Sunday, September 13, 2015

Shiloh

I got to Shiloh after a long drive south from the interstate and deep into the swamps of southwestern Tennessee. Miles and miles of trees, a clean, no-shoulder highway, no evidence of traffic in the form of litter, here and there a sign advertising Bubba’s Catfish Shack, and then, suddenly, a national park, a huge swampy, piney, national “military” park with probably more alligators than people in it, filled with ravines, bayous, creeks, humpy ridges and a damp forest  floor raising a fog of steam. Very few people there, the Visitor Center parking lot was almost empty, perhaps because the heat is stifling. It’s only slightly less deserted there now than in 1862, except the roads that the Union army hoped to travel further south are now the paved route of the driving tour.

The driving tour: a single car travels on that narrow National Park Service pavement with the clean forest sweeping away, and what looks like a widely spaced cemetery full of monuments distributed throughout. Big ones, little ones, ornate ones, simple ones. Granite monuments marking this or that headquarters, the end of this or that line, the place where 2100 federals surrendered, the location of this or that hurriedly placed battery. The memorials of many different eras all share the space; hence you see markers made of cannonballs and old cannons marking some spots(the oldest), then rusting metal plaques marking others(the not-so-old), than fancy modern NPS signs (the newest). Monuments mark the spots where important things happened or resided-- for example, where William Wallace was mortally wounded, and where Haith had his headquarters, and where the blue and gray lines first made contact.

Most interesting to me, you have a sign--within a stone’s throw of little ramshackle Shiloh church itself-- that marks the end of Buckland’s line. I saw this from the car. Buckland was the brigade commander in which Amos Laymon’s regiment was included. Amos was the brother of my great great grandfather, and Buckland was his brigade commander, part of Sherman's division. The sign sits at the corner of a parking lot and it’s hard not to notice the wet path leading away from it into the woods. Which has to be followed. Because if Buckland’s line ended there, and the confederates were coming up from the south, than Amos’s regiment must have camped somewhere along that path.

Sure enough, I tramped into the woods and found markers/memorials marking where the three Ohio regiments camped that made up Buckland’s Brigade, including Amos’s. Getting better oriented I was able to see why those outfits often turn up in histories of the battle. They were the closest to the enemy and the furthest from safety.

The leader of the regiment just to the left of Amos’s, a man named Cockerill, tried repeatedly to make Sherman understand there was a crowd of rebels before him, without success.  All three regiments got assaulted at 7 a.m., their breakfast uneaten, and continued fighting until 10, almost surrounded, when one of the Sherman’s staff ordered them back. Buckland himself was commended in Sherman’s report.

And Amos was seriously injured, according to the roster of the 48th Ohio. I don’t know how or where. He was 39 years old and soon went back to Lynchburg, Ohio, where he had been recruited the previous October. He had boarded the steamboat Empress in Paducah, Kentucky for the trip down, and made it his home for 12 days until finally unloading at Pittsburgh Landing near Shiloh, then spread out into the woods with his regiment to loaf and invite his soul, more than two miles from the landing. It was all spring and songbirds until the morning of April 6. The Battle of Shiloh was his first and only day of war.

I traveled further south to the town of Corinth, MS, whose vital railroad junction had attracted so much union interest in the first place. There’s a great interpretive center there, with cannons on display from the battle, a research library, an allegorical fountain, a movie auditorium and a bookstore. There too, I was one of about three patrons.

The town of Corinth itself, grand as it sounds, must be one of the saddest little towns I’ve ever seen, even now. Never very big, it swelled to more than 40,000 after the battle and during the subsequent siege, most of these people wounded or dying. Every building became a hospital, the water was foul, and disease was rampant. During all this it was also the scene of two bloody battles, and upon giving it up both armies burned it. I figured it had good reason to be sad.

But the railroad junction is still there. And a lot of ghosts, I guess. You withdraw credulity when I mention ghosts, of course. But standing in the middle of the woods by the 48th Ohio encampment, miles from the nearest soul, I swore I smelled gunpowder.
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