Category Archives: History

A Plaque Story: ‘They Sacrificed Their Lives’

San Luis Reservoir, just west of the San Joaquin Valley town of Los Banos, is one of California’s key water facilities. Pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ship water down two massive canals — the state-owned California Aqueduct and the federal Delta-Mendota Canal — to a holding basin, or forebay, adjacent to the reservoir. From there, another set of pumps lifts water into the reservoir, where it’s stored before being pumped again for delivery to farm and city customers farther south. All reservoirs are artificial creations, but there’s an extra dimension of artificiality here: There’s virtually no natural inflow to the reservoir; it exists only to receive the water pouring down two huge manufactured rivers.

Memorial plaque at San Luis Reservoir to two Department of Water Resources divers who died in a 2007 incident at a nearby pumping plant.

The plaque above is at the Romero Visitors Center, just off Highway 152. There’s something tragically artificial and sterile and less than truthful about the memorial to two divers killed at the pumping plant about 10 miles from the dam. But read the plaque first:

The plaque text:

“Dedicated in memory of Tim Crawford and Martin Alvarado, who lost their lives on Feb. 7, 2007, while performing underwater inspections at the Dos Amigos Pumping Plant. They sacrificed their lives to keep the state’s water supply safe and secure for the people of the state of California.”

The wording is curious. These two men “sacrificed their lives to keep the state’s water supply safe and secure.”

It sounds heroic. But what actually happened?

I had no idea. But armed with the two names, it’s easy to find out.

The two divers went into the water to inspect “trash racks” just upstream of the pumps at the Dos Amigos Pumping Plant, apparently looking for invasive mussels. Five of the six pumps at the facility were shut down, and one was running full bore. Somehow the divers wound up near the operating pump. The powerful current there pulled them in and pinned them against the trash rack, a huge steel grate designed to stop large debris from going through the pump.

The untrained fellow Department of Water Resources employee who had been given the job of “tending” the dive soon lost sight of the divers’ bubbles, his only means of tracking the men, but had no idea what to do. By the time he thought to alert anyone in the pumping plant, the divers were probably out of air, if they were indeed still alive. It took more than an hour after trouble was detected to shut down the operating pump, and another 35 minutes after that before a recovery diver was in the water. Both divers were found at the bottom of the aqueduct, drowned.

I get the human reason for why a note of heroism is injected into the language used on the plaque. We want to find a redeeming purpose in such awful deaths.

But it might have been more to the point, and a more fitting memorial, to say something like: “Dedicated in hopes that their deaths might serve to prevent future tragedies.” A message like that might serve as a living reminder to those responsible for preventing such an incident from happening again.

To read more: Here’s the Department of Water Resources report on the incident.

And here: a later investigative piece by San Francisco’s ABC7 on the episode. Key quote:

Dive tender: How long these guys stay down? You know?
Control room: Uh-uh.

And finally: a DWR memorial publication to the two divers.

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Memorial Day Meandering

Poring over some doleful but absorbing statistics on U.S. military casualties in our wars going back to the American Revolution, I’m led astray from whatever purpose I had for early Memorial Day morning.

First distraction: It doesn’t seem right that most statistical roundups of American service personnel killed in our wars — like the one linked to above — exclude those who died in our many inter-war military operations. Here’s a separate Pentagon accounting of soldiers, sailors and Marines killed during operations between 1980 and 1996. The list includes:


Second distraction:
I reflect, as many have before me, that there’s hardly been a year in my lifetime — I go back to Eisenhower’s first term — that U.S. troops haven’t been active somewhere in the world. Here’s someone who’s come up with a politically loaded list of U.S. military-related actions, at home and abroad, going back to Wounded Knee.

Third Distraction: In exploring various sets of statistics on U.S. military casualties, I came across the Department of Defense accounting of fatalities among active-duty personnel from 1980 through 2010. (Unfortunately, I can’t find more recent definitive numbers.) In those 31 years, which span “peacetime” (there was just one death attributed to hostile action or terrorist attacks in 1980-81) through the height of the Iraq War (2007), the Pentagon says 48,834 active-duty personnel died. Here’s a breakdown of how they died:
Accident: 25,073 (51.3 percent of total).
Illness: 8,579 (17.6 percent).
Suicide: 6,911 (14.2 percent).
Hostile action: 4,814 (9.9 percent)
Homicide: 2,329 (4.8 percent)
Terrorist attack: 420 (.9 percent)
Cause undetermined or pending: 708 (1.4 percent)

The numbers look a little different if you isolate fatalities from ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. A recent Congressional Research Service report broke down the causes of death for those two conflicts (including all phases of the Iraq War to date). Some 5,362 (78.5 percent) of the 6,830 deaths were sustained in hostile action; 1,041 (15.2 percent) were attributed to accidents or illness; 350 (5.1 percent) to suicide, and 52 (.8 percent) to homicide (about 25 deaths are listed as “undetermined”).

I find the “self-inflicted” death count most stunning, especially the fact it appears to be so much larger than fatalities suffered in combat. If you follow this issue, you know the number of veterans who take their own lives each year dwarfs the number of service members who kill themselves while on active duty. A Department of Veterans Affairs study published last year found 7,400 veterans committed suicide in 2014, the most recent year for which data was available.

Fourth Distraction: While embarking on my military casualty StatsQuest, hours and hours ago, I came across one particularly startling number in a VA document titled America’s Wars. Page 2 of said document includes a table of veterans and veterans’ dependents currently on VA benefits rolls (“currently” as of April 2017), listed by the war(s) in which veterans served.

The table shows there’s one person out there still getting monthly benefits related to service in the Civil War. Really? Is that possible?

Yes — it turns out it is. The recipient is Irene Triplett, daughter of a man who fought on both sides in the war. She reportedly gets a monthly VA check for $73.13 that goes toward paying for care in a North Carolina nursing home. The Wall Street Journal did a long feature on her and her family a few years ago. Irene Triplett had a very tough life; the piece is well worth reading.

National Geographic followed with its own story on the “fewer than 35” surviving children of Civil War veterans and details a couple of their life stories.

Conclusion of the foregoing.

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Road Blog, Iowa Edition: ‘Our Liberties We Prize’

The Great Seal of Iowa, as rendered in a bas relief tablet by Alexander Doyle at the Iowa state capitol.

In 1847, the Iowa Legislature passed a law creating a state seal. More on the wording of the law, which has caused a stir in the state Capitol in recent times, in a moment.

The straightforward part of the seal is the motto: “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain.” I like that: Straightforward. A little militant. No Latin.

However, the Legislature offered only a description of what the seal should look like. Here it is (and as you read it, see if there’s a phrase that kind of sticks out as a little awkward):

“The secretary of state … is … hereby authorized to procure a seal which shall be the great seal of the state of Iowa, two inches in diameter, upon which shall be engraved the following device, surrounded by the words, ‘The Great Seal of the State of Iowa’ – a sheaf and field of standing wheat, with a sickle and other farming utensils, on the left side near the bottom; a lead furnace and pile of pig lead on the right side; the citizen soldier, with a plow in his rear, supporting the American flag and liberty cap with his right hand, and his gun with his left, in the center and near the bottom; the Mississippi River in the rear of the whole, with the steamer Iowa under way; an eagle near the upper edge, holding in his beak a scroll, with the following inscription upon it: ‘Our liberties we prize, and our rights we will maintain.'”

(Yes — the Legislature wrote “with a plow in his rear.” That phrase prompted an Iowa state legislator in 2010 to offer a bill to amend the wording. Lawmakers did not act on the suggestion.)

That 1847 description left a lot to artists’ imaginations and produced a series of rather passive and homely images. Search for “Great Seal of Iowa” in Google images if you’re curious about what I mean.

I didn’t know any of that history when I visited the state capitol grounds in Des Moines last fall (2016). What struck me about the tablet or relief — OK, technically not a plaque — was what I take to be its direct reference to the Civil War. The soldier depicted is dressed as a Union infantryman. The musket he holds on his left side has bayonet fixed. The Stars and Stripes he supports with his right arm is partially draped around him. He is taking a step toward the viewer. His look is resolute and unafraid.

“Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain”? The bas relief makes the statement come alive. The soldier embodies the sentiment. Is there a Civil War message here — a reference, perhaps, to how seriously the state took its duty to preserve the Union?

About 75,000 Iowans — more than one in five adult men — served during the war. Some 13,000 of them died and another 8,500 were wounded and survived. Iowa’s experience largely reflected the experience of every state, North and South. In a way that’s hard to imagine today, when so few serve in our armed forces, the war touched everyone.

An entry on an Iowa state government site that describes the monuments on the capitol grounds notes that the Iowa seal tablet was commissioned in the mid-1880s and completed in the early 1890s. The war was still an enduring, dominant memory for a whole generation of Americans then, just as World War II was in the 1960s — when war stories were common prime-time TV fare and a frequent Hollywood subject.

The Iowa state site also mentions the name of the sculptor, Alexander Doyle, who had a national reputation by the time he got the commission for the tablet and a nearby drinking fountain featuring the cast bronze head of a bison.

Doyle’s reputation rested in part on his Civil War sculptures. But he was not a Yankee nationalist. His commissions came from both the North and from the defeated Confederacy — and he was especially active in New Orleans, where he created a series of statues commemorating Southern heroes.

I think if there’s a message in the Iowa Great Seal tablet, it’s that Doyle was an artist who understood the time he was depicting and the emotional expectations of his audience and knew how to translate that understanding into bronze. His was not a common talent.

Note: A version of this post also appears on Read the Plaque.

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Road Blog: Reading the Plaques

OK — so there’s a site I recently happened upon — ReadThePlaque.com — that appeals to my weakness for historical trivia and roadside finds.

There’s a bit of a back story to Read the Plaque (you can listen to it here) that involves an object lesson in observation and curiosity about the stories that are out there in the world around us. I don’t think that plaques, which by necessity offer a shorthand (if not sanitized) version of events, are the only source of those stories. But they do open a door into the past of the spaces we move through every day and, perhaps, of how our own life and experience intersects with that history.

Since I’ve made something of a habit of photographing some of the plaques I encounter — part of my visual note-taking of my daily rounds — I started submitting some of the plaques to Read the Plaque. The site invites one to “tell us about the plaque,” which I take as an invitation for added details and context to accompany the plaque text. For me, that’s an invitation to turn the submission into a mini-project. So, I’m going to take the liberty of cross-posting my Read the Plaque entries here, for posterity and my small reading public.

Here’s one I just posted for a plaque Kate and I encountered Sunday in Mojave, California:

Historical marker on Highway 14 in Mojave marking long-ago terminus of borax trains from Death Valley.

This is on California Highway 14, the main drag through Mojave, a desert crossroads and would-be spaceport (Burt Rutan, the designer and builder of the X-Prize-winning SpaceShipOne and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, has his shop at the former Marine air base on the edge of town; the facility, now run by a county agency, is styled the Mojave Air and Space Port. It’s a boneyard for old planes, too, and is a kind of fun detour if that’s the kind of thing you’re into).

And now back to an earlier age of transportation: the 20-mule-team era.

As a child of the 1960s, “20-Mule-Team Borax” meant two things: a detergent and a TV show, “Death Valley Days,” that was hosted for a time by soon-to-be California Gov. Ronald Reagan. All I know about borax: It’s useful in many applications, from whitening clothes to metallurgy. As for its place in California history, here’s an excellent 1998 writeup from the Chicago Tribune: “More valuable than gold.”

As to the plaque: It’s on the east side of Highway 14 — that’s the right if you’re driving north through town — between Mono and Nadeau streets. It’s placed on a scrubby lot in front of a defunct and fenced-off Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, right between a Denny’s and the Best Western Desert Winds. As usual, though I was alerted to its presence by a sign that advised I’d see a historical marker 500 feet ahead, I drove right by it the first time without seeing it.

Here’s the plaque text:

Mojave 20-Mule-Team Borax Terminus

Just west of this point was the Southern Pacific Terminus for the twenty-mule-team borax wagons that operated between Death Valley and Mojave from 1884 to 1889. The route ran from the Harmony Borax Company works, later acquired by the Pacific Coast Borax Company, to the railroad loading dock in Mojave over 165 miles of mountain and desert trail. A round trip required 20 days. The ore wagons were designed by J.W.S. Perry, borax company superintendent in Death Valley, and were built in Mojave at a cost of $900 each. New borax discoveries near Barstow ended the Mojave shipments in 1889.

California Registered Historical Landmark No. 652.

Plaque placed by the California State Park Commission in cooperation with the Kern County Historical Society, El Tejon Parlor No. 239, Native Daughters of the Golden West, and Kern County Museum, October 15, 1959.

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Berkeley in January: A Foot (or More) of Rain

I can hear the rain pounding down right now, just as it has been for much of the last few days and for most of January.

Our modest electronic rain gauge shows we’ve had 4 inches of rain in the last five days and 9.5 inches since Jan. 7; that’s 9.5 inches in half a month. I am a lousy record keeper, but I know we’d had about an inch and a half or 2 inches this month before Jan. 7. So we are looking at 11 to 12 inches of rain so far this month. Which I call a lot.

The current month’s record’s from Berkeley’s “official” weather station on the Cal campus aren’t available (the most recent available through the National Climate Data Center are from November; I’ve failed over the years to figure out how to get more current numbers from the folks who monitor the station).

But to double-check my half-informed guesstimate, I asked my friend Pat, whose boyfriend Paul is a weather geek with his own home weather station, how much rain they’ve seen at their place up in the Berkeley Hills. The caveat is that their place is at an elevation of 900 feet or so and is likely to get more rain than we do here at 120 feet above sea level in the Berkeley flats.

Nonetheless, here’s Pat’s Sunday afternoon report: 13.05 inches total rainfall since Jan. 1 and 4.59 inches over the past five days.

And one other cross-check, this time from a spot that I know is significantly wetter: Tilden Park’s Vollmer Peak, at 1,905 feet the highest point in the Berkeley Hills. The state Department of Water Resources reports readings from a gauge on the peak. It shows 16.5 inches for the month so far and 4.9 over the past five days.

I’ll declare it confirmed: What people have been seeing all over Northern California and the Bay Area is true in Berkeley, as well — we’ve had a very wet January. Although … not the rainiest we’ve ever seen in these parts.

Berkeley’s official weather record goes back to 1893. According to the precipitation data maintained by the Western Regional Climate Center, Berkeley’s rainiest January occurred in 1916, when 16.54 inches were recorded at the campus station.

Because the record for that month is incomplete — five days are missing — the January 1916 record is not officially considered our rainiest January. Instead, almost-as-soggy January 1911, when 15.99 inches fell, is listed as our January maximum. Huh — one could question the logic in that.

Either of those months — January 1911 or January 1916 — would qualify as Berkeley’s rainiest month on record.

Assuming I’m correct and we’re in the 11- to 12-inch mark for January rain, this would mark Berkeley’s 14th January with 10 inches of more or rain. And it would be the rainiest since 1973, when 12.47 inches fell.

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Trump and Life in the Reality-Based Community

I’ve been thinking about a moment I think presaged the rise of Trump — whose latest non-reality-based utterance is here:

Ford says Trump’s right. That’s because the company had no plans to move the plant to Mexico.

I don’t think Trump’s thinking big enough here. There’s a lot more he could be taking credit for.

“Just got a call from the man in the moon. Since I won, he no longer plans to smash into Earth. Will join cabinet. Huge! #MAGA”

We here in the reality-based community mean that as an attempt at humor and comment — not a report of something that actually happened out there in the perceivable world. You know, suggesting something absurd as a way of casting light on someone else’s grandiosity and distortions.

That phrase “reality-based community” came to mind recently when thinking about our soon-to-be commander-in-chief’s frequent non-fact-based pronouncements. He’s got a talent, and many of us who thought we grasped what was going on underestimated its power and appeal.

Here’s the origin of that saying, “reality-based community,” which comes from a 2004 feature by journalist Ron Suskind in The New York Times Magazine. Suskind’s piece was examining how George W. Bush arrived at his instinctive certainty that the disastrous course along which he had launched the nation — the war in Iraq — was true and correct.

Along the way, Suskind reported, he met with a Bush aide who gave a glimpse into the president’s and the administration’s approach to governing:

“… Then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Of course, there’s an unspeakable arrogance to that dismissal of those imprisoned in the world of “discernible reality” — not least because of the implicit contempt for the hundreds of thousands of men and women deployed again and again to confront the deadly violence of that reality.

So now, we’re confronted with a similar but much more directly expressed arrogance and dismissal of discernible facts. I think the challenge is to keep your eyes open, to believe what you’re seeing, and to call out the illusions we’re encouraged to see as reality and the reality we’re urged to think is just talk.

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Fighting Faiths and the Marketplace of Ideas, Redux

So, I’ve mentioned Oliver Wendell Holmes’s dissent in Abrams v. United States (1919) before. More than 11 years ago, in fact, not that I’m particularly proud of that.

Holmes’s dissent is to fans of the First Amendment as Pavarotti’s rendition of “Nessun Dorma” is to opera buffs, except Holmes didn’t take his act on the road. It’s a brief, tour de force exposition of the idea that governments should only in the most exceptional circumstances interfere with speech and expression.

Why does it come to mind now? Maybe it’s a light in dark, uncertain times. Although these are times, too, when the central premise of Holmes’s dissent — that “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market” — is contradicted by the recent triumph of unashamed bullshit.

Anyway, here’s the oft-quoted passage from the dissent:

Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power, and want a certain result with all your heart, you naturally express your wishes in law, and sweep away all opposition. To allow opposition by speech seems to indicate that you think the speech impotent, as when a man says that he has squared the circle, or that you do not care wholeheartedly for the result, or that you doubt either your power or your premises. But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment. Every year, if not every day, we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge. While that experiment is part of our system, I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.

One of Holmes’s coinages there — “fighting faiths” — has always thrown me a little. My own clarification, after a little reading: He’s referring to ideals — freedom, for instance — that one feels compelled to fight for.

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History Behind Us, Hatred in Front of Us

Reflecting a little on what’s happened this week, and on this very disturbing piece of business here — an interview with the most straightforward, thoughtful, well-spoken white supremacist you’ll ever encounter, and all the more disturbing for that — it occurred to me once more how eager our white society has been to put its grossest transgressions in the rear-view mirror and act as if, now that we’ve resolved that little problem to our own satisfaction, everyone should move on. Nothing to see here, folks, but lots of unpleasantness we can just leave behind.

Listening to Richard Spencer, the white “nationalist” referenced above, talk about his ideas for a white “ethnostate” and his belief that at bottom, the governing sentiment among those of different races is hate, I was struck by his unwillingness or inability to confront the toughest question his African-American interviewer threw at him:

What’s the difference between you and the racists that like, you know, hung people up from trees? What’s the difference between you and the Klansmen that burned crosses on peoples lawns? What’s the difference between you and you know, the people who don’t look at me, an African-American man, as a full human being?

After dodging and weaving a little and saying he would not engage with the notion of “a hypothetical Klansman,” Spencer said this:

I’m sure there is some commonality between these movements of the past and what I’m talking about. But you really have to judge me on my own terms. Like I am not those people and I don’t fully know, I don’t know in the specifics of what you’re referring to. Like I am who I am. And you, if you’re going to treat me with good faith, you have to listen to what I’m saying and listen to my ideas. I think someone who would go down the path of becoming a Klansman or something in 2016, I think that is, those people are very different than I am. It’s, it’s a it’s a non-starter. I think we need an idea. We need a movement that really resonates with where we are right now.

He and his ilk are different because — well, they are. You just have to trust him on that. And besides, it’s 2016 and we need to put that behind us and pursue a grander idea. (At one point in the interview, Spencer shares a few of the “values” he holds dear: “greatness and winning and dominance and beauty.” That list brought a name to mind: Leni Riefenstahl.)

The grand idea is, as mentioned before, a “white ethnostate,” what he terms “a new type of society that would actually be a homeland for all white people. … All European people … [so] we would always have a safe space.”

This isn’t really a new idea, as he says. He points to Israel as such a state. But of course there’s an example much closer to home — in fact, a state founded on the very same principles of white supremacy that underlies the idea of white nationalism.

Many of us treat the Confederacy and the Civil War and the long siege of Jim Crow that followed as objects in the rear-view mirror; curious, glorious or shameful objects that have receded almost from view. Let them stay in the past.

Lincoln was one who understood the past has its claims, and that it’s not so casually left behind. In his Second Inaugural, delivered a little more than a month before the war’s end and his assassination, he spoke about how each side had called on divine support for its cause:

“Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”

And it was beyond humans, Lincoln said, to understand what price providence might demand for the crime of slavery. It was beyond us to know when the debt had been redeemed.

“‘Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’ If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?

“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'”

I think the first time I encountered the address was at the Lincoln Memorial, where it’s inscribed in marble. That passage — “until all the wealth piled … until every drop of blood drawn ” — has always stuck with me.

First, I think, because of Lincoln’s sober consideration of the magnitude of the “offense” that had led to the war.

Second, because of his suggestion that there was no way of knowing when the nation’s offense would be expiated — or even whether it could be expiated.

And third because, even though I am not one of Lincoln’s faith and I don’t imagine an omnipotent deity who wills human cruelty and then doles out punishment for it, the renewed encouragement of racial hatred we’re seeing now makes it clear that we’ve yet to really reckon with the worst chapters of our history — slavery, Native American genocide, the Klan’s reign of terror, Jim Crow, mass incarceration. And now, it seems, we’re listening to people who are eager to write the next dark chapter of history.

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Road Blog: Battlefield Cemetery

Jewell Smith, 1904-1918, buried in the Shiloh Church cemetery, part of the Shiloh battlefield.

Jewell Smith, 1904-1918, buried in the Shiloh Church cemetery, part of the Shiloh battlefield.

Kate and I flew to Nashville Wednesday so that she could attend a national conference of science teachers and so that I could tag along. There would be plenty to do in Tennessee’s state capital, but as soon as I thought about coming out here I had only one destination on my list: Shiloh.

For you who have been poring over your James McPherson or Shelby Foote or who binge on Ken Burns, you know that Shiloh was one of the principal battles of the Civil War. More than that, its 23,000 casualties — the dead, the wounded, the captured and missing — signaled that the war had the potential to be very long and very costly.

I have visited other Civil War sites: Gettysburg, Antietam, the little house where Stonewall Jackson died after Chancellorsville, and others. But this visit is different somehow. My interest has evolved. I’m still interested in the ebb and flow of battle and who did what where, and I’m still curious about what could move human beings to endure and inflict the cruelty that typified the Civil War battlefield.

What’s changed for me is that the war has lost that quality of right, of honor, of transformation and finality that it had for me when I first encountered Civil War stories and when I first visited a battlefield when I was 17. Historians have long since re-evaluated the war in light of the South’s postwar racial code and enduring political power; in light of the North’s antebellum economic dependence on slavery and on Northern whites’ widespread rejection of the notion of racial equality.

So now the war is something different to the world, and it’s something different for me as well, part of a process that’s still being played out. It’s an interesting frame of mind to bring to a place dedicated to remembering the terrors and accidents of a single confrontation in the war.

I got to the battlefield on Thursday, late in the afternoon, just as a very heavy downpour began. I spent at least a half hour in my rented car down by the side of the Tennessee River, at the site of the landing that the Union commander, U.S. Grant, used to get to the battlefield after his army was surprised by a Confederate army on April 6, 1862. I wasn’t channeling thoughts about what it must have been like on that day; I was just listening to the din of the rain beating on the car (a rented Jeep Patriot if you’re hungry for details).

Eventually, I drove up to the battlefield headquarters, then strolled through the national cemetery where most of the Northern dead (and some from the South) were interred. I took some pictures, but felt that in some way I wasn’t connecting with the place. It started to rain again, so I left and started a drive around the battlefield. Hardly anyone was around.

I happened across the site of the church from which the battle took its name. I was surprised to find that there is a working church there — built in fits and starts from the 1920s through the 1950s, as well as a cemetery that apparently goes to the founding of the original church in 1851.

What caught my attention first was the fresh decorations on many graves. When I stopped and looked, I found many fairly recent burials. In fact, a former governor of Tennessee, Ray Blanton, was buried there in 1996.

But a more modest grave, one of those closest to the road, caught my attention: Jewell Smith. Born Sept. 10, 1904. Died Oct. 10, 1918. At first, I didn’t notice her photograph, a very serious portrait, embedded and well preserved in the headstone.

What happened to her? No real idea. But her date of death suggests something to me: the great influenza pandemic was sweeping the United States in the autumn of 1918.

Nearby was another headstone was a photograph: Freeman A. Cotner, died in 1951 at age 38. The portrait is striking because he’s wearing a uniform of some kind, maybe with a badge, definitely with a gunbelt. Oh, and there’s the horse.

Cotner was killed in a car accident near Fayette, Mississippi, along with his apparently sometimes-estranged wife. They either ran into the back of or head on into a large truck on U.S. 61. A daughter was with them in the car and survived. Of note: Cotner’s mother-in-law held a separate funeral for his wife, who was not buried with him.

The grave of Freeman A. Cotner, 1913-1951, buried in the Shiloh Church cemetery.

The grave of Freeman A. Cotner, 1913-1951, buried in the Shiloh Church cemetery.


The grave of Freeman A. Cotner, 1913-1951, buried in the Shiloh Church cemetery.

The grave of Freeman A. Cotner, 1913-1951, buried in the Shiloh Church cemetery.

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Talking About the Weather

“When two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what they must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm.”

–Samuel Johnson, quoted in “The Invention of Clouds,” by Richard Hamblyn

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