Corinth, Shiloh, and the Civil War

Downtown Corinth

Okay, we freely admit that we have never been all that interested in the Civil War. And we’ve certainly never been very knowledgeable about it. But it’s impossible to read a travel book about Mississippi and not feel almost overwhelmed by the sheer number of Civil War sites – and connections. It seems that almost every town has some tie to “the war.” We grudgingly agreed that we could no longer ignore this piece of Mississippi history, so we set out to see Corinth and Shiloh.
When we scouted out our route, we saw that we would “go right by” Synagogue, Mississippi on our way. We had to see if there really was a synagogue in Synagogue – we just had to – so we marked our map carefully in order to ensure we didn’t miss it. (That means figuring out which two County Roads running off Highway 45 it lies between. “County Road,” by the way, can be anything from a beautifully maintained two-lane highway to the equivalent of a cow path.) Sure enough, when we passed County Road 8200, there was a sign…not for Synagogue, Mississippi, but for Synagogue Baptist Church! And yes, once again we tried to find a town that doesn’t exist. You’d think we’d learn.

On the way into Corinth, we stopped at the Alcorn Welcome Center – yet another beautifully designed and decorated font of information on Mississippi sites. Information there led us to the Civil War Interpretive Center. The fact that the CWIC is a National Park site should have been a clue that we were in for a good experience, but since our attitudes, uh, could have been better, we groaned when we pulled into the parking lot and realized that we couldn’t park near the front door on that scorching hot day because of an incredibly long switchback sidewalk leading to the entrance. Why would anyone design such an inconvenient handicapped entry, we wondered. Off we trudged, grousing about having to walk in the heat – right up until we realized there was “stuff” embedded in the sidewalk, interesting stuff like smashed hats, bullets, knives, tent stakes, belt buckles, horseshoes, eyeglasses, a scabbard, a shovel, a canteen, shoes, a plate, books, a comb…well, you get the picture. Every few feet there would be something else to see – a button here, a pistol there, a little treasure hunt. There was even a letter in one display, and a rifle that hangs off into the grass. Really clever.

Bronzed cap

This cup sits on the outer edge of the walkway...situated in an area that you really couldn't trip over it.

This cap sits on the retaining wall.

The belt stands up above the ground 6 - 8".
This carbine is broken and partially buried in concrete.

This complete rifle was just outside the door of the CWIC.

Things got even better and more interesting once we got inside, where the first thing we learned was…why Corinth? What was so important about this small town?
Its railroads! In 1862, Corinth was second only to Richmond in importance to military planners. Two major lines crossed in Corinth (the Memphis and Charleston and the Mobile and Ohio, if you’re curious), so whoever controlled Corinth controlled access to the Mississippi River Valley and points west. Although that “crossroads,” the point at which the railroads intersected, was the epicenter of the fighting, the battle moved around a bit as forces attacked and withdrew, resulting in a series of battles around Corinth. And by the way, although Union forces actually came down to take the crossroads, the Confederates didn’t take a purely defensive position. In fact, the Corinth campaigns are considered the last Confederate offensive in Mississippi.
The center is a beautiful building with well-done, visually-pleasing displays, the sort that make learning fun no matter your age. And, in keeping with the embedding-things-in-concrete theme, the floor of one room has railroad tracks set into it just to bring home the reason you’re there in the first place!

Railroad ties and rail buried in concrete in one of the rooms.

Our favorite display? The Mobile woman who came to nurse soldiers and left a written account of what she saw in Corinth’s Tishomingo Hotel, which had been converted into a hospital. The exhibit allows visitors to pick up a telephone and listen to what she had to say, surely one of the best ways to learn history – so personal, so interesting. There are also plenty of exhibits and interactive displays featuring memorabilia, battle plans and information, along with scores of photos, a couple movies, beautiful artwork, and some really interesting exhibits on black history. (Corinth was home to a huge Contraband Camp for slaves seeking safe harbor.) So much to see. Outside, there is a commemorative courtyard, where, according to the National Park brochure, “stone and flowing water chronicle the birth and growth of the United States, the accompanying rise of sectionalism, key events leading to the Civil War, and a symbolic representation of four years of war.” The reflecting pool contains blocks of stone representing the various battles set in a timeline, and like everything else, it’s beautifully done. The whole site is really top notch and a credit to everyone involved.

Outside the CWIC, this water sculpture was awesome. Boxes are labeled representing the battles of the Civil War and are staged along a timeline -- Fort Sumter to Appomattox.
This Battery Robinett replica can be viewed from inside the CWIC.

The center sits on land near the site of Battery Robinett, which was built by the Federal Army following the Siege of Corinth in April - May 1862. It was the site of heavy fighting in October of 1862, during the Second Battle of Corinth. There are graves behind the building to prove it, and, like everything else about the Interpretive Center, it’s beautifully maintained. By the way, all this is free. They accept donations, but it’s free.

Confederate Brigadier-General Joseph Lewis Hogg was buried near the CWIC. He died of dysentery May 16, 1862, during the Siege of Corinth -- April ~May 1862.

Confederate soldiers from the Siege of Corinth, buried behind the CWIC.

Corinth does a spectacular job directing traffic to their historical sites. Really…we’ve never seen a city so well-marked, it’s easy to find everything, despite the fact that some places are far off the beaten path. Still, most things, including the center, are woefully under-attended.
We took a lunch break after the center – vegetable plates at Martha’s Menu downtown. Then we walked around a bit and re-visited Borroum’s Drug Store, the oldest continually operating drug store in the state. Then we dropped in on Wait’s Jewelry store, the oldest store in town and far and away the store with the most beautiful ceiling in town. Ernest Wait himself painted murals on the (very high) ceiling in 1925 and they’re a treasure. We also stopped in at Franklin Cruise. The building dates to 1886 and has been beautifully restored as a fine home-goods/antique store with two luxury hotel suites upstairs. Sort of a mini hotel/shop – really cool. We looked around for the former Tishomingo Savings Bank just because it was once robbed by Jesse James and his gang and, while no one we encountered could identify exactly which building had been the bank, consensus was that it was the Federal Land Bank building. Then we drove around admiring some of the beautiful old homes and the beautiful renovations downtown.

Caboose on the grounds of the Depot Museum

We kept driving until we got to the Crossroads Museum at the Depot. This sits on ground zero, the reason everyone came to Corinth in 1862. There’s a beautifully restored depot there that houses a diverse and interesting museum. There are exhibits related to the war, of course, but it also contains interesting exhibits on local history, archeology, and its own little Coca Cola museum – a real trip down memory lane. We really enjoyed the film on local aviation pioneer Roscoe Turner. Like so many early aviators, Turner was a barnstormer, a racer (he broke the east/west transcontinental air speed record in 1930), a WWI pilot, a movie stunt flier, a WWII flight instructor, and the founder of a couple early incarnations of commercial airlines, among many other endeavors. One of the more colorful aspects of his career would have to be his co-pilot, a pet lion named Gilmore, a gift/publicity stunt from the good folks at Gilmore Oil, one of his employers. All told, this farmer’s son from Corinth did pretty well for himself; he landed on the cover of Time magazine. Gilmore didn’t do badly either, although his honor is somewhat less enviable. He’s at the Smithsonian (stuffed). The Crossroads Museum is a small museum, but well worth the $5 admission.

Doesn't look like much now, but, this crossroad of tracks made Corinth ground zero in 1862. Originally, there were 4 tracks crossing at this point -- only 2 exist now. This picture was taken from a window in the Depot.

We enjoyed our visit, but by then our interest in the Civil War had been piqued to the point that we were actually anxious to see Shiloh – a battle so famous that it’s almost synonymous with the war. We thought we had studied up on Shiloh, so imagine our surprise when we realized it was in Tennessee! For some reason this took both of us totally by surprise. In the most technical sense, of course, we knew where it was, but Shiloh is so closely associated with Corinth and Bryce’s Crossroads – and we had historically paid such pitifully little attention to anything related to the Civil War – that we hadn’t really thought it out.
Not surprisingly, Shiloh is beautiful. It, too, is under the control of those wonderful National Park people, whose maintenance talents are much to be admired. As we drove in, it was apparent to even Civil War novices like us that Shiloh was a major battle site. The sheer number of monuments was impressive, and there’s something to see at every turn: signs relating the history of that particular site, statues, cannons, and monuments, monuments, monuments…an incredible number of which are there courtesy of the people of Illinois. Illinois monuments are everywhere!

Grant's line of cannons pointing across an open field toward the Sunken Road.

First, we went to the Shiloh Battlefield Visitors Center, where we watched a film about the two horrible days in April of 1862, when the area around Shiloh Church became a battlefield. (The church didn’t make it through the battle, but the Tennessee Sons of the Confederacy built a replica on the site a few years ago and it does look authentic.) The park ranger at the center told us that we’d be seeing a film about the battle, and that the film had been made in the 1950s (there’s a new one coming out any time now). Our excitement level dropped precipitously when we heard that, but – surprise! – it was really well-done, not nearly as dated as we would have thought. It gave a really even account of what had gone on, both the military aspects and the personal ones, and we really enjoyed it. Then we hopped in the car and set off on the well-marked driving tour of the battle grounds, where we found that the park is not just beautiful, it’s user-friendly too. We had several things that we particularly wanted to see: Shiloh Church, the Confederate Monument, the row of cannons that mark Grant’s last line, and at least one of the Confederate mass graves, but the battlefield is so well-marked and accessible that we managed to see most everything...and were impressed and humbled by everything we saw.

Shiloh Church Although the original church was destroyed during the battle, this is "a near exact replica of that original church. Much detail went into building this church, using hand hewn logs approximately 150 years old that came from this area. This church was started in 1999 under the direction of the Shiloh Sons of Confederate Veteran Camp #1454 and Shiloh Methodist Church." Quotation is from the plaque that is on the church grounds.

Behind this monument is one of the mass graves of the Confederate soldiers who were killed at the Battle of Corinth. At the time, Confederate dead were not permitted burial in U.S. military cemeteries. Later - muuuuucccch later - this was changed.

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