- Associated Press - Monday, January 23, 2017

CORINTH, Miss. (AP) - Dale Wilkerson, superintendent at Shiloh National Military Park, made no claims as an artist as he turned over a press release and started doodling.

His first sketch was an extremely rough representation of the area where Union and Confederate forces clashed during the Battle of Shiloh on April 6-7, 1862. The site comprises 5.8 square miles of land more or less clumped together, which are now under the protection of the National Park Service.

Wilkerson’s second sketch was a series of squiggly circles set apart from each other. Though not to scale, the drawings represented 950 acres of important sites during the Battle of Corinth on April 29-May 30, 1862, and the Second Battle of Corinth on Oct. 3-4 that same year.

“At Corinth, it’s little islands,” Wilkerson said. “The authorized areas are spread out.”

In December, the National Park Service took official ownership of 11 new tracts of land. Of the 950 acres authorized by Congress in September 2000, the Corinth Unit of Shiloh National Military Park now controls 800 acres.

There’s more to do, but the acquisitions to date represent a 25-year effort to preserve hallowed ground. Its importance stretches well beyond Corinth and Mississippi.

“This is all in the national interest,” said Rosemary Williams, chairman of the Siege and Battle of Corinth Commission.

In early 1862, Gen. Ulysses Grant captured Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in Tennessee, so he controlled the Tennessee River from Kentucky to Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Wilkerson said the general’s next target was the railroad crossing at Corinth that supplied Confederate troops.

Grant chose Pittsburgh Landing on the Tennessee River to offload his troops and supplies. The ensuing Battle of Shiloh claimed 23,746 casualties, and then Federal troops marched toward Corinth.

“The Battle of Shiloh happened because of the railroad tracks in Corinth,” Wilkerson said. “It’s really all about Corinth.”

Near the end of the 20th century, Shiloh was under the protection of the National Park Service, while the Corinth sites were owned by different people and agencies. Some of the land was pristine, while other parcels had houses built on them. One tract had a school.

In 1991, a five-member commission was appointed by Corinth city officials and Alcorn County officials to do a study of the region’s Civil War legacy.

“They recognized that if it wasn’t preserved it would be lost forever,” Wilkerson said.

About 10 years later, Congress authorized a plan to acquire the properties. Approximately $20 million has been spent on the effort since then.

“Most of it was appropriated by the federal government,” Williams said, “but we also have had support from the state of Mississippi, private foundations and local and private donations.”

The Friends of the Siege and Battle of Corinth is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization created to raise money and make purchases. Larry Mangus is the group’s president.

“I usually get a call at least once a month, ‘Would you be interested in buying .?’” he said. “I say, ‘Would you be interested in donating’”

Though there are a few small parcels here and there, most of the 950 designated acres already has been purchased to be included in the Corinth Unit of Shiloh National Military Park.

Legalities are holding up the last 150 or so acres. Before the National Park Service can take control, the title has to be free and clear. Reversion clauses and ownership disputes add levels of difficulty.

“Some of it we may never get resolved, but that’s a small piece of it,” Mangus said.

Members of both the Siege and Battle of Corinth Commission and the Friends of the Siege and Battle of Corinth will keep working toward their ultimate goal.

“We’re not nearly as busy as we once were,” Williams said, “but, to a certain extent, I think we should always be available. This land needs to be preserved. It’s our mission to accomplish that.”

Both Union and Confederate commanders ordered their troops to dig trenches and fill baskets with dirt to provide cover from enemy fire. Men created field fortifications out of soil, timber, bales of cotton and whatever else was handy.

The Corinth Unit includes earthworks built before the first Battle of Corinth, as well as those Federal troops constructed and used when the Rebels tried to retake the city.

“The largest section is going to be to the north, where the Confederate siegeworks are,” Charles Spearman, acting supervising ranger at Corinth, said of the newly acquired property. “It’s between Old 45 and the railroad tracks.”

Mangus called those siegeworks “some of the best I’ve seen.”

Modern people don’t always know what they’re looking at. Battery F in Corinth, which was part of an earlier transfer, also has field fortifications that are easy to identify when three Civil War experts point them out. Without experienced guides, others might just see a series of hills and slopes.

“Unfortunately, we have a problem with people riding golf carts on them,” Wilkerson said, pointing to a warn path at Battery F. “I’ve instructed the maintenance department to put up some trees to block the way.”

Saving the sites also has involved taking down some structures. Mangus sought help from the Corinth Fire Department for a controlled burn of a dilapidated building near the Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center.

“None of them are done with unwilling condemnation,” Wilkerson said. “It’s all done by willing buyers and sellers.”

West Corinth Elementary is gone, too. The Friends purchased it about two years ago, but that’s not why it closed.

“The school was closed during school consolidation,” Spearman said.

It presents an interesting bureaucratic problem, because the old playground and the other parts of the property were included in the original 950-acre boundary, but the school itself was not.

Should Wilkerson use his limited discretion to add it?

What if another, more deserving piece of land becomes available?

Or should he ask for another act of Congress to expand the Corinth Unit?

The ongoing legal questions might be frustrating at times, but they’re tiny concerns when compared to the 250,000 men who battled over the course of six to eight months in 1862 and incurred 40,000 casualties.

“That’s how many men and lives that railroad cost,” Wilkerson said.

Thanks to more than 25 years of effort by a variety of people, those formerly contested “islands” of Civil War history will be saved for future generations.

“The purpose of trying to figure out how to get the land to the National Park Service is that’s how it will be saved,” Wilkerson said. “This land has the same protection as Yellowstone National Park, the same as Yosemite. You’ve got a lot of historically significant land. How do you protect it in perpetuity? You give it to the National Park Service.”

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Information from: Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, https://djournal.com

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