Shiloh: A Requiem
One way to say it...
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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 ones 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.
Herman Melville, in Battle-Pieces, 1866
We remember most of Melville’s work as being long, turgid, and, well, 19th Century. Some have said that Melville needed a paragraph to say what most writers could say in a sentence. Like nearly all his commercial output during his lifetime, his Battle-Pieces collection of poems didn’t sell well. But long after his death, people discovered Melville had a unique insight into the human heart, and began touting his work. His Moby Dick, or The Whale, was his best-known work, assigned to every high school English class from the 1920s on. They may still assign it, for all I know. Moby Dick wasn’t about a whale. Moby Dick was about human obsession, and how far men will go to satisfy their obsessions.
And this poem is about more than Shiloh.
Melville didn’t take part in the conflict, and he wasn’t at Shiloh, but he was on a whaler for several years. We don’t know precisely when Melville was at Pittsburg Landing, but we know he toured many battlefields during and after the conflict. “Foemen at morn, but friends at eve” suggests either the dead were joined by their death, or that the conflict ended and the participants became friends. 1866 is probably early for the latter meaning.
Dying is a stupid way to become friends.
But simple joining is in keeping with 19th Century sensibilities and the prevailing Christian theology. This writer likes to think that the imagery of swallows peacefully flying over the hushed battlefield, hopefully after it was cleaned up some. “Fame and country least their care” is clear enough: the dead are beyond caring how they got cold.
But his description of the log church…
We know a little of what happened to the battlefield after the killing was done. We know the church there now is in the same spot, but locals dismantled the original structure for building materials. In the hardscrabble world of backwoods Tennessee in 1862, they might have dismantled it for steamboat fuel.
But we don’t know when…
There were press descriptions of the church, and romantic versions of the battle centered the surrounding fighting, though we know this wasn’t so. Still…”What like a bullet can undeceive!” What, indeed? This poem, like “In Flanders Fields,” is a fitting epitaph for so many.
The Devil’s Own Day describes the battle in pretty stark terms, stripped of as much romance as possible.
Melville’s poetry, published after the battle, was like a lot of contemporary reports of the battle—written later. Available from your favorite bookseller or from me if you want an autograph.
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On 2 December:
1859: Abolitionist John Brown is hanged in Charles Town, Virginia. A party of US Marines commanded by none other than JEB Stuart had captured Brown at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia where he meant to start a slave rebellion. Brown, with his sons and other followers, had burned a swathe of terror across Kansas and into Missouri on his crusade against slavery. Brown never repented his murders at Pottawatomie Creek.
1917: Russia reaches an armistice with the Central Powers, ending their involvement in World War I with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on 3 March 1918. Wracked by riot, famine and revolution, Russia is in no condition to continue fighting. The harsh reparations and loss of territory that Germany demanded were, by Lenin’s lights, a small price to pay for the freedom to exterminate his internal enemies.
And today is NATIONAL MUTT DAY, celebrating all those loveable mixed breed dogs who are, after all, nearly 75 percent of the world’s canine population.