Yesterday the blue in the sky acted like a magnet, dragging me into the puffed-wheat world of clouds. The road bored into a thick hardwood forest. The humidity and temperature pitied my dry-skinned Idaho-ness and remained in the realm of comfort.
Betty and I showed at Shiloh battlefield early, before the midday Sunday visitor rush descended like long lost Civil War angels. The official name is Shiloh National Military Park and the name “park” fits the location well. It looks like a park, with the requisite monuments and peaceful fields bordered by luscious stands of pine and hardwoods.
The fight at Shiloh on April 6 and 7, 1862, was the first great Civil War battle in the west with one-hundred-eleven-thousand combatants and resulted in 24,000 dead, wounded and missing in action. What happened there belies the peaceful place Betty and I encountered. Wild turkeys clucked and putted. Spotted white tail fawns loped across the East Corinth Road, the Corinth-Pittsburg Landing Road and the Bark Road. Woodpeckers drummed and cicadas sang.
Only the monuments and the field markers told of the havoc and death that occurred there one-hundred-fifty years ago. Musket balls, grape shot, bayonet charges were apparent only in the history. All over this magnificent park, signs and testaments delineated every regiment, every artillery battery, the field hospitals, the troop movements, the savage engagements with names like the “Hornet’s Nest” and “Bloody Pond” and the “Peach Orchard.” A serious student of what happened at Shiloh in April 1862 could spend days walking from sign and monument to sign and testimonial and receive a detailed lecture in both historical and spatial facets of the battle.
But Betty and I were here for the country and the mood and the photography, and yes, the history, too. But what never fails to astound me is how these manmade cataclysms, these Antietams, Gettysburgs, Pea Ridges, Spottsylvania Courthouses all tendered their slaughter on terrain of breathtaking beauty. And not just in the Civil War: The beaches at Normandy are magnificent; the battle site of Little Bighorn—or Greasy Grass as the native Americans have named it—commands a kingly view of the surrounding plains, mountains and rivers of the Wyoming/Montana landscape.
When I arrived in Khe Sanh, Vietnam, in the spring of 1967, the triple canopy jungles, the mountains and marshes were gorgeous. When I left in the spring of 1968, the land was shattered tree trunks, rust red bomb craters and death death death.
I could wax on about why we do this, but answers that make sense evade me as do so many other pat solutions when man goes about besetting himself against man. We love, we crave the beauty of our surroundings, and then we sometimes crush it.
On this day, in the rolling verdant landscape of southern Tennessee and Shiloh, we pondered man and history for a while, then went to dine on catfish filets at the Catfish Hotel, hard by the Tennessee River at Pittsburg Landing.