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My Shiloh Journey

Perry Cuskey

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It was the Old West that first called to me. Specifically, the Colorado Rockies, mountain men, ghost towns, and old abandoned silver mines.

Most summers when I was a kid, my dad would take me on camping trips far up into the Rockies, and maybe that speaks to the why. Something about being there and seeing it, firsthand. In person. We'd go places that most tourists wouldn't see, including, I'm sure, more than a few places that we weren't supposed to go. You'd have to have known my dad.

And we'd learn about the history. It was just part of the deal. You'd travel somewhere, take it all in, and learn about what once was, back in the long-ago time, and why it mattered. Sometimes you learned that maybe it didn't matter very much to the rest of the world. But it mattered somewhere. And it came to matter to you. Just because.

I loved those trips. I loved those mountains, those silent ghost towns, those lonely, forgotten mines. Those stories. Something about it all made me feel as if I belonged there. It was part of me in a way I'm not sure I could ever describe, or explain.

When I was about nine, my sister married a Tennessee man and moved to Chattanooga. So along with our camping trips out west, we also began taking trips back east. And I saw a different kind of history firsthand, in person. I looked down on Chattanooga from Point Park atop Lookout Mountain. Visited Chickamauga. Gazed upon Missionary Ridge. Learned the stories. Read the history.

And I heard the Civil War calling to me.

On the way back home to Oklahoma one time, we passed a sign along I-40 for someplace called Shiloh National Military Park. We'd never been there before, and Dad asked me if I'd like to go see it. He knew of course that I was getting interested in the war, and here was another war-related park.

It was fifty miles out of the way, and maybe a lot of parents would have understandably passed. But, well, as I said, you'd have to have known my dad. He was a natural-born student. And a natural-born teacher.

I have no idea what my problem was, but for whatever reason when he asked that question I just shrugged my shoulders, and said something about how I didn't really care. (It's funny how you remember certain things, and not others.)

Maybe it was a loyalty thing. I was becoming attached to Chattanooga by that point, and all the history that went with it, and to visit some other war-related park almost seemed, well, wrong. Kind of like cheating or something.

Or maybe I was just tired and cranky, and wanted to get home. You'd have to have known me as a kid.

Whatever the case, Dad made the decision for us. “I think we'll go see it,” he said, and hit the turn-signal as the exit came up.

And that's how, decades later, this web site that you're on right now came to be. Because my teacher/student dad took us fifty miles off the beaten-path to a place I didn't want to see, and that would come to have a profound impact on my life starting that same day.

I didn't know much about Shiloh at that point, beyond what I'd learned in a general way from my limited Civil War reading. The main thing I knew was that it was a legendary battle from American history. What started to dawn on me on that long drive was that it also wasn't someplace that you just happened across. Clearly, if you wanted to go see Shiloh, you had to decide to go see it. Like a ghost town, or an old abandoned silver mine. This appealed to me.

I've always been drawn to places that are kind of out-of-the-way. Probably because most people won't go see them. To me, that makes them unique. Shiloh is a place like that, and I first began to realize it on that long drive through the Tennessee countryside with my dad.

The other thing I remember from that first visit is simply the experience of being there. Not the details really, but just the experience. The cannons, the markers, the monuments, the old wooden fences. I'd seen them at Lookout Mountain, and Chickamauga, and Missionary Ridge. I knew what they represented. But I didn't know about these cannons and markers and monuments and fences. I did not yet know the story of this incredibly transfixing park that felt so timeless.

It was familiar ground that I'd never before seen.

We always made a point to stop at Shiloh after that, going to or coming from Chattanooga. It remained off the beaten-path, but it was never out of the way.

Late May of 1979 was the first time I visited the park on my own. Dad had passed away less than six months earlier, and I was heading out on my first trip alone after graduating high school. My first stop was Shiloh, at the end of an all-day drive in my 1974 Ford Mustang II. (A quart of oil every 100 miles kept it happy.) I got to the park a little before dark, and immediately drove to my favorite spot – Duncan Field.

I still remember how hauntingly quiet it was that evening. I'd experienced that before – it's hard not to at Shiloh - but never alone. And never quite like this. I think it was probably then that I first dimly began to understand something that you simply have to experience to understand: That the battlefield parks actually speak to us.

They don't use words. But they do indeed speak.

Two things happened on a visit in 1983 that forever changed the way I viewed the battle of Shiloh, the war in general, and in some ways, even life. Those two things were a book, and a talk.

The book was called, Shiloh: Bloody April, by historian Wiley Sword. As I later found out, it was the first full-scale book on the battle in around 60 years at the time of its release in the 1970's. Sword's book truly opened my eyes for the first time to the wider battle of Shiloh outside the Hornet's Nest. A process that continues to this day, and in some ways has come full-circle. He also introduced me to an obscure Union officer named Everett Peabody, and his long-overlooked role in helping to save Grant's army.

The talk took place in Duncan Field, by a ranger who was about to give a demonstration on how to load and fire a Civil War musket. Before he did that however, he said he was going to give a little talk on what it was like to experience the battle of Shiloh.

I doubt I will ever forget how I felt at that moment, before he gave his talk. Or how I felt a few minutes later, after he finished. Before he started, I stood there smugly thinking to myself, at 22 years of age, that I could probably not only give as good a talk on Shiloh as he could, but probably do better. By the time he finished, I had already started to seriously question if I knew anything at all about Shiloh, the war, or much of anything else.

Without going into a lot of detail, I'll just say that he spent the next ten or twelve minutes painting a word-picture of the battle that I will never forget. I remember that talk and the impact it had on me as if it was yesterday. He put you there, in the middle of the battle, in a way that no one else had ever before done. He took the story and brought it alive. Gave it names and faces. Made it human. He waved away the decades and compelled you to look, and time quite simply stopped.

For the first time, the reality of what Shiloh – and by extension, war itself - was actually like hit me with full force. It left me speechless, and feeling about an inch tall.

It was the closest I think I've ever come to simply quitting the Civil War altogether. I'd spent over ten years reading about it and wandering across some of its most famous places, from Shiloh to Chickamauga to Gettysburg. I thought I knew about it. Only to learn, in ten minutes' time, that I didn't know the first damn thing about it at all.

That feeling has never left me from that day to this. Not completely. When I visit Shiloh anymore, or any other battlefield park, there's a sense of something that's just beyond reach of my understanding. It doesn't stop me from trying to grasp it. But somehow, I'm aware that really and truly doing so is probably never going to happen.

I'd like to say that I've come to terms with that, and in some ways I think I have. But not completely.

There have been many more Shiloh moments since that memorable visit, each of which adds to and builds on what has come before. The reenactment in 1987, the first time I had ever attended such an event, and that left a lasting impression. The unusual fellow I met out in the park in the fall of 2000, looking to make a movie about the battle. The “footsteps” I heard approaching my tent late one night, in the campground just south of the park. Only to find upon going outside (when I finally got up the courage) that there was no one there. The picture I took in 2008 that finally helped me put words to something about the park that I'd felt for years but could never describe. The anniversary hikes. The April snow in 2007. The Epic Treks with Tim. The dinners at Hagy's. The sunrises and sunsets. The beautiful Tennessee River. The wind in the trees. The deafening, haunting, silence.

In a very real sense, I've learned a great deal about life from that park, that battle, and the people that I've met along the way as a result. Some of those people have been gone since long before I was born. Others are still very much with us, and perhaps not always aware of the impact they've had, and continue to have.

Sometimes people will thank me for this board, and while I do sincerely appreciate this, it also tends to catch me a little off guard. That might sound odd perhaps, but there it is. Maybe because to me, there's more to it. This site began in 2007, but it has a history that goes much farther back than that, and involves a great many more people than me. People that perhaps you've never met, and some of whom not even I have met. But they're part of this site and what it has accomplished, all the same.

Simply put, if you've ever gotten anything useful at all from this web site, you can thank my dad. You can thank Wiley Sword. You can thank a ranger in Duncan Field who's name I'm ashamed to say I did not learn.

You can thank people who died before we were born. You can thank people who's opinions you may not agree with. You can thank rangers who take time out of their day to explain things we try hard to understand. You can thank authors who spent time trying to make sense out of senseless insanity, and revealing the best and the worst of what it truly means to be human.

Most of all though, the one who needs to say thank you is me. To all of you who are members here, and who have made this board what it is. In a sense, we're all on a journey, unique to each one of us, yet common to all of us. We can perhaps mark its beginning, but its end is not yet in sight.

I have some truly wonderful memories that revolve around Shiloh, and some sad memories as well. It's a reflection of life in that way, and that campaign, that battle, that park, this web site, and all of you – all of us – are a part of that.

Thank you for all of it. The good parts, the bad parts, the happy and sad parts. The learning, the striving, the arguing. The sharing. And the understanding.

It matters that you're here and part of this journey. Never forget that. And never forget those who made the journey possible, and meaningful, to begin with.

Perry

 

 

 

 

 

 



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