Softly Screaming


It’s my wife’s birthday. She’s an artist. To celebrate, I took her to the Shiloh National Battlefield.

I know what you’re thinking. Taking my wife to a battlefield for her birthday is a bit like buying her an AR-15 with my name engraved on the side. Such would be the pinnacle of egocentrism. However, this is actually how she wanted to spend the day. The sweeping vistas and manicured hills are so very paintable.

Naturally, I brought a folding chair and my laptop. We are arrayed in the shade of a massive sweeping oak. A dove’s mournful call sets the tone. The buzz of distant insects adds a sort of pastoral white noise. I am comfortable having enjoyed a wholesome breakfast this morning. And yet, something just doesn’t feel right.

It is this dirt, this accursed Tennessee soil. We venerate this place because of what it has seen, what it has endured. While it is gorgeous and peaceful today, some 161 years ago, this beautiful space was something altogether different.

In April 1862, these lush hills were enveloped in white smoke from massed musketry and cannon. General Albert Sidney Johnston’s Confederate Army of Mississippi faced off against U.S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee. There resulted a most ghastly bloodletting.

Nearly 24,000 Americans fell … in two days. In terms of raw shredded meat, the Battle of Shiloh was one of the bloodiest battles of the American Civil War. The end result was a Federal victory, but at such tremendous cost. More Union troops were made casualties than Confederates, but the Yankees had people to lose. Time has sanitized the gore and horror, but this sacred dirt will never again be the same.

A Personal Connection

I was the first professional soldier in my family since a Confederate Captain. Family legend has it that he had his tonsils removed on a moving troop train while staging for the fight at Shiloh. Substantially more soldiers were lost to disease during the American Civil War than to combat. I had my tonsils out in a hospital when I was five. Now, more than half a century later, I still remember clearly how miserable that was. On a train without any anesthesia beyond a little rotgut whiskey, I simply cannot imagine.

His name was Isham Irving Pace, and he was present when Confederate General A.S. Johnston met his gory end. Johnston was leading from the front, as all great military leaders do, when he caught a musket ball behind the knee. This errant round clipped the man’s popliteal artery, and he began bleeding vigorously into his boot. However, the outcome of the battle was teetering, and Johnston was too busy to tend to himself. Eventually, nearly an hour after incurring his wound, the esteemed Confederate General began to flag.

Among Johnston’s staff was a gentleman named Harris. Before Lincoln had appointed Andrew Johnson as the local military administrator, Harris had been the governor. Governor Harris purportedly queried the General as to whether he was hurt. Johnston’s terse reply was, “Yes … and I fear seriously.” It was supposedly my forebear, CPT Pace, who helped him from his horse, a war steed appropriately named Fire Eater.

General Albert Sidney Johnston bled out and died on the spot. He was the highest-ranking officer to perish in combat during the Civil War. Subsequent historians have posited he was the most capable General Officer of the conflict. Johnston’s loss was a severe blow to the Confederacy. Curiously, his aides later discovered a tourniquet in his pocket. Johnston was simply too preoccupied to use it.

That’s the story of the death of a single distinguished soldier, but what of the other 24,000? I sit here peacefully typing, allowing my mind to wander to their sordid lot. The war was still young back in the Spring of 1862. Troops on both sides were not so terribly jaded to the unspeakable horrors of combat. What must those Privates have felt as they queued up shoulder-to-shoulder to be cut down like cattle? I suspect fear on a scale I cannot even begin to comprehend.

Such ideals as slavery and states’ rights most likely dissolved into affection for the man to his right and left. That is, after all, what young men fight and die for. Not the deeper, more ethereal stuff.

Deep Magic

I just exchanged pleasant words with a couple from Michigan. They were passing through and thought they’d take a quick survey of the battlefield. The lady explained she had a relative who fought here. So did I. One hundred sixty-one years ago, these two young men were striving mightily to rip the very life out of each other. Their subsequent generations just exchanged heartfelt pleasantries on a gorgeous Spring afternoon. War is such a curious thing.

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