All I really know about my great-grandfathers is that they tried to kill each other at the Battle of Shiloh. Opponents, one Southern, one not. The Carolina Regular was sixteen; the Volunteer from Ohio had just gone eighteen. Both hailed from semi-prosperous farms, both possessed tenor voices considered notable in parlors back home; both were the eldest of eight. Of course, they did not know each other. Not until much later when they met, united states, in me.
According to their letters, each boy spent three war years scared half witless. Each admitted that fear makes a fellow’s fingertips go numb. Each expressed an early terror of battle’s sound. Those deafening sophisticated munitions predicted our century. Imagine you are a country kid and the loudest noise you know is one bronze church bell in the nearby village or your squirrel gun or your hound’s barking. A commotion? All three sounds at once. Compare this to cannonades that shook, then leveled, Tennessee’s ancient oaks, or to the volleys that caused mules to lift then lower their long ears and, eyes pressed shut, evacuate. Noise of this force finds your sternum first, plucks your ribcage like some harp of tin. We all know such blasts from discos, jets, the jeremiads of haywire car alarms. We hardly notice. They did. `Dear Momma,’ my Southern kinsman wrote,
“the sound of the cannons and all is the worst of it so far. You first hear it from some considerable miles away. That will surely put the person on his guard way far in advance of there being one thing you can really do about it. No sound we ever heard touches a battle’s for loudness, as it is more like thunder but close down to the earth and man-made. You cannot tell which side causes which part of the sound. I shall simply call it `fearful’ and, in ending, endeavor to ask that you pass along my love to Emily et al.”
I have their letters, cross-written to save paper. I live with daguerreotypes that show me my own features, pickled, sub-contracted. The Northerner would remember Shiloh as the meadow where his leg got shot clear through; I am told that forever after he walked with a dreadful wobble, couldn’t cross the room without a cane. As a kid in North Carolina, I believed my Southern great-granddad had crippled my Yankee one. Though statistically unlikely, couldn’t it have happened?
Last month, having imagined such a quest since I was five, confessing the reason only to my brilliant travel agent, I took a few days off work and rented a very red semi-sports car and – one hour after deciding – drove south towards Shiloh. The luxury was explaining it to no one. Bachelors are lucky. The agent booked me a room `with instant off-ramp battlefield access’, a term she read aloud from her computer screen. I propped my kinsmen’s images on the rented crimson dashboard, plastic-leather. `Men after death,’ Nietzsche advises, `are understood worse than men of the moment, but heard better.’
The original Shiloh was a Canaanite town that became sanctuary for the Israelite confederacy (twelfth-eleventh century BC). There the Ark of the Covenant was installed till the Philistines captured it. Soon after, Shiloh was destroyed (around 1050 BC). My great-granddads’ Shiloh (also known as the Battle of Pittsburgh Landing) proved the second great engagement of the Civil War. It cost each side 10,000 to 12,000 casualties a day, meaning 6 and 7 April, 1862 AD. While driving, I listen to country music and sing hymns aloud. The radio gives bulletins about the Middle East, and I begin recalling certain jellying fears not felt since 1966, my endless bus ride to Great Lakes Naval Training Center. This was basic training for my own four-year role in another war (Vietnam). I’m feeling certain panicked draftee sensations well-suppressed for twenty years. There exists one awful pre-Southeast Asia studio photo portrait of me, shaved bald under my sailor hat, black bags cut beneath the eyes by boot-camp double pneumonia; I am pale with my struggle to look cocky. I see someone imitating a guy who can plan his fate! `The first qualification for a historian,’ Stendhal writes, `is to have no ability to invent.’ My forefathers and myself, we pass muster.
Closing in on Shiloh, I understand: my geeky portrait looks like these young chumps on my dashboard. Only semi-handsome in tintypes intended as family keepsakes just in case. Slow film emulsion required a nineteenth-century sitter really to sit, on the three minutes, eyes unblinking, a hidden clamp biting the uppermost vertebrae. You adopted not some transient smile notoriously hard to maintain, but the very dour and therefore practicable face you’d wear into Eternity.
On my way to their battlefield, I reduce my own coerced military career (1966-70 AD), meaning my entire eighteenth and nineteenth and twentieth and twenty-first years, to a single word: humiliation. And driving, I decide things. I do this with the untested grandeur peculiar to solitary trips across great distances in new red vehicles operated with gleeful if unnoted male skill. Here crossed by seat-belt, I recall my single favorite testament of their Civil War: the nurse Walt Whitman’s quickly jotted hospital journals, our literature’s rarest distillation of all wars’ pathos’, all wars’ waste:
Wm. Von Vliet, Co. #. 89th New York. Bed 37. – shell wound in the arm – Gave 20 cts. – Wants some smoking tobacco & pipe – arm amp. – turn out bad – died poor boy.
Hiram Scholis – bed 3 – Ward E. – 26th N. York – wants some pickles – a bottle of pickles.
I allow myself to stop at a Dunkin’ Donuts. I buy one horrifically sweet thing so filled with gory cherry-dyed jam, it reminds me of the war I plan to visit and so, after a single gruesome bite, I spare myself the calories. Out the open window it sails. Middle age is, paradoxically, the great moment for such impulsive deeds and treks. Because: (a) you can finally afford the care, the motel room, the time; (b) there’s all that accrued inertia to create the contrast, ballast.
I tell the car: I think Lincoln’s face predicted the twentieth century. How else does our insomnia find so much of itself creased there in that witty grieving gaze? It seems to anticipate its own assassination; it is less concerned with that, far more worried for us. Lincoln’s face is beaten to the surface, a private pocket worn inside out. Its humanity and shrewd wasted wisdom almost shame and terrify us now. (Lincoln was once called two-faced by a lady journalist. He laughed a rusty stove-pipe laugh we all can imagine if we try. Lincoln said, ‘If I were two-faced, Madam, would I be wearing THIS one?’)
I long for leaders who can tell us stories all their own. I long for personal content not ceded to young Ivy speech writers. I’d love someone Lincoln-like who thinks in narrative beginnings, middles, ends; someone who has held at least one job previous to being Rich then Veep then Chief Exec. Our contemporary leaders’ features are praised as ‘boyishly handsome’. This means untouched by experience. We seem to value that. This fear of maturity might be the gauge of our contradiction as a people: middle-aged yet endlessly adolescent. Lincoln, self-taught and self-made, looks hand-carved the hard way. He has been torn by the climb into authority, by odd jobs and the wearing widening gyre of this epic human understanding for all persons, of all races and – we know now – all times. He is a man vast as the conflict he navigated.
Consider our recent actor of a President. One study found that during his eighth and last year in office, his most often repeated sentences were ‘Nobody told me’ and ‘I don’t remember’. Chuckling, he left mere telling and remembering (any leader’s holiest function) to unworthy others. And, how popular he was! Friends, if memory serves, I think we have lost something. We have become a nation of amnesiacs, frequent flyers bent on endlessly upgrading to first class. Lincoln remembers. And therefore is remembered: Picasso owned a large collection of Lincolnalia and told Gertrude Stein that Lincoln was ‘le Quixote USA’. Marilyn Monroe pronounced Lincoln ‘the sexiest man in American history’ and claimed she married Arthur Miller because of his Lincolnly length and raw-boned face. To quote a recent novel: ‘Lincoln’s smile is like a muddy country crossroad that – when rain has stopped – dries to show you every single wagon, bird and walker that has ever passed across it.’
I wonder: why does the plight of my dashboard’s child-crusaders suddenly feel so familiar? Why should they seem closer to my heart than their contemporary equivalents: young GIs off to Saudi Arabia for ‘Operation Desert Shield’. You see them each night on American television, ‘public service TV spots’. A square-face sunburned boy grins, against an eternity of sand:
My name’s Corporal Clayton Plante from Falls, North Carolina. Hi, Mom. I’m eating okay, so don’t worry. Just keep that ’64 T-bird’s battery cranked up. And, ahem, Tiffany? Honey, just know I love you ver’, ver’ much.
Why is it easier to empathize with the missing farmboys from a missing bucolic country? Their girl-friends would have been called Prudence or Chastity or Hope – named by their rural parents who valued the qualities of prudence and chastity and hope. Nobody then would have been named in honor of a Manhattan jewelry store, by parents who thought ‘Tiffany’ sounded classy and do not know why. Tiffany is the tenth most popular girl’s name in the United States today. Our hearts are ads for stores we cannot afford yet. So, yes, Lincoln, we miss. And also the loyal, plain and pure Emily. MIA.
South-west Tennessee. Here already. The sign insists, ‘Shiloh Battlefield Closes At Sunset.’ Like so many official statements, this proves something of a lie. Into opposite jacket pockets I slip my oxidized daguerreotypes. Armed with maps and no sense of direction, I still manage to pace off the crucial sweeps. I factor for the presence of a thousand horses and for a mat of human forms you could walk across without once touching meadow’s soil. Imagining the sound, I have ancestral stage directions: ‘Like thunder but closer to the earth and manmade. You cannot tell which part of it is from which side.’ How quiet out here, meadowlarks minimum. I stride along General Johnston’s route; to one side, there is a wood where both side’s untested troops fired face-to-face at point-blank range. I find the very spot (I think, I then know) where my Yankee forbear sacrificed his leg. I sit precisely there.
Beyond hardwood trees, the Tennessee River makes sweet steady surgings. Flowering with sneezy tasseled weeds, the meadow around me looks inevitable – as I’d imagined it – better, prettier, but more forgetful. All I know about my great-grandfathers is that they tried to kill each other here. Strangers to one another, as to me, they were eldest sons, as I’m the eldest of four sons. They were both musical and, like me, their families’ joker-peacemaker and birthday-rememberer. From mildly respectable Protestant farms: seven hundred acres of North Carolina, three hundred of Ohio. So alike, these enemies I never met outside daguerreotypes and rumor. And so like me. They were told what to do, and they did it and they paid with legs and with decades of the nightmares.
The famous pathos of battlefields rests in just how readily green forgives everything. How fast an Evil Empire is overtaken by goodly growth! This vista – so still and rolling – resembles its fine and somehow manly name ‘Shiloh’.
I settle in the high grass where one ancestor lost something. I feel, slumped here, a strange exhaustion so profound it registers as an almost erotic stirring. Calming bird-calls, fast clean clouds. The day is ending over me too soon. At Shiloh, dusk’s blood-reds mean more, its vaulting blues and greys are tonight equally represented. I stretch out here fearful that the park ranger, seeing my red car alone in the lot, will come stalking me, like my boys-forbears, an interloper half-apologetic at even being here. I lean back, hands laced behind my head, tweed coat inappropriate, but what uniform would be right? As everything darkens, I am mostly listening. First, to the crickets taking up their sing-song signaling. I can hear moving vans lumbering along the highway not far off (unemployed Northerners seeking work here in the still-prospering South, the losing side). Night-hawks and killdeers cry. The grass is getting damp and so am I, sleeves, the upturned collar, my pockets knocking as with castanets, genetic platelets, these tintypes of boy-targets. I wait in the lush forgiving meadow, but for what? To hear something maybe?
I consider the motel suite, guaranteed by credit card, waiting for whatever use I care to make of its attendant pleasures, room service, club sandwiches, champagne, the cable channel’s soft-core porn, the jacuzzi, the fax machine. But, by accident, winded after the long drive, jumpy with a caffeinated tourist excitement all concentration shot, gratitude becoming exhaustion, I fall to sleep out here in the weeds at Shiloh. Ill-equipped and right in the open, the way, I figure, they slept.
At three a.m., I wake. Where am I? Then I know I’m doing what those boys did. Scared kids, eyes opening, half-sitting with a lurch. Boys touching their damp tunics, they fear the worst – Shot? Hurt yet? No? Good – and still in America yet feeling so far from their younger sisters, their parents’ fertile farms. I prop myself on either elbow. Nobody knows where I am, nobody but this family battlefield.
I listen. Men after death are heard better. The crickets have given up; the truck traffic seems thinner. What I catch is what anybody hears in the middle of a field preparing itself for dawn: the slight hiss of uplifting condensation and the old invisibles of place alive in the dark. A rabbit or something thumps directly past by me, unalarmed – scaring me but good. And in the silence afterward, I tell you what I hear. It is not quite a sound, not quite a smell or a sensed humidity. If it is about to be sound, it still rests curled on the far side of actual hearing. But as darkness deepens just before first light, something else comes cresting – part sense, part fear, part disorientation and backache, part superstition. I know. There is a breathing consciousness out here. It is not quite sad. Its neutrality proves its presence to me. Here I am, damp and urban and comical and on my back under the same stars that knew this field on 6 and 7 April, 1862, AD – when men I am like and unlike rested here doing just this, face-up, thinking of absent beloved chaste girls, secret spots in farm outbuildings, and not of any foolish future kinsman who might come and try to meet them finally. I can tell you that it hangs just at tree-top level all around this meadow’s edge. It is a whisper that makes me, here in the weeds, perk like some rabbit on the first dawn of hunting season. And the collective electric field out here, pooled – the hurt and dead and those who escaped with only the memory, they all ask – if I may reduce the curled hunch into three mere words of English. First ‘Why me?’ And then ‘Why?’
Limping to the one car in the parking lot, also drenched with Shiloh’s lavish somehow-gory dew, having been computer-billed for a room I haven’t seen, I find that my jacket smells of wood smoke. Is that still embedded in the bled-on dirt, my recent bed? And how good it is to ache this way this morning and, for once, to know why. To have come here and found something. But what? That Shiloh Battlefield does not close at sunset: it has been open twenty-four hours a day since that April of cannon fire and dreadful human cries.
In the de-idealized age of Quayle and Bush, Lee, Lincoln, Douglass and Whitman appear to belong not just to another time and race but another species. That early war proved that the most fearful rivalries are family ones, that no poison from within can match those liquid hexes we have brewed as by-products of our luck. We gaze back to a time when every general was awarded some fond nickname by his troops. Our current leaders with their tax-sheltered faces would simply stand there, or to privilege, devoid of any true occupation’s lore or usefulness, ‘boyishly handsome’ unto senility, as they watched the astounding General John Hood, apostle-handsome in his beard, already missing limbs he’d sacrificed in earlier exploits, literally tie himself with ropes on to his horse for the day’s battle.
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done.
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won.
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keep, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
At peace, do we feel besieged? Still fairly prosperous, don’t we feel poor. Governed, we feel robbed. Lonely, we’re a crowd. We all have “instant offramp battlefield access”. We are at war again and we do not know why. And who decides?
The motel room nearby has already been computer-charged to my account whether or not I stay there. But I won’t be needing it. I’m still out in here the middle of a field. Face up and fearful of dawn’s cannons, somehow aimed at us – by us. And we feel chilled out here and my bed is mostly rocks, and we keep wondering: if we are alive right here on my own native soil then, beloved fellow citizen of our great saved republic, why, oh why, do we still feel so far from home?