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North and South

I left Tupelo on Friday afternoon around 3 p.m. and continued driving north on a two-lane highway, past the rolling farmlands, kudzu-draped forests, and endless cotton fields of northern Mississippi.  It was a typical sultry summer afternoon in the South:  very hot and steamy.  Days like this made me wish that my truck had air conditioning. 

 

Above:  My great-great-grandfather, Sergeant Ransom Myers, fought with the 10th Michigan infantry in Corinth in 1862 just after the Battle of Shiloh.  A few months later, he lost his left arm while fighting in Kentucky.  He later rejoined the army and became a one-armed courier.

My destination that afternoon was the small town of Corinth, Mississippi.  I wanted to visit Corinth because a few years ago I learned that my great-great-grandfather, Ransom Myers, fought here during the Civil War in 1862 with the 10th Michigan Infantry regiment.   I figured that I was probably the first person in my family to visit Corinth since Ransom marched through here 140 years ago with the Union Army.

 

As I was heading towards Corinth that afternoon, I stopped at the Brice's Crossroads National Battlefield Museum, dedicated to a nearby battle during the Civil War, and there I met a local historian named Tommy Lee.  When I told Tommy that I'd come to Corinth to retrace my ancestor's steps, he offered to show me around town the next day, which I thought was incredibly generous (although not unusual in the hospitable South), and we agreed to meet the next morning in downtown Corinth.  I spent an hour at the museum, learning about the Civil War battles in this area, then drove into town where I learned that Corinth doesn't have much in the way of decent motels.  As luck would have it I picked one of the dingier ones, but at least it had air conditioning.

 

Saturday morning was hot, sunny, and steamy, and I drove into Corinth to check it out.  It's a small, friendly town, a little run-down perhaps, but with lots of pretty, tree-lined streets and interesting antebellum mansions, one of which I toured.  Then around 10 a.m., I walked over to the museum and met Tommy.  He greeted me with a warm, southern smile and was eager to go.

 

Here are the South and North Civil War tunes, Dixie and Bonny Blue Flag.

 

Tommy is an easy-going guy who knows a lot about the Civil War -- or as he and most Southerners call it, "The War Between the States."  That was an important distinction to him because, as he told me, it wasn't a war between the people but rather between two governments (northern historians might argue with that, claiming that the Confederate government was never recognized by the North).  He also gently corrected my pronunciation of Corinth.  It's not Cor-INTH, as I'd been saying (as in "fine Corinthian leather"), but rather COR-inth with the accent on the first syllable.  O.K., so I was dumb Northerner, but Tommy didn't seem to mind.

 

   

Above left:  Downtown Corinth, Mississippi (accent on the first syllable).

Above right:  My bivouac in Corinth.  Air conditioning, electrical outlets for my laptop, and sleeping on a real bed instead of the foam pad in the back of my truck.  What a treat!  

 

For the next three hours, Tommy and I rode around in my Toyota truck as he told me about the Siege of Corinth.  Corinth, as I learned, was one of the most important railroad crossroads in the South during the Civil War, with one route going north-south and the other east-west.  The crossroads was so important that, in the spring of 1862 and barely a year into the war, the Union sent thousands of troops up the Tennessee River and landed a few miles north of here, near a place called the Shiloh Church.  Their goal was to take Corinth and control the vital rail lines here.

 

 

Here's the ballad Ashokan Farewell, made popular by Ken Burns' 1990 PBS series, The Civil War.

   

However, the Confederate troops massed near Corinth and ferociously attacked the Union forces on April 6, 1862.  The rebels surprised the Union army and nearly drove them into the Tennessee River that afternoon, but the Union troops were reinforced early the next morning and pushed the Confederates back towards Corinth.  Altogether, the two-day Shiloh battle involved about 65,000 Union troops and 44,000 Confederate troops.

 

Shiloh was one of the bloodiest and most vicious battles of the war and, although technically a Union victory, both sides suffered huge casualties, with the number of men killed, wounded or missing on both sides totaling nearly 24,000.  Being one of the first large-scale conflicts of the Civil War, the Battle of Shiloh shocked people on both sides into the realization of what this war would really mean.

 

Above:   Tommy Lee, a true Southerner and local Civil War historian -- and my guide for the day. 

After the Battle of Shiloh, the Union troops, including my great-great-grandfather, Ransom, whose unit had joined the rest of the Army here shortly after the battle, crept towards the railroad crossroads of Corinth very slowly laying siege to the town, with neither side wanting to repeat what had happened at Shiloh.  The Confederates knew it was hopeless, though, so one night in the gloom of darkness, they evacuated Corinth and retreated.

 

After the rebels left, my great-great-grandfather Ransom spent about a month here in Corinth with the rest of the Union Army before he headed north to Kentucky.  Ransom probably should've stayed in Corinth, though, because a few months later, near Hickman Bridge, Kentucky, he was shot in the left arm by a rebel sharpshooter.  Ransom's arm was amputated in a field hospital, then he was sent to a hospital in St. Louis for a while and then back home to his farm near Mayville, Michigan to recover.  With only one arm, Ransom could have justifiably sat out the rest of the war, but he felt so strongly about the Union cause that he re-enlisted in 1863.  One-armed Ransom was promoted to Sergeant and became a courier with the 10th Michigan Cavalry, then he spent the rest of the war dashing around eastern Tennessee with a pistol in his right hand and the reins of his horse between his teeth, while delivering messages to Union officers.

 

Above:  The Battle of Shiloh was a bloody two-day conflict in 1862.  During the first day, the Confederates surprised the Union forces and almost drove them into the Tennessee River.  However, Union reinforcements arrived that night and pushed the Confederate troops back towards Corinth.   

Interestingly enough, Tommy Lee's ancestors had fought for the South during the Civil War, so here we were, two guys whose ancestors had fought on opposite sides of the war, riding around Corinth in a little pickup truck.  Tommy's a great guy and, since we're both Civil War buffs, we had a lot of friendly discussions about the war.  He couldn't have been more polite and thoughtful, and it didn't matter to either of us that our ancestors may have faced each other here in opposite trenches.

 

By about 1 p.m., I was feeling guilty for taking up so much of his time, so I thanked him for his tour of Corinth and said goodbye.  " Where are you going now?," he asked me.  When I told him that I was going up to see the Shiloh Battlefield 20 miles away, Tommy said, " Well, I'll go up there with you and show you around."  So Tommy hopped into his car and I followed him up to Shiloh, where we spent the rest of the afternoon.  Tommy grew up near here and, like many Southerners, considers Shiloh to be sacred ground, so I got a real insider's view of the battlefield.  

 

Around 6 p.m., as the gates at Shiloh were closing, I shook Tommy's hand and said goodbye.  Southern Hospitality at its best -- and a day I'll never forget.

 

   

Above left:  This beach on the Tennessee River is called Pittsburg Landing.  It was where Union troops heading into the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862 disembarked from steamships.  Two weeks later, after the battle, my great-great-grandfather Ransom Myers and the 10th Michigan Infantry landed here and joined the rest of the Union forces marching south towards Corinth.

Above right:  During the Battle of Shiloh, hundreds of wounded and dying soldiers on both sides crawled here to "Bloody Pond."

       

Above left:  Cannon on the Shiloh Battlefield.

Above center:  A Confederate memorial at Shiloh.  To many Southerners, battlefields like Shiloh and Vicksburg are sacred ground.  There were flowers and wreaths on nearly every statue here.

Above right:  Thanks, Tommy, for a great tour!

Meriwether's Last Evening

Being an avid history buff, I'm ashamed to admit that I never knew much about Meriwether Lewis until I read Stephen Ambrose's fascinating book "Undaunted Courage" a few years ago.  Lewis, of course, was half of the famous team, Lewis and Clark.  Some probably think it was "Lewisenclark," but there were actually two people, not one. 

 

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were Army buddies who, back in the early 1800s, led the first American expedition across the Western U.S.  Back then, Americans knew very little about the West and, for example, thought the Rocky Mountains were something like the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia:  a single crest only a few thousand feet high that were easily crossed.  And they weren't called the Rocky Mountains, either.  In the late 1700s, that vague mountain range out west was known as the Shining Mountains, and then later, the Stony Mountains.

 

Above:  This is a replica of the Grinder's Inn in Tennessee a few yards from its original location.  Meriwether Lewis fought a lifelong battle with depression, but he lost the battle here in 1809.

Meriwether Lewis was chosen by President Thomas Jefferson to lead a 30-man expedition across the newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase.  They departed St. Louis in May 1804 and their main goal was to see if there was a quick and easy way across North America.  Well, there wasn't, so Jefferson was disappointed -- but the Lewis and Clark Expedition made a lot of important discoveries during their two-year trip.  For instance, while spending the winter of 1805-06 near the Pacific Ocean at Fort Clatsop (see News: June 11, 2001), they learned that it rains a LOT in Oregon during the winter.  That's something I didn't learn until I moved to Oregon in 1989.

 

While reading "Undaunted Courage," I discovered that Meriwether Lewis was a remarkable guy.  He was competent, meticulous, shy, curious, soft-spoken and talented.  He also liked to draw maps and enjoyed exploring.  In fact, I've never read a description of anyone that reminded me more of, well, myself.  It was a real shock at the end of the book, therefore, when I learned that Meriwether Lewis' life tumbled downhill after the three-year Lewis and Clark Expedition.  After returning to St. Louis in 1806 from the west coast, he couldn't finish his memoirs, he had trouble finding a wife, and he fell into a deep depression.  

 

In 1809, the 35-year old Lewis was riding alone, heading back to Washington D.C. to clear up some debts.  He was traveling overland on the Natchez Trace trail and stopped one night at a small cabin along the trace called Grinder's Inn.  There, a few hours later and during a severe bout of melancholy, Lewis shot himself.  The locals buried him near the Inn and cared for his grave, and today there's a National Park Service campground nearby.

 

Ever since reading "Undaunted Courage," I've wanted to visit Lewis' grave, so after leaving Shiloh battlefield late on  Saturday afternoon, I got back on the Natchez Trace Parkway and drove up to the Meriwether Lewis campground, where I found a nice campsite under the hickory trees.  The next morning, I walked over to the site of Grinder's Inn, pulled out my copy of "Undaunted Courage," and read once again the account of Meriwether's last evening.  It was a sad ending to a remarkable life.

 

"His courage was undaunted, his firmness and perseverance yielded to nothing but impossibilities."

President Thomas Jefferson describing Meriwether Lewis after Meriwether's death in 1809.

 

       

Above left:  There's a memorial to Meriwether Lewis inside the Grinder's Inn replica.  I believe this is the only memorial to him anywhere in the world.

Above center:  Meriwether Lewis, the more subdued half of "Lewis and Clark."

Above right:  The foundation of the original Grinder's Inn is in the foreground, with the replica in the background.

 

   

Above left:  Meriwether Lewis was buried here, a few hundred yards from the inn.  The broken gun barrel represents a life cut short.  Lewis' gravesite was quietly looked after by locals for many years before the National Park Service took over caretaking duties.

Above right:  Sunset at the Meriwether Lewis campground along the Natchez Trace Parkway in southern Tennessee.

 


 

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