(In which the author goes by plane, bicycle, train, and rental car from Europe and New York to the American South and Midwest. This is Part II – from North Carolina to the battlefield around Shiloh Church, in Tennessee. Click here for Part I.)
Amtrak dropped me off in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, a ghost town of the industrial revolution. In earlier days, it manufactured bloomers (what adult America now calls lingerie) and dried tobacco. Now, despite having a few banks and pawn shops, downtown Rocky Mount is as empty as Donald Trump’s imagination, for which Nash County voted in the 2016 election.
Although I was happy to see the Seaboard Coastline Railroad station still in business—a cathedral when trains were our stairway to heaven—I had no business arriving in Rocky Mount.
Amtrak dumped me there (off one of the Florida-bound trains) only because I was unable to book a through ticket to Raleigh, for which the reservation system (aka “Julie”) was showing no available seats.
Online and earlier that day in Philadelphia, I had tried to extend my ticket to Raleigh but Julie would not hear of such impertinence (much of Amtrak has the feel of lockdown rail).
I waited in the station parking lot for my friend, the novelist John Russell (Favorite Sons), to collect me, and passed the time chatting with a construction worker who was helping to restore a private rail car—although I had my doubts that the Vanderbilts or J.P. Morgan would ever layover in Rocky Mount on the trips south to Palm Beach or Miami. I could, however, imagine both voting for Trump.
* * *
On the car ride to Raleigh, about an hour away, John and I talked non-stop about the 2016 election and how mad-as-hell North Carolina had overwhelmed most precincts, except those in the Research Triangle that pulls together Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill.
Clinton won in the urban—well, suburban and university—areas, but lost everywhere else, losing the state by some 200,000 votes.
Only the Democratic candidate for governor, Roy Cooper, bucked the Republican trend. Otherwise, North Carolina voted Republican for president, the Senate and House, and in the state house and senate, despite late polls that showed Clinton leading.
Up to the vote, NBC and CBS had Clinton winning North Carolina by three percent, and a week before the election the New York Times showed her leading in the state by eight percentage points. Not even a late campaign visitation by Archangel Michelle could stave off heresy.
John watched the returns at Democratic headquarters, and his take on the election was that Hillary was almost shut out in rural counties. (He joked that in 1860 Abraham Lincoln had not been on the ballot in North Carolina.)
Farmers and unemployed textile workers, whose jobs have moved to Mexico and South Korea, gave Trump a huge margin in most rural counties, which was enough to nullify (a good southern word) Clinton’s bloc in the cities.
When there were manufacturing jobs in places like Rocky Mount, it voted Democratic. Now the local GDP is based on anger, and the town voted for Trump.
Clinton had no message for marginalized America, although why dislocated corporate sharecroppers on the dole want to tie their fate to a New York real estate promoter and stock jobber is hard to say.
* * *
I spent three nights in Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, all of which looked prosperous, in a Sinclair Lewis sort of way. (To comprehend Trump I was reading his It Can’t Happen Here, in which he writes: “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”)
I was in North Carolina for a friend’s wedding, and mostly what I did was shuttle between the points of the Research Triangle, depending on the party schedule for the wedding.
One night we went to a Durham Bulls baseball game. Alas, I am not a “Crash” Davis (Kevin Costner in Bull Durham) fan, except when he says: “I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter.” Otherwise, I find Costner to be the Dave Kingman of actors.
In 2017, even minor league baseball has become a corporate affair. Okay, between some innings, kids raced the mascot around the bases. For the most part the stadium felt like The House That Product Placement Built, and the teams on the field played with all the enthusiasm of office temps, as if baseball is getting ready to ship its jobs overseas.
Sadly, I probably like baseball in print more than I do on the field. I love reading about the game in the 1920s (lots of bunting and stealing home) more than I like the current edition, which is long on video scoreboard clips but short on exciting plays. (Read The Glory of Their Times the next time you are tempted to watch Sunday Night Baseball.)
I had thought on this trip (from North Carolina to Oklahoma) that I might spend many evenings at minor league parks. But Durham Athletic Park cleared that field of dreams—and of the notion that baseball is still a celebration of rural America, if not an expression of a restless society moving from the farms into the cities.
At best a baseball game is now a night at the mall—with fans drifting off to buy mega-cups of Mountain Dew or distracted by their phones. Few are actually watching the game, which anyway feels subsidiary to the greater branding exercise in play.
* * *
The wedding weekend ended with a Sunday brunch, after which I headed west in my rental car from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to Asheville, four hours to the west, nestled in the folds of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Only late in my planning did I succumb to Americanism and rent a car. For a long time I had thought (this is the Swiss side of my personality) that I could travel with my folding bike and panniers, and get between cities on trains or—come bad days—buses.
Had I been traveling in the 1910s—maybe with one of Casey Stengel’s barnstorming teams?—I might have been able to travel from North Carolina to Oklahoma on day coaches and night trains. But this was 2017, and cars own American intercity transport.
I could have gotten from Durham to Asheville on Greyhound—there are two buses a day—but the schedule was off. But after Asheville, I would have bogged down in the dismal swamp that is mass transit America.
In that underworld, trains (if they exist at all) depart at 1:26 a.m., and buses need more than fifteen hours (overnight with a two-hour change in Little Rock at 3:05 a.m.) to make it from Nashville to Oklahoma City.
I thought I might be able to calibrate my interests (Civil War battlefields, the politics of the Progressive Era, jazz, baseball, American cities) with public transportation.
But no matter how hard I tried with Greyhound, Trailways, Jefferson Lines, or Amtrak, all I could deal myself was a dead-man’s hand, which is why I began my travels west in a Chevy Impala, if not with a sense of dread.
Interstates are the opioids of American travel, and I was in despair in having to pander to the addiction.
* * *
For all my moaning, I did love Asheville, where I had never been. I stopped at the house of friends and sat on their deck, which overlooks the Blue Ridge. It felt as if we were drinking craft beer in a landscape painting, one of those that celebrates “the opening of the western mountains.”
Then we drove into downtown Asheville, to which local author Thomas Wolfe could not “go home again.” (His transgression was to describe his former neighbors as small time adulterers—on their good days.)
I did like Wolfe’s remark, however, about baseball, that it’s “a dull game, really; that’s the reason that it is so good. We do not love the game so much as we love the sprawl and drowse and shirt-sleeved apathy of it…” (Organ music got rid of that.)
I had hoped that, by exception, the Thomas Wolfe House might be open on a Sunday, but it wasn’t. Instead, we peeked inside the windows (the way in To Kill a Mockingbird Jem and Scout look in at Boo Radley).
Wolfe was a shooting star of American letters—he died in 1938 at age 37—and his florid, almost baroque style has relegated his books in more modern times to English literature seminars, those which also pour over Theodore Dreiser and John Dos Passos.
Look Homeward, Angel is a novel about his mother’s boarding house in Asheville (“In the morning they rose in a house pungent with breakfast cookery, and they sat at a smoking table loaded with brains and eggs, ham, hot biscuit, fried apples seething in their gummed syrups, honey, golden butter, fried steak, scalding coffee…”) while You Can’t Go Home Again is a fictional account of young writer making his way in New York (“Only the dead know Brooklyn”).
Needless to say, Wolfe’s novels remain an acquired taste; at times he feels like the American Proust. Here’s what he writes about the vanished South:
His feeling for the South was not so much historic as it was of the core and desire of dark romanticism—that unlimited and inexplicable drunkenness, the magnetism of some men’s blood that takes them into the heart of the heat, and beyond that, into the polar and emerald cold of the South as swiftly as it took the heart of that incomparable romanticist who wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, beyond which there is nothing.
In college, I tried reading Look Homeward, Angel, mostly to impress a girl in one of my classes (I got nowhere with either the novel or the girl). But one reason I was stopping now in Asheville was to see if maybe I could rediscover Wolfe.
I only made progress with William Faulkner after I drove another rental car around the confines of Yoknapatawpha County (where I sensed the Snopes family had become partners with Walmart). In Wolfe’s case, however, I never did figure out if his mother had sold the boarding house to Holiday Inn Express.
* * *
Admittedly, I was only in Asheville for several hours. Still, it was a revelation. The architecture is that of Clark Kent’s Metropolis, and in the lobby of many stately office buildings there are now coffee shops, trendy restaurants, and bookshops, the best of which is Battery Park Book Exchange, a Turkish harem of used books. (Inside, I found Victorian divans, framed art, easy chairs, wine, coffee, and Grant’s Memoirs. I might have found more, but I didn’t go upstairs.)
A number of the buildings in Asheville have rooftop bars, and several streets are lined with boutique hotels, all of which look perfect for a long weekend of fine dining and book browsing.
My host for the walking tour was my friend Professor Mark Gibney, whose official title, Carol G. Belk Distinguished Professor in Humanities at the University of North Carolina Asheville, leaves out the salient fact that he’s also a walking encyclopedia of Boston sports trivia and that for much of the stroll around town we were trying to reconstruct the professional wrestling career of Bruno Sammartino. (How else, in the age of Trump—who is, after all, in the WWE Hall of Fame—should a distinguished professor of political science and human rights spend his time?)
For reasons now lost, Mark insisted on taking me inside the Basilica of St. Lawrence, which feels more like a Santa Fe abbey (where death might come for the archbishop) than a Catholic church in western North Carolina.
Mark might have directing my attention to the mosaics around the altar or perhaps to the elegant dome, but at that point in the conversation I was explaining that Bruno had “hailed” from the Abruzzi region of Italy and how, after his matches in the 1960s, he liked to say “a few words to my Italian speaking fans.”
I was also regretting that Bruno had never been elected to the Senate. At least there he could have dealt with Trump, perhaps in a steel cage.
* * *
I left Asheville around 7 p.m. and drove in the twilight through Knoxville and Oak Ridge (of nuclear fame) toward Nashville. I crossed the Great Smokey Mountains and looked wistfully at signs for national parklands, but felt I needed to sleep closer to the Tennessee capital.
I did, however, manage to sleep in the wild, at the Edgar Evins State Park, which is off the interstate near Nashville. In the trunk of my rental car, I had assembled a $20 tent and $30 cot, along with the dream that I might spend a few nights car camping.
As it was 10 p.m. when I pulled into the campground, the ranger on duty told me to “sleep anywhere.” It meant parking the car in an RV space and setting up my cot in what felt like a parking lot.
Around me were camper vans the size of long-haul trucks. I went to sleep, not gazing at the stars, but listening to television from my neighbor’s Thor Motor Coach, which made me feel as though I were sleeping next to the team bus of the Houston Rockets.
I would like to report that, for breakfast the next morning, I had eggs and bacon from a camp fire, and some cowboy coffee. Instead, up early with the sun, I drove aimlessly until I came across an IHOP and squeezed into a booth, where most of the food reminded me of the plastic dishes that my daughters used to serve in their make-believe kitchens.
I had a fried eggs and berries (not the T-bone steak combo platter with waffles), and drove to The Hermitage, the home of President Andrew Jackson (whose portrait, of late, has been hanging in Trump’s Oval Office). But it was hard to tell what made me feel worse—IHOP or the Trump acquisition of Andrew Jackson.
* * *
As a child of the 1960s and 70s, I was brought up to admire Jackson. In the 12th grade I even purchased two volumes of the Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., hagiography, The Age of Jackson, thinking that inside its densely worded pages I might find the keys to participatory democracy, if not the secrets to the New Deal or Great Society.
Instead, all I learned from The Age of Jackson was that Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wrote his histories the way Oleg Cassini designed dresses—to curry favor with Jackie Kennedy and the smart set in Washington, for which he was the court historian.
Jackson’s Hermitage is about twelve miles northeast of Nashville. I would say “it’s close to the IHOP,” but that’s true of every place in America. Actually the Hermitage is a free-standing plantation on several hundred acres of land, testimony that man-of-the-people Jackson was only able to set his lavish table with the help of 150 slaves.
I did appreciate, in the small Jackson museum, which you go through before visiting the mansion, that the curators present Jackson in somewhat historically accurate terms.
Jackson’s attacks on the Creek Indians, not to mention the Indian removal policies of his presidency, are shown in detail, and mention is made (okay, in the small type) of how he imposed martial law on New Orleans before the Battle of New Orleans (1815).
Less apparent in the display cases is the question whether Jackson sympathized or aided the seditious (possibly treasonous) activities of Aaron Burr in the West (this was after his duel with Alexander Hamilton, when Jackson was a Tennessee power broker).
* * *
Like many presidential house tours, the Hermitage is long on explanations about the china and the wallpaper, but short on the reasons that Jackson despised the Bank of the United States. (He said to his vice-president: “The bank, Mr. Van Buren, is trying to kill me, but I will kill it.” And, in case you are wondering, the wallpaper shows the reunion of Odysseus and Telemachus on Ithaca, but none of the suitors trying to bed faithful Penelope.)
In general, planters in the nineteenth century hated banks and the gold standard as much as they did abolitionists; both suggested control of the country from Wall Street and New York City.
The tour guide did make reference to Jackson’s hatred for John Quincy Adams, his principal political rival, and Jackson’s admirable conduct during the Nullification Crisis of 1832, which averted disunion or civil war at the earlier date.
She also explained how Jackson’s heirs had sympathized with the Confederate cause and how Jackson’s daughter-in-law, during the Civil War, entertained General Nathan Bedford Forest—famous for his calvary exploits and, later, for his founding of the Ku Klux Klan.
In American mythology, however, Jackson is remembered for his fervid belief in the Union and for his opposition to the governance of the Virginia aristocracy, not to mention as an early advocate of the politics of inclusion.
Much is made in the museum and on the house tour of this political sentiment, which he expressed this way: “I thank God that my life has been spent in a land of liberty, and that he has given me a heart to love my country with the affection of a son.”
That he slaughtered and segregated the Creek Indians, occasionally ruled with martial law, grew wealthy with slaves, and might have encouraged the traitorous Burr is the collateral damage of greatness.
Jackson liked to say: “I was born for the storm, and a calm does not suit me,” although others were left with the debris. Sound familiar?
* * *
As for Trump’s admiration for Old Hickory—the Cherokees called Jackson “Sharp Knife,” because of his Indian killings—I overheard one conversation about the new president’s reverence, expressed by the portrait hanging in the Oval Office.
In the Hermitage coffee shop, two library honchos were discussing the press attention that Trump’s hero-worship has drawn to Jackson and his legacy.
One said to the other: “Our plan is to acknowledge it, without taking sides.” In other words, it’s yet another Trump branding exercise. I wonder if he will demand thirty percent? Ask to call it Trump Hermitage?
Trump, himself, went to the Jackson home during the campaign, but his take on the seventh president indicates that he might have some problems passing social studies in Nashville junior high school.
During an interview Trump said about Jackson:
I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said, ‘There’s no reason for this.’ People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?
Too bad Jackson died sixteen years before the shelling of Fort Sumpter.
* * *
To get around Nashville, which lies on the west bank of the Cumberland River, I parked the car at my Airbnb and took to the folding bike, which performed admirably on the many hills that play the high notes around the Music City.
Just to be clear, I didn’t go to the Grand Ole Opry (it’s twelve miles from downtown, at least by bike) or to Dollywood, which most people think is in Nashville, but which is actually outside Gatlinburg. (Besides, it’s a theme park with water slides, not a peek inside Dolly’s boudoir.)
Instead, I made a grand tour of downtown Nashville, which included Vanderbilt University, the state capitol, Music Row (producers offices), Bicentennial Park, and lower Broadway, the extension of Honky Tonk Way, where nightclubs, and later beer, spill into the street.
I know, I know: natural-born Americans are supposed to swoon over Nashville—for the way that its country music speaks to the nation’s soul. (As my beloved Patsy Cline intoned: “A church, a courtroom, and then goodbye…”) But I found Nashville, at least by the river, to be a frat party on steroids.
Beyond downtown, it’s a city divided by race, interstates, and some of the worst city planning this side of the GDR (East Germany).
* * *
To get into downtown Nashville, I had to navigate under and around several interstates (think of medieval ramparts and blacks on the far side living as serfs).
The Nashville urban poor live in bungalows on the edge of the city—their possessions, not to mention their children and broken lawn mowers, spilling onto unkept lawns. It could be the Lower Ninth in New Orleans, but without the flood waters.
Vanderbilt was easy to find—on the crest of a hillside on the west side of Nashville, surrounded by several large hospitals. Occasionally on my ride, I found myself dodging ambulances, which cast Nashville as a free-fire zone.
The campus is leafy and sedate, although more urban than, say, Duke, which has the feel of a gothic country club.
I had thought of Vanderbilt as a graduate school for my niece Catherine, as her loves are music and education, and Vanderbilt is renowned for both. Plus it looms over Music City, a campus on a hill. But the Blair School of Music struck me as corporate (where you go to get a chair in the St. Louis orchestra), and her music, as with her teaching, draws more from the grassroots.
* * *
I should have found a bar downtown for dinner and live music. Certainly I had my choice among dozens of nightclubs that line lower Broadway. But I could not face any of them.
From the chalk boards on the sidewalk, the food looked awful. Inside, the bars were dark and uninviting. Nor could I deal with the hordes of drifting tourists—a race of heavy-set people with Amish beards, Polynesian tattoos, NBA shorts, and dripping ice cream cones.
I would happily have gone to a nightclub featuring, say, the music of Willie Nelson or Jimmie Rodgers (he got his break in Asheville). But the only bands I sampled made me long for Spinal Tap (“Here lies David St. Hubbins. . . and why not?”).
Instead, I kept to my bicycle, as beyond the night scene I had the city to myself. Off hours, only the dead know Nashville.
I biked up a hill to the state capitol and inspected the statues surrounding the dome. On display are the trio grande of Tennessee politics—Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, and James K. Polk—plus World War I’s Sergeant Alvin York, with fixed bayonet. (The movie, Sergeant York, came out in 1941, in time to serve as a recruiting poster for the next war.)
Most interesting about the Polk memorial, near the capitol, is that the Polk Home and Museum in Columbia, Tennessee is trying to get his remains moved to his boyhood home. Polk was originally buried in the garden of his Nashville mansion but when that was torn down in 1901, he was relocated to the capitol. (As Willy Loman said: “I still feel—kind of temporary about myself.”)
The only thing interesting about the Andrew Johnson statue is that it’s not drunk.
* * *
Down the hill from the capitol I biked through Bicentennial Park, which could be the poster child for everything that is the matter with American urban planning.
It was about 8 p.m. when I got there, and the park, some 19 acres, was empty. Near the entrance, part of an exhibit about Tennessee rivers, some small children were running under sprinklers. The rest of the park was a no-man’s land—in a city that lacks playgrounds, picnic tables, ball fields, and open spaces.
Although Bicentennial is an extension of the capitol grounds and joggers were all around the state house—some doing yoga en plain air—none were running where I biked, which reminded me of a Soviet park in Novosibirsk.
I went past an amphitheater, plaques for each of Tennessee’s counties, and a weird plaza, at the north end of the park, that has a phalanx of marble columns, as if the parks department had tried its hand at duplicating Stonehenge, but with only ready mix concrete available.
No doubt the park was empty on a warm summer night (it was still about 90 degrees) because it looks like a mugger’s preserve. Even I was looking over my shoulder while rolling along the shaded sidewalks.
Only on its northern edge does anyone live near Bicentennial. Mostly what I saw around the park were forlorn parking lots, state buildings, and warehouses. As best as I could tell, from a historical marker, the last person to live in the neighborhood was Jimi Hendrix, and that was in 1962.
What killed residential life in downtown Nashville, as in so many American cities, were the interstates that cut through and destroyed neighborhoods. The flyovers could well be moats or World War I trenches that were designed in the 1960s to keep African-Americans “in their place.”
Now life inside the fortress dies when the last bureaucrat heads home at 5:30 p.m., leaving Sergeant York on guard.
* * *
When I left Nashville—it felt like a jail break—I headed southwest toward the Civil War battlefield at Shiloh. Part of the reason I gave up on Greyhound and Amtrak was to make it to Pittsburgh Landing, which is eighty miles east of Memphis and 140 miles southwest of Nashville, and off the public transport grid.
The battle of Shiloh was fought for control of the rail junction at Corinth, Mississippi (twenty miles to the south), from which both the Mobile & Ohio and Memphis & Charleston railroads made their way to the sea. Now Memphis is as close as any train comes to Shiloh (the battle was named for a small church in the area).
Needless to say, I detoured on my way to Shiloh, stopping first at Franklin (a small but important 1864 Civil War battle), then at Columbia, Tennessee, to visit the house where President James K. Polk lived as a boy, and finally along the Natchez Trace, to see where the explorer Meriwether Lewis died.
* * *
For breakfast in historic Franklin, I drank a $6 smoothie and biked the contours of the Civil War battle, which was fought November 30, 1864, after the Confederates tried to draw General Sherman out of Atlanta by attacking into Tennessee. (Hitler used the same logic when he rolled into the Bulge.)
The Confederate counterattack died in Franklin along a lonely stretch of track of the Nashville & Decatur Railroad. There I leaned my bike against a mailbox and walked around with my camera. I might well have been looking at the high-tide mark of the Confederacy.
Until the last battles of the Civil War, the South tried to take on northern guns with valor alone. Tragically for those involved, the battle of Franklin cost the Confederates some 6,200 casualties, and by the time it was fought Sherman had already departed on his march to the sea.
The drive from Franklin to Columbia took more than an hour. I had expected to roll unencumbered down highway 31, across farmland dotted with Civil War markers, perhaps on a Ken Burns excursion (banal as they are).
Instead I stopped endlessly at traffic lights and crept through clogged intersections, discouraged that the malling of America has reached the by-ways of rural Tennessee.
Everywhere I went, I could see the same chain stores—Dunkin’ Donuts, CVS, Waffle House, Home Depot, and Walmart—which reminded me of a Twilight Zone TV broadcast in the 1960s, in which a driver keeps seeing the same hitch-hiker, no matter how fast or far she goes.
* * *
The Polk Home had the feeling of a family affair—only a handful of visitors were present that morning. Almost immediately I met the director of the museum library, who walked me around the modest townhouse where Polk lived from 1816 to 1819.
In fact, the Polk home was more his parents’ than his own, but it’s the only house standing where the president ever lived, aside from the White House.
Polk was a political operator, not unlike Sam Rayburn, the Texas congressman in the 1960s who also served as speaker of the House. Before being elected president, in 1844, Polk had been governor of Tennessee and a member of the House.
An able administrator, Polk approached government as if fixing a contract, and while he publicly abhorred slavery, in his private dealings (he was invested in a Mississippi plantation) he was a player in the slave trade.
The local heir to Jackson’s legacy, he ran against Henry Clay in 1844 and won with his Democratic platform to enlarge the continental footprint of the United States, which later meant war with Mexico and almost a war with Great Britain (over Oregon).
Polk’s idea of a good time was to work in his office, or perhaps to receive members of Congress in the White House. Sometimes they would listen to the Marine Corps band.
* * *
The presidency ruined Polk’s health and he died shortly after leaving office, a broken man. But not even Thomas Jefferson, with his Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon, added so much territory to the United States.
The states that date their American origins (in whole or in part) to the days of the Polk administration include Texas, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. At what cost?
Critics of Polk, including Lincoln’s hero Henry Clay, argue that he turned the United States from a republic into an empire, although the museum has a quote from the historian George Bancroft, who wrote: “His administration, viewed from the standpoint of results, was perhaps the greatest in our national history, certainly one of the greatest.”
My own view of Polk is that he let the genie of the slavery question out of the bottle. By acquiring so many new territories in the West, he forced the question into Congress of whether slavery could be imported into these new worlds.
In turn, that led to the Compromise of 1850 and four years later the Kansas-Nebraska Act, both of which made such a muddle of slavery extension and states’ rights.
In the history books, the Civil War began in 1861. In reality, it became inevitable after Polk invaded Mexico (on a sham pretext) in 1846—an aspect of history that another Jacksonian disciple, Donald Trump, might wish to consider, when next asked in an interview about Old Hickory’s contribution to the peace. Maybe North Korea can be the next Mexican War?
* * *
From Columbia, I drove west on state highway 50 until I picked up a sign for the Natchez Trace parkway heading south. It could well be a carriage trail through New York’s Central Park, except that the Trace covers some 444 miles, connecting Nashville to Natchez, Mississippi.
Encased in trees and vegetation, the two-lane parkway (operated by the National Park Service) prohibits commercial traffic, has reduced speed limits, encourages cyclists and hikers, and follows the earlier overland trails of Native Americans and the continent’s early explorers.
At many sign posts there are historical markers, if not campgrounds and picnic tables. Alas, it’s the only “interstate” of its kind in America, save for the Blue Ridge Highway and a few other national park roads.
Not only did I want to drive on the parkway, but I was also looking for the Meriwether Lewis marker at milepost 385.9, which shows a cabin along the Trace where the Northwest explorer died (or was murdered) in 1809, as he was traveling to Washington from the Upper Louisiana Territory (St. Louis), of which he was governor.
Most accounts of Meriwether Lewis have him dying a suicide at Grinder’s Stand, a replica of an inn that the parks service maintains as a visitors center and memorial.
Leaflets describe how Lewis fell ill on his return to Washington (it might have been malaria, syphilis, mercury poisoning or related to alcohol) and that, by the time he reached this section of the trail, he was suffering hallucinations, enough for him to want to end his life. Both Thomas Jefferson and William Clark believed that Lewis killed himself.
Conspiracy theories (which were not invented in JFK’s Dallas) make the points that: Lewis was not prone to bouts of depression; he suffered wounds (in the head and chest) inconsistent with suicide; he might have dallied romantically with the innkeeper’s wife; he might have been challenged on the spot to a duel; or thieves might have jumped the wealthy government traveler.
I parked the car and wandered some in the woods, to get a feel for the Native American trail, more evocative of that vanished civilization than all the artifacts in New York’s National Museum of the American Indian.
I also had brought with me, from the Internet, several accounts of Lewis’s death that suggest he was murdered, and I read the printouts in the shade while leaning against the base of Grinder’s Stand.
The visitor center was closed—I am not sure why—and I was alone with my papers in the high summer heat, trying make sense of an 1809 death in the wilderness.
Does it matter how Lewis died? Probably not, although as a figure of the American enlightenment, who helped to conceive the continental United States (Polk must have been grateful), his story has a more uplifting ending if he died defending his government pursuits rather than in a syphilitic rage after having made a pass at the innkeeper’s wife.
* * *
I had hoped to find lunch on the small road leading to the Shiloh battlefield, but none of the roadside stands around Savannah, Tennessee looked appealing and by now I was tired of eating on the half Shell (Exxon makes better sandwiches).
I found the Tennessee River Museum tempting, but rather than stop and learn more about the valley authority, I drove on to Shiloh, to make sure I got to the visitors’ center before closing (I knew the battlefield itself would be open until dark).
In thinking about my travels, I was sure that Shiloh might be overrun with tourists, as I would be getting there on a high summer afternoon. So the absence of other travelers at the battlefield—in June—made me think that the Civil War isn’t what it used to be, at least in terms of the All-American vacation. Maybe most travelers can get by with the app?
As a battle, Shiloh became a referendum on Grant’s generalship. On the first day, April 6, 1862, he was an unprepared bum, a drunk, lazy, and incompetent, as Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston’s Confederate soldiers almost rolled the Union cause into the Tennessee River.
By the end of the second day, April 7, Grant had become a military genius and had driven the Confederates off to Corinth, although the cost of sustaining his military reputation, over the two days, was 13,047 Union casualties. (It was said of Napoleon that he “was the kind of general who needed an income of 10,000 men a month.” So did Grant.)
* * *
By the time I had unloaded my bicycle from the trunk of the rental car in the Shiloh parking lot, I had soured on American travel. I had grown weary of Amtrak’s incompetence, the grind of interstate driving, processed food at troughs such as IHOP, motel television beaming up CNN, eviscerated small towns, national obesity and the plethora of 32 ounce drinks, and the way that ghettos of considerable despair have been shuffled out of town—behind the ramparts of convention centers, expressway ramps, Hard Rock Cafes, Waffle houses, and Walmart’s so-called Neighborhood Markets (goodbye, mom and pop).
I could well have been driving a rental car around Huxley’s Brave New World rather than anything descended from Jefferson’s idealism or de Tocqueville’s realism.
Mercifully, those impressions changed when I began biking the battle lines around Shiloh, even though that battlefield speaks only of death and defeat.
The afternoon temperature was in the upper 90s, so I tried to ride mostly in the shade. I followed the markers of a thirteen-mile driving tour, which might well be the stations of a national cross.
I suspect I found Shiloh comforting because I can relate better to its silent cannons and peach orchards—elegiac verses in American history—than I can to a country that would give Jared Kushner the keys to anything more than a men’s room.
Despite the heat, the bike rode well. I made many stops, to drink water or take pictures, at such places as Grant’s Last Line, Duncan Field, Shiloh Church, the Hornet’s Nest, Bloody Pond, and Pittsburg Landing. (Even the names were a relief, as all I had seen posted during the previous week were words such as Pizza Hut or La Quinta Inn & Suites.)
The rough-hewn Shiloh Church is no bigger than the raft of the Medusa and would have been witness to the same suffering. A little further on, a meandering stream, called Shiloh Branch, was buried in shade and the woods, if not unredeemable gloom.
In all it took me about three hours to navigate the circumference of the battlefield, which has to be among the best preserved of any from the Civil War. Large open fields are broken only by woods, tree lines, and occasional split-rail fences. It could well have been Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, in which he writes:
Long have they pass’d, faces and trenches and fields,
Where through the carnage I moved with a callous composure,
or away from the fallen,
Onward I sped at the time—but now of their forms at night,
I dream, I dream, I dream.
Nowhere near are there motels or billboards to make America great again. By comparison, Gettysburg feels like the Robert E. Lee theme park and conference center.
* * *
Another reason I took comfort in my solitary bike ride around Shiloh is because it brought me closer to the writer Ambrose Bierce, whose writing I have always admired.
In person, I have read, Bierce was often difficult; Mark Twain liked him a lot, for example, but the feelings of friendship were not always reciprocated.
His peevishness can be understood, perhaps, when you learn that Bierce survived Shiloh as an ordinary soldier in the Union ranks (with the 9th Indiana Volunteers, which saw action on the second day, after being ferried across the river to Pittsburg Landing). And fragments of a musket ball, from a later battle, remained forever in his skull.
He wrote an essay, “What I Saw at Shiloh,” which begins: “This is a simple story of a battle; such a tale as may be told by a soldier who is no writer to a reader who is no soldier.”
About Shiloh Church he writes: “The fact of a Christian church—assuming it to have been a Christian church—giving name to a wholesale cutting of Christian throats by Christian hands need not be dwelt on here; the frequency of its recurrence in the history of our species has somewhat abated the moral interest that would otherwise attach to it.”
Looking back at the battle, Bierce remembered the “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?”
Bierce’s essay is about both the battle and his own lost illusions, although the directness of his language—as well as the grace of the Tennessee River as its brushes against the trench lines still visible in the Shiloh woods—helped restore some of mine.
Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books including Whistle-Stopping America and, most recently, Reading the Rails. He lives in Switzerland.