On April 6th, 150 years ago, the epic Civil War battle of Shiloh took place along the Tennessee River, 22 miles north of Corinth Mississippi.
Under General Ulysses S. Grant, 40,000 Union troops confronted 44,000 Confederate soldiers under General Albert Sidney Johnston.
More than 50,000 spectators attended a re-enactment of the fight last weekend, staged by a considerably smaller army of 8,000 Civil War history buffs.
What do these demonstrations teach us about history that can’t be comprehended from just reading about it?
First, we learn that the study of Civil War history is very clean. You sit in an armchair, open a book, smell the crisp pages. You hear the marching band music on a CD, see the uniforms preserved in glass display cases, examine the dramatic paintings in museums. It all looks noble and grand and worthy.
But on the borrowed farmland near Shiloh, where re-enactors are camped out in canvas tents, it's anything but clean.
Campfire smoke fills the air. The ground is muddy, and the mud sticks to everything. It's a cool, spring day, but not the kind of weather that would make you want to put on a wool outfit and march around in full sunshine with rifles, canteens and plenty of gunpowder.
General William Tecumseh Sherman famously remarked: "War is Hell."
He wasn't just talking about the part where you walk into a field and get shot at. He was talking about all of it. The daily miseries of being drenched in sweat, covered in dirt, stepping over horse manure, swatting away the gnats and flies, picking off ticks.
Some might think it strange or obsessive that a group of history buffs, 150 years after the Civil War, still put themselves through so much discomfort to re-live the past. But doing so gives them an understanding of American history that is as intimate as it is terrifying.
More importantly, they show others the extent of the sacrifices that were made to keep the United States united.
Curt Fields is an adjunct sociology professor at the University of Memphis who portrays Ulysses S. Grant.
He says that re-enacting history re-enforces “the trite but true expression of if you don't know where you've been, you don't know where you’re going, and you're also risking making the same mistakes, so you need to know your history, you need to have a national sense of self.”
Like the real General grant, Fields is 5 foot seven, has a porcupine beard and crows feet that make him look as though he's won a staring contest with the devil. He doesn't just resemble General grant -- he gets treated like him at re-enactments across the South.
For the 150th of the civil war, we're looking back and remembering regardless of which side a man fought,” Fields said. “We want to remember what happened here at Shiloh and on every battlefield of America because it's when the United States went through its crucible and emerged like the Phoenix of legend as a better, stronger animal."
Doug Jennings, a musician from Alabama, recreates the music of the Confederacy with his band Unreconstructed. Even the entertainment takes a side in the fight. But he says that having a strong emotional connection to either the North or the South adds to the atmosphere of authenticity.
“We are a Confederate Civil War Band,” Jennings said. “We have a song called 'Kill that Yankee Soldier.' We do Confederate songs. There are other bands who do songs from the North. A guy from Minnesota came up to me and said, 'I like that song, though I don’t like the sentiments.'”
As thousands of re-enactors marched stoically onto the battlefield last week, there was little talk among the observers of the cultural differences that still, 150 years later, tend to distinguish the North from the South, such as politics, music, accents.
There were mostly questions about the war itself. Why it was fought, how it was fought.
At a distance, the terrible sound made by 8,000 re-enactors could make anyone question the limits of a soldier's courage.
Multiply that noise by ten, and you could almost imagine the chaos and the carnage of 80,000 men fighting at Shiloh in 1862.
It was the deadliest battle in American history up to that point. But there was still three more years of war and far bloodier fights to come.
The National Parks Service will commemorate the battle of Shiloh on April 6 and 7, 2012 with tours and movies. On Saturday night, 23,746 luminaries will light up the battlefield: one for each of the dead, wounded and missing.