April 7, 2012

Two accounts of Shiloh

The two-day Battle of Shiloh, which ended April 7, 1862, saw an overwhelming number of Confederate soldiers overtake a Union Army line in western Tennessee. The Union (overseen by future best-selling author Ulysses S. Grant) held the line near a church, despite heavy casualties. Fighting continued through the night. By the second day, they were reinforced and were able to push back the Confederate forces. By the end, 23,000 had died, making it the bloodiest battle on American soil up to that point.

The Civil War turned a man now remembered for his prose into a poet; Herman Melville offered his version of the battle, though he did not witness it, in his poem "Shiloh: A Requiem":

Skimming lightly, wheeling still,
The swallows fly low
Over the field in clouded days,
The forest-field of Shiloh —
Over the field where April rain
Solaced the parched one stretched in pain
Through the pause of night
That followed the Sunday fight
Around the church of Shiloh —
The church so lone, the log-built one,
That echoed to many a parting groan
And natural prayer
Of dying foemen mingled there —
Foemen at morn, but friends at eve —
Fame or country least their care
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)
But now they lie low,
While over them the swallows skim,
And all is hushed at Shiloh.

"Shiloh" comes from a Hebrew word for "place of peace" and Melville knew of its irony, as well as the strangeness of so many men dying next to a church. The parenthetical aside "What like a bullet can undeceive!" remains a shockingly powerful yet simple phrase.

Ambrose Bierce was a veteran of the battle and offered his memories in prose as "What I Saw at Shiloh." His remembrances also undeceived the glories of battle and patriotism. To him, battle was not a fairy tale, but a dirty, rank, and fearsome place of butchery. His account is honest and undeceiving: "This is a simple story of a battle," the sketch begins, "such a tale as may be told by a soldier who is no writer to a reader who is no soldier." He focuses on visual imagery and sound in recounting his story, but he ultimately shows how he himself was changed:

And this was, O so long ago! How they come back to me — dimly and brokenly, but with what a magic spell — those years of youth when I was soldiering! Again I hear the far warble of blown bugles. Again I see the tall, blue smoke of camp-fires ascending from the dim valleys of Wonderland. There steals upon my sense the ghost of an odor from pines that canopy the ambuscade. I feel upon my cheek the morning mist that shrouds the hostile camp unaware of its doom, and my blood stirs at the ringing rifle-shot of the solitary sentinel. Unfamiliar landscapes, glittering with sunshine or sullen with rain, come to me demanding recognition, pass, vanish and give place to others. Here in the night stretches a wide and blasted field studded with half-extinct fires burning redly with I know not what presage of evil. Again I shudder as I note its desolation and its awful silence. Where was it? To what monstrous inharmony of death was it the visible prelude?

O days when all the world was beautiful and strange; when unfamiliar constellations burned in the Southern midnights, and the mocking-bird poured out his heart in the moon-gilded magnolia; when there was something new under a new sun; will your fine, far memories ever cease to lay contrasting pictures athwart the harsher features of this later world, accentuating the ugliness of the longer and tamer life? Is it not strange that the phantoms of a blood-stained period have so airy a grace and look with so tender eyes? — that I recall with difficulty the danger and death and horrors of the time, and without effort all that was gracious and picturesque? Ah, Youth, there is no such wizard as thou! Give me but one touch of thine artist hand upon the dull canvas of the Present; gild for but one moment the drear and somber scenes of to-day, and I will willingly surrender an other life than the one that I should have thrown away at Shiloh.

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