Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Brices Cross Roads & Shiloh

It turned out that Brices Cross Roads National Battlefield Site (in other stylings, Brice's Crossroads) has a visitors center, but it's off US 45 north of Tupelo, a few miles from the battlefield itself. I didn't notice it until I was driving back from the battlefield on June 18, after visiting Elvis' birthplace, and it was closed. Small matter, though I probably did miss out on some postcards.

Brices Cross Roads isn't an overly developed battlefield, and it has some quiet charm as a result. There's still an actual crossroads there, though probably paved in a way it hadn't been in 1864, and there's still a church nearby -- the Bethany Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. A sign told me that in 1864, a previous church building had been not quite in the same place as the modern one, but it was close enough to be a field hospital after the battle.

The Bethany Cemetery, across the road from the modern church, holds the Confederate dead from the battle, along with earlier and later burials. The Confederate stones weren't so different from those at a U.S. national cemetery -- white and upright, sparely chiseled with name, military affiliation, dates. In the case of the CSA Brices Cross Roads dead, few had birth dates, but all of them had JUN 10 1864 to mark their deaths. Here and there modern hands had placed small Confederate battle flags next to the stones. As for the Union dead, I understand that they mostly ended up, eventually, at a national cemetery in Memphis.

Much of the rest of the battlefield is stretches away from the crossroads itself, grassy, rolling terrain with copses of trees here and there. A path wandered off into it, but even at about 6 pm it was too hot for a long walk, so I left to find my campsite for the night. The next day I had another battlefield to see: Shiloh, which is formally called Shiloh National Military Park.

I'd been to Shiloh in 1969, but the truth is I remember the motels we stayed at during that trip better than some of the sights. Arriving on the morning of the 19th, I spent a few hours at Shiloh this time around, to appreciate it as an adult who has some notion of "the murderous fistfight."

The battlefield, large and sprawling like the battle, has an astonishingly large number of monuments, markers, cannons and tablets, many of them easily accessible by roads that wind through the lush and (at places) heavily wooded landscape. Much of the time, I was the only person on the roads, though I saw a scattering of other visitors. Only one group -- one -- seemed to be a family on a driving vacation, with a dad who seemed interested in unloading a number of kids at various sites to look around. It was hot, so that might have kept people away, and gas isn't as cheap as it could be. But still, such apathy. It's part of one's job as a parent to drag your kids to historic sites, even if they remember the motels better.

On the other hand, the fewer the people, the more likely you'll have a contemplative visit. Only the most fanatical Shiloh enthusiast would take time to look at everything, which would certainly take several days, but I took a look at a good selection of well-known sites -- Hornets' Nest, the Peach Orchard, Bloody Pond -- plus some others marking more obscure turns of the battle that picked as I went along. ("So-in-so's company was here for two hours on April 6, and then went such-and-such direction.")

Shiloh National Cemetery, between the visitors center and the Tennessee River, repository mostly of Union dead, is a gorgeous, sad place. There's also a marker within the cemetery where Gen. U.S. Grant had his command for a while, just a hastily erected tent, I suspect. The Confederate dead are scattered around the battlefield in mass "Confederate burial trenches." Not as picturesque, but equally poignant.

I also stopped and paid my regards to Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston. He's buried at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin, but at Shiloh you can see the spot where he was wounded by a chance MiniƩ ball and died.

The present-day Shiloh Church is surrounded by, but not part of, the national military park. It has its own little cemetery, also not part of the park. I was surprised to see a familiar name there: Ray Blanton, governor of Tennessee in the late 1970s and convicted felon after that. He's buried under a sizable obelisk adorned with the three stars in a circle like on the Tennessee flag, representing the three Grand Divisions of Tennessee, near the top. I wonder if every Tennessee governor gets that design on his stone, or whether it was a whim of Mr. Blanton's.

I'd forgotten he died, but it was all the way back in 1996. At Blanton's page on Find-A-Grave, a fellow named Jimmy Lee commented, "You were a crook, but you were our crook." I expect that could be on the last word for a fair number of politicians.

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