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Songs of Yesterday: Civil War Series, Part 1 - The Battle of Shiloh Hill

The year 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War. To commemorate the event and the music of the war, January's "Songs of Yesterday" begins a 12-part series of songs from that horrific event, including music of both sides and of both battlefield and home front. This particular article takes a close look at the song about the Battle of Shiloh and the differences between two versions of the descriptive piece.


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Editor Note: Hear the author perform "The Battle of Shiloh Hill." To order the complete CD, see Songs of the War of the Rebellion.

As all American historians and most genealogists know, 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the commencement of the War Between the States. In 1861, the United States embarked on an event that would scar the country, divide families and communities, and have a lasting effect on the entire nation. To commemorate this event, I will be sharing the "back stories" and explanations of twelve of the songs that were born of that conflict. In the past issues of this publication, I have examined two: "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" (in two parts - 22 Jan and 19 Feb 2010) and "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" AKA "Christmas Bells" (11 Dec 2009). Here we will examine the words and meanings of "The Battle of Shiloh Hill" (AKA "The Battle on Shiloh's Hill").

The Battle at Shiloh is one of the most memorable and written-about battles of the war. Shiloh, also known as Pittsburg Landing (most battles had two names, one given by the North, the other by the South), was the scene of carnage that outnumbered all the American casualties of all wars prior to April 1862, combined (Gallagher, lecture 11); the resulting deaths exceeded 23,000 men (Amer. Battlefield Protection). It stands to reason that this historic event would be immortalized in song.

Two different versions of the song describing the battle's emotional impact on the soldier narrator are discussed here. The first version (Silber, pp. 246-247) is attributed to M. B. Smith of Company C, Second Regiment of the Texas Volunteers, implying some authenticity to the report; upon investigation, it is discovered that the "2d Texas" is listed as under the command of Brig. General J. K. Jackson of the Confederate Army (Battle of Shiloh). The second version attributes the words to the collection Ozark Folk Songs, compiled by Vance Randolph (Lomax, pp. 349-350). The second variation is mentioned because it is considerably shorter (edited) than the, supposedly, more complete (and closer to the source) rendition by M. B. Smith.

In verse one (of both versions) the composer makes an assumption that the audience will experience a blood-chilling response just by listening to the story ("it was an awful struggle and will cause your blood to chill"). According to Gallagher, in his lecture on this event, there is sufficient evidence that both North and South sympathizers were alarmed by the carnage at Shiloh (lecture 11). From this it would appear that the composer did not over-dramatize the events. The next three verses, of both versions, address the events and emotions connected with the first day of battle.

The second verse of the song cites the date and time of the battle commencement: "the sixth of April" at "about the break of day." Sources all agree on the dates of the battle (6-7 April 1862), but the exact time of day on April 6 is not clear, though it definitely began in the morning: the Confederate attack woke some of the Union soldiers (Amer. Battlefield Protection). One report indicates that an advance "in the gray light of dawn" on April 6, discovered unfortified Union positions, allowing the Confederates to gain an advantage, but the actual fighting may not have started until later in the day (McPherson). On the other hand, the second day of the battle, April 7, found the fighting commencing at about six in the morning (Amer. Battlefield Protection).

It is unclear, from the text of the song, which side is represented in the narration. Because both sides suffered severe loss of life, the viewpoint could be from either North or South; however, there may be a clue in the second verse: the wording in the second and fourth lines of the second verse of the six-verse (short) version seem to indicate that it is from the perspective of the attacker, making this a song by a Southern soldier or sympathizer. Since the Union Army was surprised by the advance of the South (Amer. Battlefield Protection), the phrase "the drums an' fifes was playin' for us to march away, . . . when first my feet was trompin' on the top of Shiloh's Hill," would imply that the narrator was in the attacking force, a Confederate. Because it was allegedly a Southerner who penned the nine-verse version, this assumption would be further validated (Battle of Shiloh).

The third verse again emphasizes the time of day, but also stresses that the battle lasted the entire day and implies that the soldiers may have used up all their ammunition (or did not have time to reload) in the phrase "before the day was ended we fought 'em hand to hand." It is clear that the fighting continued until after dark, but records indicate that the Union soldiers had plenty of artillery and even received reinforcements (Amer. Battlefield Protection), though it is entirely possible that the Southern ammunition was not as plentiful. It is hard to imagine that a soldier, however untrained, would go up against a cannon or rifle when he had nothing more than hands and knife; but those who were present write that the Confederate charge was, indeed, a personal one with the saber being a primary weapon (de Hass). The third verse goes on to express an emotional turmoil from witnessing the carnage. Colonel de Hass, in his account of the battle, confirms this in his description of the blood-reddened hillside and the moans of the dying, heard long into the night.

The differences between the two versions mentioned here become more evident in verse four. Both versions attest to the soldiers coming "from every nation" and this is fairly accurate, considering the scope of the education of the day. In the 21st Century we can easily see that every nation wasn't represented, but it must have appeared that way to the 19th Century soldier. Among the enlistees and volunteers we can find German, Irish, French, Russian, Hungarian, Polish, Spanish, Scotch, Swiss, Welsh, Dutch, Mexican, Italian, English, Croatian, Bavarian, Algerian, Portuguese, Swedish, and Austrian (Davis, pp. 90-95). It would be presumptuous to say that representatives from all these cultures were present at Shiloh, but certainly a good many were, so this remark that begins verse four may not be a complete exaggeration. The next comment about "fathers, sons, and brothers" being among those who died does not, necessarily, mean that they held these relations to each other; I propose that this wording more likely meant the men were fathers, sons, and brothers to someone, no doubt left at home to mourn, as stated in the next line in the longer version ("That has caused so many homes with deep mourning to be filled" [Silber]). Here is where the two versions become distinctly different: if one were to read only the second version, it would seem as if the narrator was implying these kinships applied to those who fought together as this clarifying line is omitted from the shorter (Randolph/Lomax) rendition.

The fifth verse takes us into the evening of the first day in the long version. It continues to emphasize details of the horror and the abandonment that wounded soldiers surely felt (the edited version treats the reality as much less intense). Both variations rely heavily on pathos, but the shorter version relies more on qualifying than quantifying. The longer version also focuses more on the religious aspect and quotes what was allegedly uttered in the prayers: "Protect my wife and children if it is Thy Holy will." On the first day at Shiloh, the fighting lasted until after dark. Sometime after nightfall it began to rain (de Hass). This detail is omitted in the ballad, but would have added impact if mentioned. The misery that was experienced by the wounded, as a result of the rain, only added to the horror and to the difficulty in servicing those who might otherwise have been saved a lingering death (de Hass). Another aspect of the battle neither version of the song addresses also deals with the weather, but prior to the rain. It had been rather dry and the ground was covered with many dry leaves and branches; an often overlooked phenomenon of battle is that this dry brush, when exposed to the explosion of artillery fire, frequently ignited, creating small fires that consumed what flammable material was in the path. Along with the brush, dead and wounded soldiers would be added to these blazes, making the passing of the maimed additionally horrendous as they burned to death (Bierce).

With these additional problems, not specifically spelled out in the verses of the song, one can see justification for such terminology as "dead and dying men lay thick all o'er the ground, on the hill and on the glen" (described in the longer version only). Additional records from newspaper accounts and private journals also authenticate the expressions of horror, describing the amputations that took place between day one and day two of the battle (Andrews, p. 175). No doubt such "operations" added to the blood that was reported as running "like a rill [river]" (this vision is described in both versions).

The next verses cover the experience of the second day of the battle. While the shortened copy of this song glosses over the subsequent day of fighting, the unedited version goes into detail (as mentioned above). Both versions explain the feelings of futility in the minds and hearts of the soldiers as they were "unmindful of the wounded, unuseful to the slain." The longer version substitutes the word "unmindful" for "unuseful," applying the technique of repetition, probably for effect. The editor of the longer version indicates that he sees this adjustment as creating more imagery of the circumstance (Silber, p. 247). I see this subtle change as detracting from the feelings the soldiers surely experienced: they could be of no further use to their fallen comrades, but certainly they were not unmindful of the deaths of those all around them. Silber presumes that the original word was "unuseful."

Both versions state that 10,000 men were killed on that second day of battle. This is in keeping with the various records, though most sources combine the two days of casualties, identifying approximately 10,500 Confederate and 13,000 Union deaths as taking place during that less than 48-hour period (Ten Costliest Battles).

The fact that the longer version goes into more graphic description of battle casualties could be considered sensationalism, but is more than likely accurate: both the accounts of Ambrose Bierce and Colonel Wills de Hass, who were present at Shiloh, confirm the extensive carnage. Bierce describes the ashes of corpses, along with those not consumed by fire, but bloated from the rains, as covering the ground over which the soldiers walked; de Hass describes the rain puddles, tinged with blood. The unedited verse states, "They left their vacant ranks for some other ones to fill, And now their mouldering bodies all lie on Shiloh Hill." This declaration is historically accurate: General Grant ordered that the dead be buried where they were slain. Unfortunately, due to rain and time constraints, the burials were less than sufficient and the small amounts of earth that covered the bodies washed away in the rains that fell almost immediately after the graves were filled (de Hass).

Both versions of the song end in essentially the same manner: an exclamation of protest against war (Koon). The additional prayer that is quoted in the first version and paraphrased in the second adds to the pathos of the event: "I hope the sight by [to] mortal man may ne'er be seen again, But I pray to God, the Saviour, ‘If consistent with thy will, To save the souls of all who fell on bloody Shiloh Hill.'" There is a slight variation on the wording in the shorter version, but it does not appear to change the meaning at all, with one possible exception. In the Randolph/Lomax version, the quoted prayer omits the descriptor – "bloody" – to qualify the location (or appearance) of Shiloh's Hill. Since "bloody" has a profane meaning for the British, many of whom migrated to the United States and lived in the Ozarks, where this song originated, according to some beliefs (Lomax, p. 345), perhaps the omission of the word from the second version was purposeful (no need to offend one's audience).

This brings up another distinct difference between these two versions of the same song: the vernacular of the second version is obviously less formal. It has been transcribed with an obvious Ozark dialect (Wolfram, p. 203) that has apparently been altered in the re-editing of the song for the Silber book. However, the Silber (longer) version of the song has those additional verses, adding clarity in one case and a more vivid picture of the battle, along with exact quotes instead of paraphrasing in other parts of the work. It would seem, then, that the first, or longer, version of the song would be the original while the shorter, edited, version would be the adulterated, "second-generation" version. The longer version of the song has a listed author while the shorter version is credited to Vance Randolph for his transcription (not authorship) of the work. Neither version mentions a major problem of this battle: most soldiers on both sides were green to combat and much of the carnage is attributed to inexperience (Gallagher, lecture 11). Regardless of which version came first, the two, when taken together, give a fairly vivid and accurate picture of the Battle of Shiloh.

Whether or not your ancestor fought at this location or any others in the War Between the States, learning about the war through its music can help us connect to the emotions felt by both those who fought and those who remained at home. We'll look at more of these in the months to come.


American Battlefield Protection Program, The. Battle summary: Shiloh, Tennessee. Heritage Preservation Services [On-line]. Accessed 2002, from, 22 June 1999.

Andrews, J. Cutler. The North Reports the Civil War. Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1955.

Battle of Shiloh Confederate Order of Battle. From O.R. Series I, Vol. X/1 [S#10] [On-line]. Accessed 2002, from

Bierce, Ambrose. What I saw of Shiloh [Reprinted on-line], 1909. Accessed 2002, from

Davis, Burke. The Civil War: Strange & Interesting Facts. New York: The Fairfax Press, 1982.

de Hass, Wills. The Battle of Shiloh. [On-line]. Accessed 2002, from

Gallagher, Gary W. The American Civil War [4-part, 12-tape video lecture series]. Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2000.

Koon, William H. American Ballad and Folk Song [Spring 1987 semester course]. California State University, Fullerton, CA, 1987.

Lomax, Alan (Ed.). Folk songs of North America. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1960.

McPherson, James M. The Atlas of the Civil War, 1994, cited on The Battle of Shiloh Official Records and Battle Description. [On-line]. Accessed 2002, from

Silber, Irwin (Ed.). Songs of the Civil War. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1995.

Ten Costliest Battles of the Civil War, The [Website]. Accessed 2002, from The Ten Costliest Battles of the Civil War.

Wolfram, Walt. Dialects and American English. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1991.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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