MEMPHIS – Highway 64 threads east through corn and soybean fields in West Tennessee, curving gently through towns like Whiteville and Bolivar, past the Big Buck resort. I was the passenger on a humid Thursday morning. From the seat behind me, my niece asked me a question. We’d been talking about a promised trip to New York City. “Even if you can’t take me to some of those cool bars, want to know where we can go?” she said.
“Where?” I answered, “the Sex Museum?”
“No” came the exasperated reply. “Dylan’s Candy Store.”
Despite being from Memphis, my nieces tell me I’m now a “Yankee.” I guess it’s true, but where I live now, people don’t break society down into two castes, Southerners and Yankees. But my nieces do, so I’m gleefully working on becoming the odd “Yankee” uncle. The one that makes the mildly inappropriate comments when they’re least expected. The one that introduces them to strange music, weird food, and counter-cultural ideas like evolution.
We turned off 64 in Selmer, county seat of McNairy County, and home of Buford Pusser of Walking Tall fame. But we didn’t take a side trip to Adamsville to see his museum.
For July in West Tennessee, the landscape was remarkably green. Most years, it has a worn-out appearance, like a middle-aged man with dust on his Sunday clothes. We drove on past a few squat brick homes with rattling window air conditioners propped up with scrap two-by-fours. We passed corn fields and gardens with tall wire fences ornamented with black plastic bags to scare the deer and resembling funereal ornament for a Hefty salesman. We passed shotgun houses with peeling paint where old men sat on the porch wearing nothing but boxers, counting cars, and savoring the last of the morning’s coolness.
Before long, we stood outside the visitor’s center of Shiloh National Military Park. Three of us had never been, the children. The adults, my sister and I, had, but didn’t much remember it. She was too busy with her sixth grade friends; I was only five. Why had we come this Thursday? I really can’t say—spectacle, history, reverence, a need to place ourselves in some greater context, maybe all or none of these. I don’t know.
What I do know is this: In April of 1862, this park was a patchwork of farms that hosted a scene of killing that only later Civil war battles would eclipse in American history. The fighting started at daylight among the pink haze of peach trees in bloom. It moved through hay fields, cotton fields, an apple orchard, wheat and cornfields. For a while it centered on Shiloh, a log church named for a Biblical town that means “Tranquility Town.”
Only one original log cabin remains. As I stood outside it, looking at a newly planted peach orchard, the irony of the battle struck me —and not the irony of killing in tranquility churchyard or the irony that the people around Shiloh voted against secession. Instead I thought of the awful irony of war itself, which destroys what it seeks to maintain.
The battle lasted for two days. Then the armies moved on, but the farmers remained. Maybe a few peach blossoms or tiny green apples survived the shelling. Maybe all their livestock wasn’t killed in the fight or slaughtered and eaten. Early April is corn planting time; maybe they hadn’t yet put it in.
A park ranger told me that for years afterward, local farmers complained about accidentally plowing up the dead in planting time. There is no planting now, but seasons continue to wash the memory out of the red clay soil all the same.
On the way home, the Sex Museum didn’t come up at all. I was lost trying to grasp the horrific experience of front line soldiers. My sister wondered out loud why anyone, particularly in the South, cared enough to fight the war.
For the kids, the experience boiled down to sides: north or south; right or wrong; free or slave. They wondered for a moment which side was theirs. Forty years ago, my classmates and I in our private school filled with white, middle-class kids might not have even asked the question, much less come up with this answer: “Slavery was wrong; we would have been Union.”
Is it the truth? I don’t know. But their answer gives this crazy Yankee hope.