When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flames shall not harm thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.
–How Firm a Foundation, Verse 5
We recently wrapped production of our new interpretive film for Shiloh National Military Park. The 35-minute film will graphically and emotionally tell the story of the Battle of Shiloh. Fought in southern Tennessee in April 1862, Shiloh has often been called “The Gettysburg of the West.” Before Shiloh many in North and South naively thought one grand battle could end the Civil War. In two days of horrific battle, Union and Confederate casualties numbered over 20,000. That’s more than the wartime population of Atlanta. The carnage at Shiloh signaled not an end to the war, but in fact a bloody beginning. Antietam, Gettysburg, Chickamauga and other battles with terrible casualties would soon follow. The “fiery trial” of America’s Civil War had indeed begun.
Shiloh Superintendent Woody Harrell suggested using “How Firm a Foundation,” a song written in 1787, to provide the “foundation” for our musical score. The beautiful hymn was sung at the funeral of Presidents Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, and other famous Americans. It was also a popular song during the Civil War. Its words poignantly describe the “fiery trials” many soldiers felt during the war. Ironically, its words can also be used to describe our own trials with the production of this film.
On Saturday, March 26th, we awoke to our biggest fear. Lightning flashing across the early morning skies. Thunder booming like artillery. Rain coming down in torrents. The forecast: severe storms and heavy rain for the next 18 hours. For over a year, we had been planning the reenactment of the Battle of Shiloh. More than 350 reenactors had traveled from all parts of the country to southern Tennessee to participate. Our crew, support staff and park staff numbered an additional 150. Every detail had been taken care of. And now this.
Bill Rambo, the commander of the reenactors, rightly told us that we’d have to stand down because of the lightning. Reenactors wielding 5-foot rifles would be nothing more than lightning rods during the storm. After a couple hours, the rain and lightning seemed to subside. The men came out of their tents and traveled to our shooting location deep into the woods of Shiloh. When all were in place to begin filming, the heavens opened up again. Reenactors scrambled for shelter in tents and a bus used to transport them. This frustrating scenario would repeat itself numerous times throughout the day. The storms would let up long enough to offer a glimmer of hope. But by the time we were ready to film, the next wave of severe weather would move in. Exposed in the cold rain, our production crew worked desperately to keep all of our electronic equipment dry. Any attempts to keep ourselves dry proved fruitless. After a while, you just accept the fact that you cannot get any wetter. For the reenactors, it was even worse. We at least had rain gear. They wore period uniforms of wool, now drenched in rain. Simply put, it was miserable for all
Somehow, we were able to get some scenes done, yet not nearly what we had hoped. But in the spring storm was a silver lining. During the Confederate approach and retreat to Shiloh it had stormed. We were able to film compelling scenes of this during the heaviest rain of the day. The Confederate withdrawal scenes were particularly solemn and compelling. As the reenactors filed past our cameras the only sounds were the clanging of weapons and squashing of boots in the mud. Our crew and other observers watched in awe. For a few brief moments, it’s as if were transported back in time to April 1862. After the battle, a New Orleans newspaper wrote, “After Shiloh, the South never smiled again.” The rain and mist provided perfect conditions to capture this sentiment.
The next day, March 27th, the storm had passed but was replaced with bone-chilling cold and heavy winds. At Pittsburg Landing, the wind gusted at 30 mph off the Tennessee River. Reenactors and crew huddled in the 35-degree temperature. The calendar said spring, but this felt like a winter day in Tennessee. Through it all, no one among that 350 reenactors, the Park Staff and 100 crew and support staff complained. The reenactors soldiered through the trial with the dignity and toughness of those whose lives they portray.
Our shoot had one heartbreaking casualty. Duke, a beloved horse of reenactor Kevin Gray, died of head injury. During our first night at Shiloh, Duke was kicked in the head by another horse. After refusing food for a day, Duke began to eat and seemed to be on the road to recovery. But upon our return to Denver, we received terrible news. On Monday, Duke was found lifeless in the pasture.
To Kevin, Duke was more than a horse. He was family. In a thank you note to the many who offered condolences, Kevin wrote:
“Anyone who ever rode Duke will testify to the fact that he was probably the most gentle and reliable horse they had ever ridden. He just minded his own business and never bucked, never threw anyone, never balked at flags or drums or bugles or swords. He trusted me that whatever I asked him to do, he was going to be OK. I never thought twice about putting a little kid or someone who’d never ridden before on Duke as I knew they’d be safe.”
Our second – and final shoot – of the Battle of Shiloh happened 10 days later. Thursday, April 7 dawned clear and warm – the opposite of what we had experienced on the first shoot. We were set up to shoot in Peabody Woods, scene of some of the heaviest fighting at Shiloh. This day was also the 149th anniversary of the battle. Unit Manager Tyler Young texted me, “Bus is on the way with 40 reenactors.” It seemed like things might finally be going our way. Then my phone rang. It was Tyler. “There’s been an accident,” he said. The trembling in Tyler’s voice signaled something was terribly wrong. Accident? How could there possibly be an accident at Shiloh Battlefield of all places? The speed limit is 25mph and most who come to visit drive slower than that.
Unfortunately, locals often use the Battlefield as shortcut to get wherever then are going. On this morning, a grandfather and his grandson were apparently doing just that, using the battlefield to get to a fishing spot. Driving through the park at speeds in excess of 50 mph. the driver ran a stop sign and slammed into our bus full of reenactors. Miraculously, the car struck the bus in the perfect spot – on it’s rear tire which served as a giant cushion. We shudder to think about what may have happened if the car had struck the bus in any other area. The impact could easily have rolled the large vehicle. Only one person on board was injured, Larry Williams who was sitting above the tire. Larry went to the emergency room with back and leg pains, but being the soldier that he is, returned to Shiloh that afternoon for filming.
The grandfather and grandson in the other vehicle were not nearly as lucky. The impact smashed the front end of their pickup, totaling the vehicle. Neither was wearing seats belts. The young boy suffered a broken femur and concussion. He was airlifted to a hospital in Memphis and is expected to make a full recovery. His grandfather suffered more serious injuries. Fortunately, several of our reenactors on the bus were also paramedics. They struggled to keep both stable until emergency teams arrived. Many witnesses felt the grandfather would have died at the scene if our reenactors had not been there to administer first aid. The injured man was transported to a hospital in Savannah, Tennessee where he underwent surgery. Last we heard, he remains in critical condition.
The rest of the shoot went smoothly – thankfully. After the accident, the shaken reenactors showed up at Peabody Woods. I considered cancelling the shoot for the day, but the men seemed willing to proceed as planned. In a strange way, filming the scenes this day seemed somewhat therapeutic. It was nice to focus on 1862 rather than 2011.
As difficult as our “fiery trial” had been, the reenactment was a sobering reminder of why we were at Shiloh Battlefield. One hundred forty nine years earlier, the very ground where we stood was littered with dead and wounded. Young men in the prime of life from the North and South gave the ultimate sacrifice for a cause they believed to be just. Putting it into perspective, our trials were minor compared to the suffering of the soldiers of Shiloh and their families. The difficulties we have had as producers serve as an inspiration to create a film that honors the sacrifice and memory of those who fought at Shiloh.
P.S. For some great photos taken by Justin Koehler, go to: