“Gone to Shiloh”

The words are saturated with poignancy. Elton John describes the lyrics of the composition that he and Leon Russell are about to sing as “gorgeous” and I think they are. Each time I listen to this haunting melody with Russell’s whine, I am reminded of the difficult journeys of my immigrant ancestors.

Luther left at first light Friday morning
Little Dan and Becky wave good-bye
They’re gonna have to share the wait together
Idle hands will see a good fire slowly die.

Gone to Shiloh for the Union
Shoulder to shoulder, side by side
Gone to Shiloh, hope springs eternal
When flags and bullets start to fly

April’s come and the air smells fresh with rain
They watched his shadow fade around the bend
He’s headed for a different kind of thunder
And the stunned surprise in the eyes of dying men

Gone to Shiloh for the Union
Shoulder to shoulder, side by side
Gone to Shiloh, time passes slowly
When flags and bullets start to fly

The old black rooster sang in death down that dirt road
His steps in bold, his man of fancy free
I pray we see him alive and well in the forehead
In that Godforsaken place in Tennessee

Gone to Shiloh for the Union
Shoulder to shoulder, side by side
Gone to Shiloh, men stand united
When flags and bullets start to fly

After all this, if we should prevail
Heaven help the South
When Sherman comes their way

Leon Russell’s rendition of the ballad begins with the departure of a citizen soldier Luther who is going to fight for “the Union.” The wife and children he leaves behind will have to wait until the war ends. He describes the soldiers as marching “shoulder to shoulder, side by side. . .” At the end of the song, Leon Russell images the terrible future when General Sherman will lay waste the countryside of the south.

I do not pretend to know what other people must feel when they sing this song. I do know that it evokes in me a sense of the evocative power of the word “Shiloh” which simultaneously bears the traces of Biblical memory (some would even say prophecy) as well as the wrenching anguish of the waves of (transgenerational) grief that have flowed down from the American Civil War.
The ballad narrates the shift from an adolescence – “Gone to Shiloh, hope springs eternal . . .” to the moment when Americans awake to the sobering reality “When flags and bullets start to fly.”

Shiloh was not the first military battle in which men were slaughtered. Already, the Battle at Manassas had alerted Americans that this would not be a one-battle war. But during the two days of battle surrounding the little log church named Shiloh, more than 20,000 men would be killed or wounded. This would be the first time – but not the last when survivors would be confronted with the spectre of a field so covered with bodies that you could walk across from one side to the other without your feet touching the ground. In her remarkable book This Republic of Suffering, Drew Gilpin Faust describes how in the wake of Civil War battles like Shiloh, the way Americans thought about death changed. Mass graves of soldiers buried with their fellow Confederates or graveyards of Union men.

After having been to Shiloh, the culture of death and dying begins to change in remarkable ways. There is more emphasis on marked graves. More efforts to leave behind photographs so that one generation could better remember generations past. Letter writing is another site of memory drenched with grief and the haunting prospect of death (letter of Wooten ancestor).

A few weeks before I visited Shiloh Cemetery and Church, the nearby town of Waldron was the site of a controversy over displaying the confederate flag.

The word “Shiloh” may be so saturated with meanings that it is impossible to untangle the complicated set of overlapping narratives – some anchored in history, some persistent in cultural memory – that encoded this site in the minds of the people who looked to this place with deep grief and longings. As a site of burial, Shiloh is shrouded with the hallowed sanctity of honored dead. As a battlefield, it is the site of the terrible loss of life that has led many people – past and present – to refer to it as “godforsaken.” . . . The little community in Western Arkansas about which Boede Thoene write in the Shiloh series. . . . The historical museum about Ozark life in Springdale, Arkansas attempts to reconstruct the memories of the little community called Shiloh, as the thriving edge city of Springdale was once known.
Battle of Shiloh: Shattering Myths

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About mcartwright1957

I am a member of the senior administrative team at the University of Indianapolis where I have served since 1996. I am married to Mary Wilder Cartwright. We are the parents of four children: Hannah, Erin, James, and Bethany. I currently live in Nashville, IN.
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