I suppose the country lying between Corinth and Pittsburg Landing could boast a few inhabitants other than alligators. What manner of people they were it is impossible to say, inasmuch as the fighting dispersed, or possibly exterminated them; perhaps in merely classing them as non-saurian I shall describe them with sufficient particularity and at the same time avert from myself the natural suspicion attaching to a writer who points out to persons who do not know him the peculiarities of persons whom he does not know. One thing, however, I hope I may without offense affirm of these swamp-dwellers – they were pious. To what deity their veneration was given – whether, like the Egyptians, they worshiped the crocodile, or, like other Americans, adored themselves, I do not presume to guess. But whoever, or whatever, may have been the divinity whose ends they shaped, unto Him, or It, they had builded a temple. This humble edifice, centrally situated in the heart of a solitude, and conveniently accessible to the supersylvan crow, had been christened Shiloh Chapel, whence the name of the battle. The fact of a Christian church – assuming it to have been a Christian church – giving name to a wholesale cutting of Christian throats by Christian hands need not be dwelt on here; the frequency of its recurrence in the history of our species has somewhat abated the moral interest that would otherwise attach to it.
Ambrose Bierce, “What I Saw of Shiloh”
It is late morning, and a cool autumn breeze blows through the picnic area. Becky washes dishes after breakfast (soggy, burnt French toast, botched fried egg). Last night we made a fruitless circumnavigation of Starkville, Miss., in search of a picnic area. We did find Bulldog Package Store, and Becky got her cup of cheap red wine.
Who discovered that one cup of thick wine will dispel a thousand cares?
After hours of frustration we settled for dinner in the Walmart parking lot, West Point, Miss. We pulled off a rather satisfying one-pot dish, pierogies cooked in a piquant cream sauce with mushrooms, onions and garlic.
So ended our Delta blues tour. We’d enjoyed the King Biscuit Blues Festival, visited with Pinetop Perkins and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and wandered through a graveyard at midnight in search of Charley Patton’s grave. Now we’re in Hill Country.
West Point is the birthplace of Chester Arthur Burnett, aka Howlin’ Wolf. The one and only Wolf.
We dined to the virile strains of the Best of Chess disc and were visited by not one but two West Point cops. Both said they wanted to be sure we were OK.
Satisfied with our humble repast, we set off on U.S. 45 in a northerly direction. We stopped for sleep at Brice Crossroads visitor center, only to be startled from slumber by the knock of Baldwyn gendarme. He took my license and cheerfully explained that we had chosen a bad spot to bunk for the night.
Sufficiently alert, I drove to a truck stop in Corinth, where we awakened this morning to a shaking engine and an ominous “service engine soon” light on the dashboard.
We seem to be experiencing a recurrence of an oil leakage problem. We added two quarts this morning, which seemed to temporarily soothe the shaking, rough-running engine. But how long can we expect to drive without facing a serious automotive heartache?
Such a specter should be entertained as a fortuitous detour on the agenda-less odyssey about America, right? If the car dies, if the engine blows, we will be forced into more unexpected, rewarding encounters. I should look forward being stranded on a desolate highway in rural Tennessee at 2:15 on a moonless morning. But I don’t.
Not at all. I am made of less stern stuff.
We arrived at Shiloh late. The battle had opened at 6 a.m. on April 6, 1862. obscuring a beautiful spring morning with smoke and mayhem. At least Grant got there by 9.
The sun flooded through oaks and walnuts as we reached Pittsburg Landing around 2:30 on a gorgeous October afternoon. When they gathered here 141 years ago, spring was in the air. Trees were green with leaves. Peach blossoms perfumed the air. The setting was hospitable for the two-day bloodletting historian Shelby Foote described as a” disorganized, murderous fistfight.”
This fistfight killed 3,500 men and maimed countless others.
We opened with a hit-and-run raid on Confederate memorial, designed by Frederick C. Hibbard and dedicated in 1917 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Here on day one, 2,200 Union troops under Benjamin Prentiss raised a white flag at the Hornets Nest, too late to advance the Confederate cause. Hibbard’s ambitious memorial, titled “Defeated Victory,” features a forlorn female, representing the Confederacy, flanked by figures representing Death and Night. The pitiful wench surrenders the laurel wreath of victory to these menacing characters while standing atop a marble relief of Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston.
Johnston’s untimely death and the arrival of night, which brought Federal reinforcements from Nashville, are central players in Confederate rationalization of defeat here that helped give flower to the Lost Cause myth. Hibbard’s work stands as testimony to the power of imagery to reshape history in the service of one dubious end or another.
Next stop is Bloody Pond, where we read the observations of a 20-year-old soldier from the 9th Indiana named Ambrose Bierce. The grisly goings-on at Shiloh undoubtedly had a sobering influence on the youngster’s turn of mind – which turned sharply to sardonic.
Bierce’s unit arrived with Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio at the close of the first day. They shuffled toward the front in a veil of darkness. When light creased the sky, their eyes fell upon a ghastly tableau fashioned by the previous day’s efforts.
Men? There were men enough; all dead apparently, except one, who lay near where I had halted my platoon to await the slower movement of the line–a Federal sergeant, variously hurt, who had been a fine giant in his time. He lay face upward, taking in his breath in convulsive, rattling snorts, and blowing it out in sputters of froth which crawled creamily down his cheeks, piling itself alongside his neck and ears. A bullet had clipped a groove in his skull, above the temple; from this the brain protruded in bosses, dropping off in flakes and strings. I had not previously known one could get on, even in this unsatisfactory fashion, with so little brain.
War forces its minions to deviate from their appointed courses. As we set out along the Pittsburg Landing-Corinth Road, the sun hanging directly above our heads, unmolested in the sky. We possessed every intention of completing the entire 9.5-mile circuit.
When we approached the Hornets Nest, we were directed as if by an unseen, imperious will to turn to the left for a sleepy autumnal peregrination down the Sunken Road. I don’t know if the terrain has changed in the intervening 141 1/2 years, but the position the boys from the Midwest held against a succession of frenetic assaults doesn’t seem so low or protected from infantry sorties – not to mention the horrendous discharge of Ruggles’ artillery.
We slowed the pace, seduced as we were by the elysian wonder of a fall afternoon in southern Tennessee. We retreated into the sylvan backdrop and took a rest against a particularly rugged oak.
When we rejoined the fray, we quickly found Spot No. 3 on the unofficial late-afternoon Shiloh Tour, a metal culvert in a ravine where Albert Sidney “I’d fight them if they were a million” Johnston came to a peaceful, eternal repose. He remains the highest ranking American officer to fall in war.
On the upside, the West Point grad Jeff Davis called the “Pillar of the Confederacy” got to avoid three years of lurid war, futile war and that. By the time Marse Robert ordered Pickett’s ghastly charge toward Seminary Ridge 15 months later, the death of Johnston was the least of Jeff Davis’ concerns.
Here we imbibed the soft song of the cricket and hunkered down beneath the road where cars rushed past along the official tour route. You’d have to say Albert Sidney did a splendid job of picking a place to die. Future Tennessee Gov. Isham Harris, upon finding Albert reeling in his saddle, took him to this still hollow, where he bled to death. It took just one minie ball in the back of the leg to level the pillar of the Confederacy.
We took a long look at our reconnaissance maps, relieved ourselves and toasted the memory of Albert Sidney Johnston with day-old Livingston Cabernet ($7.75 at Bulldog Package, Starkville) Sauvignon. Johnston passed into the great-or-not-so-great beyond around 2:30 p.m., April 4, 1862, which means he endured a good eight-and-a-half hours of fleeting victory before the mortal bill came due.
We didn’t even start our campaign until 2:30.
Historical marker No. 4: After a double-time march up the Hamburg-Purdy Road, we rested for a moment near the side of the old Shiloh Church, which so unselfishly gave its name to the battle. The sun has retreated to a lower spot in the sky, and the air is noticeably cooler. On our forced jog, we slogged past the Confederate artillery batteries that poured metallic hell upon Union positions in the Hornets Nest and the Sunken Road. Those batteries, manned by lads from Louisiana, Tennessee, Texas and Alabama, stand across the road from Union infantry markers from April 7.
By then, Confederate soldiers were retracing their steps from the previous morning, passing their bloated and broken brethren along the way.
This spot, where Sherman’s 5th Division had camped the night before the Confederates launched their attack at the break of Sunday, April 6, is now shared with the privately held Shiloh graveyard. The United Methodist Church of Shiloh, dedicated 1959, sits across the street from the original wood structure – which is being rebuilt by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
The man who commands the landscape here is not Grant nor Sherman nor Johnston, but a man who did not see action at Shiloh.
That man is Leonard Ray Blanton, and his marble obelisk of a grave marker, only mildly ostentatious given its solemn surroundings, shoots 20 feet into the air.
It bears the seal of the state of Tennessee, and its base offers a biographical sketch of this late “farmer, teacher, road builder, state representative, U.S. congressman and governor.”
Yes, friends, Leonard Ray Blanton, born April 10, 1930, and died Nov. 22, 1996, was a true “friend of the people.”
Becky wanders the Shiloh cemetery, the inhabitants of which, at least for the most part, were born long after the guns fell silent. The trees in the woods to our right are taking on the preternatural glow of early evening, signaling the advance of twilight.
We sauntered here, 200 yards off the Pittsburg Landing-Corinth Road, over a soft, comforting trail blanked with dried oak leaves. The mercurial reality of war is further in evidence. We gaze at a fading marker commemorating the spot where the 38th Tennessee Infantry, under the unfortunately named Col. Looney, charged over this ground on Monday in full retreat, the South having exchanged victory for the bitterness of defeat.
Thursday morning. We make an attempt, however painful, to take the responsible approach to potential automotive distress. The girl at Walmart – oh safe haven Walmart – said Roger’s Muffler was the place for us:
“My dad’s real picky, and he takes all his cars to Roger’s Muffler.”
We found Roger, but he doesn’t have any of the newfangled technology necessary to diagnose and treat such problems. He pointed us back down the road we had traversed to a white block building behind Savannah Glass.
“That’s all that boy does,” said Roger.
We made it to Justice Auto Service, in said white block building, and the man said, “Bubba probably take a look at it when he gets back. He went on an auto parts run.”
And now they’re hooking up the diagnostic scanner. Bad news, bad news, right around the corner. Can feel it in my bones.
Back to our unofficial tour of the Shiloh battlefield, the Lew Wallace Memorial Unofficial Tour. Just like the sensitive fellow who got lost en route to Savannah and later wrote “Ben Hur,” we had arrived at Pittsburg Landing too late in the day to make an impact.
But we gave everything we had. Toward dusk, with the crystalline blue receding in the sky, we watched in awe as white-tailed deer cavorted in a green pasture, undaunted by E. McAllister’s “0” Illini battery.
“Get every gun you can find.”
On Gen. Daniel Ruggles’ fabled order, the Rebels reportedly lined up 62 cannons across Duncan’s Field from the Hornets Nest and the Sunken Road. We were instructed to imagine the deafening din produced by that artillery armada, to imagine the sky blotted out with smoke, to imagine the frightful upheaval of earth beneath our feet.
Alas, we failed, our minds too weak to conjure such awful phenomena. We felt no pants-soiling impulse to lurch facefirst into the soft grass as we ambled slowly toward the Sunken Road, where we had detoured hours ago. We remained safe from the terrible, democratic spirit of war, a man-made chaos so indifferent to its authors that a great pillar of a fledgling nation can be crushed as easily as an 18-year-old private from Bastrop, La.
Shiloh is, ironically enough, a place of remarkable peace. The most enduring image I’ll take away is the singular marvel of the sun alone in a seamless sky of blue as a lone squirrel went about his mundane pursuits, rustling the bed of leaves that had taken shape beneath a forest of elegant oak.
We’re back at Walmart, which is not a laughing matter. Once it was a light-hearted affair, poking fun at our weakness by cooking omelettes and drinking pineapple-orange mimosas in the parking lot of a Walmart in West Virginia.
We have sold ourselves into Walmart slavery. We come for cheap ice, mushrooms, film, cassette tapes, pierogies, engine oil, fuel injector cleaner and now, an oil change.
What depths will we refuse to plumb in order to save a few cents? We have become what we once abhorred, cowards seeking the ubiquitous comfort of familiarity on a strange road. It would be just comeuppance should the low-paid oil-changing employee strip the bolt out of our oil pan and force us to spend $400 to replace the whole thing.
We have cooked in Walmart lots on successive nights. Both occasions saw friendly drive-by visits from local cops, enhancing our feeling of safety, of being at home thousands of miles from home.
A strange dichotomy plagues our wanderings. On one hand we have strayed gleefully and with no small sense of self-congratulation from the worn path of middle-class tourism.
We have eschewed the neon clubs of Beale Street in favor of Wild Bill’s juke joint at the corner of Vollintine and Avalon.
We tracked down Pinetop Perkins and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith at Hopson’s instead of touring the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale.
We endured the messianic lunacy of the Rev. H.D. Dennis instead of walking about the museums in downtown Vicksburg.
We plodded about a soggy potter’s field under moonlight next to a roaring Holly Ridge cotton gin instead of getting a motel in Jackson.
And we walked our own slapdash tour of Shiloh instead of driving the 9.5-mile circuit like regular folk.
Yet we always, and more so lately – return to the poisonous comfort of the blue and red.
What will become of us?