Episode 5 of American Butterfly: While Some Families Were Visiting Disneyland
The first family trip I remember was to Shiloh National Military Park, a two hour drive east of Memphis into the hills of Tennessee.
Shiloh did not offer any rides, giant mice, cotton candy, or parades. The park featured visitor center displays, monuments, a self-guided auto tour, and a National Cemetery interring thousands of Union soldiers in neat rows. The fields around Shiloh church were witness to a shockingly bloody Civil War battle fought in April 1862. In less than forty-eight hours there were more dead, injured, and lost Americans than in all of the years of the Revolutionary War or the War of 1812 or in New York over the first few months of Coronavirus: over 23,000 young men.
Tennessee was the last state to join the Confederacy. Mom always reminded us that Tennessee fought its own civil war before the real Civil War. Until Mr. Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteer soldiers to bring the South back into line, Tennesseans had voted to remain in the Union. After the fighting at Fort Sumter, the arguments for succession won the popular vote in the West and Middle Tennessee. It was time to rally around the Confederate flag.
Nonetheless, the farmers living in the hills and mountain valleys of East Tennessee asserted their right of secession, too. They petitioned to become a separate state that would ally with the North. Ironically, for a war over the rights of small groups against the tyranny of larger groups, the Tennessee state legislature denied the request for independence. In not-so-silent protest, East Tennessee sent over 30,000 citizens across the border to fight on behalf of the Union.
The rebellion went well for the South in the initial months, but subsequent battles turned against the Confederacy. The South lost Nashville, the capitol of Tennessee, to Yankee forces led by General Ulysses S. Grant. Given the importance of waterways to the war effort, the Union armies were generally named after rivers. The Union Army of the Tennessee, the Army of the Ohio, and an armored riverboat flotilla steadily made their way south. Mr. Lincoln was certain he could encircle the heart of Dixie and cut off the flow of resources from Louisiana, Texas, and potential international allies. The Union assault was a veritable anaconda, squeezing ever more tightly as the South gasped for breath.
Traveling across the fields of Shiloh National Military Park, my family re-lived the wonderful first day of the battle. On April 6th, Confederate regiments surprised the Union forces and drove them back to positions near the Tennessee River. In the bright sunlight of morning, they could taste victory. We reveled in the righteous anger the defenders of the Confederacy felt. It was a glorious day marred by a single piece of shrapnel unnoticed at first. By early evening, that sliver had claimed the life of the Confederacy’s most experienced general, Albert Sidney Johnston.
To Dad, history was less an intellectual exercise than a religious one. Shiloh was a memorial to the sacrifices made by Americans lost in the heat of battle, to the surgeon’s knife soon after, or to disease in the following weeks. He felt real pain for the fear and the suffering of all those men from every state. Most were everyday people like himself. Their names would never be remembered, whether they won or lost any battle.
Growing up in Florida with family from Georgia, however, Johnny felt more sympathy for the men of the South. He believed these particular confederate soldiers, raised largely in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Texas, were defending their homelands from invasion. They were joining together to rally against the coils of the overreaching U.S. federal government.
On the next morning, April 7th, reinforced in the night and supported by artillery from the riverboats, Ulysses S. Grant’s superior numbers overwhelmed. The brutal fighting of this day is what we remember in story, whether corroborated exactly by history or not. Driving from place to place — the Sunken Road, the Hornet’s Nest, and the Bloody Pond — walking along the fields, touching the metal of the cannon, and looking up at the monuments, we could imagine the different emotions as the sun was rising and then setting on that second day of battle.
After the proper moments of reverence, my father would break the silence with statements very similar to those made today, 160 years after the battle. The American Battlefield Trust’s Animated Battle Map video series tells the story of Shiloh. Commenters in 2019 still point out little details, like the unfortunate rain that delayed the Confederate attack. Others blame the pure randomness of war, “Shiloh would’ve been a CSA [Confederate States of America] resounding victory if Albert Sydney Johnston wasn’t killed.” Many criticize the decision-making of leadership, “If they had listened to Nathan B. Forrest…Shiloh would’ve been a total victory for CSA.” Only a few discuss the Union victors other than to offer grudging respect for Grant’s brutality and his willingness to leverage the North’s advantage in men and materials, no matter the cost.
The rush of sentiment that first day in Shiloh was, frankly, a little hard to organize in my young head. I had been proudly pledging allegiance to the flag of the United States of America every morning in kindergarten. The memorial plaques read by my parents celebrated the men who fought to preserve the Union. The ordered cemetery stones recorded Union soldiers. Almost everywhere was a somber celebration of a Union victory.
Despite those markers, all my father’s stories spoke of an unfortunate defeat. Our forefathers, the thousands of Confederate dead, lay buried anonymously in trenches around the battlefield, except for a lonely pair in two marked graves.
Like the beaten Confederate army, my family retreated from Shiloh in the early evening. On the drive my father talked about what it must have been like for those poor Southern boys. Filled with the joy of certain victory one day and tortured by the dread of defeat the next.
One recent commenter states poignantly, “I’m from a small Central Texas town. My town (county) lost a whole generation of kids at the battle of Shiloh. It created so much pain that a new town was named after the loss. It was a time when truly everyone knew everyone.” There remain today at least two unincorporated towns in Texas named Shiloh, each established soon after the war. I imagine that in school every child in those towns still learns about the grand, namesake battle in which their forefathers died fighting for freedom.
We made additional pilgrimages to Shiloh before our lives were consumed by the bustle of school for three children and the crushing grip of cable TV. These were one of the few family moments where my father felt himself the expert, the guide. His father was a self-declared minister. Ezekiel never formally had a church, but he spent weekends playing his pearl-inlaid accordion on the street, preaching the message that Jesus Saves. To Johnny, Shiloh was more holy than a church.
When he moved beyond reverence for the sacrifice of the common man, Dad would explain how the power of the Yankees doomed the good people of the South from the beginning of the war. The war was a lost cause, not so different than today.
He would say: “The North, the elites, and the coasts have too much money, too many powerful businesses, too many people, and too much control over the message. The Federal government is still running roughshod over state rights. It imposes unfair regulations on organizations and strips the rights of people to practice religion as they choose. The Civil War was never really about slavery or Blacks’ rights.”
Dad would often remind us, “Our family didn’t own slaves. We were as poor as they come. We were fighting for our right to be free Americans.”
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The above is a modified excerpt from the novel, American Butterfly. The story is told through the eyes of a man raised in the South, living in the North, and struggling to understand life and love in the modern world.
It directly engages recent decades. It embraces the events that have shaped today’s world. And it draws upon the past to help us understand the many sides fighting America’s Culture War.
All through a family story, different and similar to yours and to mine.