun to be there in the morning of April 6. Your description was lively and I liked it a lot. So I looked for the time of sunrise at that time and location and was thrilled that calsky offered to calculate it even for the 19th century. The coincidence that 5:15 was exactly the beginning of dawn was too good not to mention here. Thanks for the post and the reply.

Very impressive, MRC!

In the spirit of fun, I can't resist noting it's a good thing Daylight Savings Time wasn't in effect at the time of the battle, or this subject could be even more interesting. Was that 5:15 a.m. Standard Time or Daylight Savings Time?

Under those circumstances, confusion about the time might have changed the course of history. As the various commanders were synchronizing watches to coordinate the start of the surprise attack, at least one of them probably would have been muttering under his breath, "Dang, was I supposed to 'spring forward' or 'fall back' last Sunday at 2 a.m.?"

I'd still be careful with that "exactly at dawn" thing, MRC. Though the first shots were fired in twilight, firsthand accounts make it clear that the initial contact took place during full dark ( official records have it at 4:55 a.m.). A true Civil War fanatic might very well want to be at Fraley Field (the place where the opening shots were fired) at the time when the Federal patrol first encountered the Confederates -- and that would be in full dark. I have no doubt that some of the sneak-ins occur for that reason.


Nice article about Shiloh, and interesting 'technical' discussion about the start of the battle.

Just as an FYI, each year for the past several years, the park has held a series of ranger-led hikes around the park on the anniversary of the battle. The subjects covered by the hikes change each year, with the exception of the first hike, which is always the same - the Dawn Patrol hike, which re-creates the reconnaissance patrol sent out by Colonel Peabody that triggered the start of the battle.

This hike begins at 5:00 a.m. at the park visitors center, and you are out in the park itself by about 5:30. Everyone voluntarily divides into two groups before heading out. One group re-traces the patrol itself from Peabody's monument out to Fraley Field, while the other group re-creates the Confederate picket post that encountered them.

I've taken part in this hike the past two years, both times joining the "Union patrol." Both times, it was still just about pitch dark when we stepped off from near Peabody's monument, but by the time we arrived at Fraley Field it was getting light enough to see, albeit still rather dimly. Last year in fact, there was a thick fog hanging in the air that morning, that severely limited visibility.

The first year I went, when we entered Fraley Field shortly before 6:00 a.m., we could just barely make out the "enemy skirmish line" maybe 50 yards away. Last year, in the fog, we couldn't see them until we were almost literally right on top of them.

In any case, the rangers told us that they estimate that 5:55 a.m. on the anniversary best approximates the 1862 lighting conditions in Fraley Field at 4:55 a.m. on the first morning of the battle. That would indicate to me that it was starting to get light, but nowhere near well enough to make out more than just shadowy shapes off in the distance.

The accounts that I've read about the battle seem to indicate that while it was still quite difficult to see when the patrol entered Fraley Field, it was getting light enough to barely make out the opposing lines. I've guessed it wasn't too different from our experience out there in 2007. Mostly though, I think the two sides mainly fired at each other based on the muzzle flashes, at least for a little while.

Anyway, again, nice article, and interesting discussion.


Thanks for the corroborating info, Perry, and especially for the details about the ranger-led hikes on the battle anniversary. I'd dearly love to go along for one of those! Dividing into two groups like that is inspired. I can see that it gives the experience a whole new and exciting meaning for the participants.

Yes, I think it does add a little extra 'something' to be out in the park, on the anniversary, at about the same time of day as the events that you're learning about took place. I won't be making it to the park for this year's anniversary, but hope to do so next year. If you ever get the chance to attend, I think you'd really enjoy it. They walk you all over the park, along the roads, through the woods, across the creeks and ravines...everywhere. It's great. :)

One other small note about the Dawn Patrol hike - last year we learned that the genesis for that hike, and by extension all of the anniversary hikes, is a section in the book, "Confederates in the Attic," that deals with Shiloh. In the book, Tony Horwitz talks about being at the park on the anniversary, around sunup or earlier, and running into other folks out there doing the same thing.

From what we were told, this was news to the park rangers, who figured if people were going to be out there that early on the anniversary, maybe they should be out there with them. That's how the Dawn Patrol hike eventually came about, and from that, the idea for the anniversary hikes in general. Thought that was kind of a neat backstory to the hikes.

Talking about sneaking into the park before it opens, several years back I walked into the park from the campground where I was staying, just across Highway 22, at about 4:30 in the morning. I walked in through Wood's Field, but beyond knowing what field I was in, I literally could not see my hand in front of my face, or tell exactly which way I was headed. I finally stopped until it was light enough to see.

When it finally started to lighten up a bit, I realized that I was standing right beside the marker for Hardcastle's picket post, on the edge of Fraley Field. I was maybe two or three feet from it, and did not know it was there. Lucky I didn't walk smack into it.

It put me in mind of what happened on Peabody's patrol the morning of the battle. The patrol left camp at about 3:00 a.m., but the men stopped before they reached the Corinth Road, for the same reason I stopped in Wood's Field. It was too blasted dark to see. That's why it took them two hours to cover less than a mile that morning.

So, being out there early like that can give you an appreciation for what they were dealing with. Walking across the terrain in the park can do so as well. That was a tough place to fight a battle.


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