American Sabbatical 93: 4/14/97


4/14.. Shiloh.

A clear Southerly had blown the lowery sky away, but Monday was still a good day for the layered look. We needed to cross the Tennessee, if we were going to get back to 1862, so we saddled up in Savannah, and put our faces to the wind.

One of Peggy’s topical targets has been the TVA, but we’ve managed to dodge the waterworks at every turn. This morning, though, our road crosses the Pickwick Dam, so we can investigate at least one artifact of the Dam Builder Culture. In CADILLAC DESERT, that exhaustive account of American dam building, the author suggests that when our greatest impoundments have silted to the brim they will make spectacular waterfalls. Will they last as long as the Mississippian mounds?

This dam isn’t on the tourist trail, so they were unprepared for the descent of the Owl. Peggy marched into the control room, however, and charmed the supervisor into leaving his post, give her a short tour, and dig some TVA literature out of a bottom drawer. The Authority is suffering through hard times. Their enabling legislation won’t permit TVA power to be sold to Arkansas or Birmingham, where there are good markets, but out of state utilities can sell power in Tennessee, and TVA is losing market share. And they’re having infrastructure problems. He said they were real busy trying to retrofit one of the dams “built in a hurry during the Second World War.” Something about holding it together with cables. I whistled softly as we tiptoed across the river.

(Memo #87)

April 14 Pickwick TVA Dam

WHO? Franklin Roosevelt, architect of the New Deal

WHAT? TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) built series of 9 dams on the Tennessee River

WHEN? Pickwick Dam built 1934-8, still working

HOW? Federal government funded as part of New Deal


QUESTIONS: What was the purpose of the TVA? What were its costs and benefits? In the long run was it “successful”?

Pickwick Dam

When we visited the Grand Coulee dam in Washington state, we saw part of the New Deal water projects. The Pickwick Dam in Tennessee is another. I wrote about the Grand Coulee:

“The Columbia Basin Project and its many dams were launched by the 1930’s New Deal. As part of PWA (Public Works Administration), Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal sponsored a number of major dam projects, perhaps the most famous is the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) a series of dams on the Tennessee River. As with most New Deal projects, the dams had multiple purposes. The monumental public works were intended to solve the problem of unemployment in the Depression. The dams would assist farmers, perhaps the poorest group in America, in several ways: providing water for irrigation, controlling flood waters, providing electricity to assist in agriculture (for example, refrigerating milk on dairy farms), and electrifying farms so that farm families could use a variety of household appliances. This would spur consumer industries. Helping larger regions, the dams would create cheap electricity for cities, and offer cheap electricity and labor to lure industries into poor agricultural regions again providing long term employment. (People always wonder about the funding - FDR also started the modern national deficit).” The dams have created huge lakes and spurred development of recreational facilities. Another benefit of the dams has been easing navigational problems.

There are nine dams in the TVA system that provide electricity for 7 million people in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Virginia, from coal-fired, nuclear, hydroelectric, and combustion turbines. Pickwick Dam is located almost on the Tennessee-Mississippi border, just upriver from Shiloh battlefield. While the Pickwick site does not have the grandeur of the arid plains and stark cliffs surrounding Grand Coulee, the dam still is amazing. You drive suddenly out of the forests of southern Tennessee and see the lake, the powerhouse, the dam.

Its statistics are New Deal scale: 7,715 feet long, 113 feet high, 3 million cubic yards of dirt and rock as well as 630 thousand cubic yards of cement used. 2,400 workers built the dam while 1600 more cleared the lake area. It has two locks and produces 228,000 kw. Equipped with the largest turbine of its kind in 1934, it cost $46 million. Pickwick’s lake is 53 miles long and has a 500 mile shoreline. (We saw scores of boaters, fishermen, campers.) The TVA and its nine dams control water from 0 to 81 feet above sea level.


Pickwick had no tours running and there was no one in the visitors center. I’ve learned to explore in this kind of situation. I looked around, took a TVA newspaper from a pile by the desk, signed the guest register, and opened the door marked “visitors” to find myself on a catwalk overlooking the generators. Seven engineers were dismantling one. The noise was huge. The control room was behind me and I gestured a question to the man in charge who came out, answered questions, gave me more literature, and took me on a modified tour.

One point he explained was that the original TVA legislation created “The Fence” outlining territory in which it can sell electricity. The TVA cannot gain customers outside the fence, BUT other companies can compete within the area. Apparently the TVA almost lost Memphis recently! This, of course, gets in to the whole question of whether the US government should be a public utilities company (or a health insurance provider or a pension provider or...)

Two last points: (1) Pickwick is the name of a community (drowned by the dam’s lake) whose postmaster loved Dickens. (2) There is a TVA Live Well Center at Pickwick that is proposing a “Smart Choice Challenge”: work out three times a week for eight weeks and win a gym bag!

4/14.. Bryce's Shiloh.

The Shiloh battlefield is just downriver (north) of the 1930s, through more of the rolling woodlands we’ve been seduced by in Tennessee. We’ve been drawn to this Civil War site rather than others along the way, and are not quite sure why. It certainly was a signal engagement, historically. It identified Grant and Sherman as generals up to the task, and convinced them, finally, that only a bloody fight to the end would break the Confederacy. It gave the raw Army of Tennessee, as the Union forces in the West were collectively known, the tempering to make them the hammer that could go on to break Vicksburg and Chattanooga. But it was a horribly bloody business, fought for two days through Spring woods, with neither side able to choose their ground. Just two masses of young men blundering against each other among the dogwood and peach blossoms. When the cost was counted both sides had to put aside all their romantic illusions.

Now, I’ve never been enthusiastic about military monuments. Old canons pointing across groomed fields. Piles of cannonballs. Granite plinths and maudlin sculpture. So, while Peggy did the film and display thing, I walked into the Shiloh Military Cemetery with mixed emotions. Like, why am I parading around this old graveyard?

Iowa Monument - Shiloh

Still cool, but with a bright sun trying to soak into my blue sweat-jacket. Intense green sod under the grand oaks. A pyramid of zenith-pointing canons marking where Grant’s command post was on the knoll overlooking Pittsburg Landing, with his back to the river. Then the rows of modest headstones. But there’s something different here. Some inspired landscape sculptor, or just the happy coincidence of site and situation? The stones are a mix of small numbered markers and slightly larger stones with names and regiments. I assume the larger memorials were purchased by families. Organized by command, the two sizes succeed one another at random, and they follow the contours of the hillocky enclosure. Spreading in concentric circles from a 60 foot flag pole (flying Old Glory, of course), groups of stones step down the knolls in curving waves. The visual effect is remarkably moving. I’ve shrugged at a lot of contemporary sculptural installations which featured rows of repeated forms, but this installation informs all the rest. Where else would you find lines of stones so esthetically moving this side of Carnac?

Maybe I’m fey today. On that illuminated knoll the thunder of canon and the cries of anguish are just on the edge of hearing. Do places where so many are jerked out of life so suddenly echo forever? I find myself staggering a bit, teetering between today’s birdsong and the breathless confusion of another age, a tumult in the air. The straps of my art kit could be... that’s what happens on old battlefields. Your imagination crosses over. First the Little Big Horn, now at Shiloh. Historic sites as gateways.

Peggy comes out and carries my remains off the field. We drive the tourist circuit. The Sunken Road, the Peach Orchard, the Bloody Pool, Ruggles’ massing of artillery. Now the counter-current is flowing, and I’m getting giddy. Here we are precessing in a red Festiva around some empty fields and through Spring woods in solemn slowness. Holy Historic Woods, folks. I start diving round and round the paved circles surrounding the mega-markers. Trying to get the Owl dizzy.

“OK OK,” says Peggy. “Let’s get out of here before the rangers come after you.”

(Memo #88)

April 14 Shiloh

WHO? Generals Johnston and Beauregard (CSA) and army v. General Grant (USA) and army

WHAT? major Civil War battle

WHEN? April 1862

WHERE? Pittsburg Landing (Shiloh church) on Tennessee River

HOW? CSA surprised USA army

TOPICS: Civil War, strategy

QUESTIONS: Why did the battle of Shiloh occur where/when it did? What was the outcome?

Shiloh Battlefield

Shiloh stands out from other huge battles for many reasons. It was not a fight for a crucial place or a strategic resource or a population center. Two armies were moving into position to fight and one surprised the other. The fighting was done in woods and open fields. In two days more men were killed than in any battle in human history (until Antietam later in 1862 and Gettysburg in 1863 topped the grisly number). The Confederates massed the greatest number of cannons in history to date at Shiloh, too. With all of this, the outcome of the battle was inconclusive.

Shiloh was woods and fields then, it’s woods and fields now, just west of the Tennessee River, almost to the Tennessee-Mississippi border. The Union army under Grant was moving upriver (south) after its great victories at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in Kentucky. General Johnston and the Confederate army had fallen back from Tennessee and taken up new positions to protect the railroad lines linking Memphis and the other river cities with Chattanooga and Atlanta. Chattanooga’s significance in the war was as a rail center where east-west lines met at the southern end of the Appalachians. Beauregard knew of Grant’s advance up the Tennessee and moved his army north fast. Grant’s army bivouacked by Shiloh to await more forces coming under General Buell and, apparently, was taken by surprise.

The Confederate army attacked from the South at dawn on a Sunday. A small Union scouting party had just set off and intercepted the advancing attackers. Most Union soldiers were caught sleeping or just awakening. In the hard first day of fighting the North was driven back almost to the river. There was hard fighting at the sunken road (still visible today) and at the Hornets’ Nest (socalled for the sound of artillery overhead). The 62 Southern cannon were massed against the Hornet’s Nest and the attackers seized a large Union force. Grant successfully held the last line near the river with the help of fire from Union gunboats.

During the night reinforcements (General Buell’s troops) came from the North. Its counterattack on day two drove the Confederates back. Johnston had been killed and General Beauregard ordered a Confederate retreat.

Pittsburg Landing - Shiloh
Grant’s and Buell’s forces combined were 65,085 soldiers for the North. They suffered 13,047 casualties. The South had 43,968 men at Shiloh and suffered 10,699 casualties. Both sides claimed victory (!). One fifth of the men participating were injured or killed! The South claimed it had won the first day’s fighting and done such damage that the North couldn’t pursue at the end. The North claimed it had routed the Southern army.

The Shiloh battlefield is huge, the fight was along a front over a mile long. The drive takes you through expanses of woods and fields. There are numerous monuments but they are more spread out than at Gettysburg (where they crowd the skyline on Cemetery Ridge). At Shiloh there will be a small white column in a clearing, a large monument alone in a field. There are some beautiful statues. At the line where the South massed 62 cannons for the assault on the Hornets’ Nest, a line of artillery remains (perhaps fifteen). The drive and signs takes you through the key points in the battle - from the Hornet’s Nest to the Bloody Pond to the tree where Johnston died to Grant’s last line near the river at the end of the first day. At Shiloh the Tennessee is a fairly placid, smooth running river. The east bank is low and there is a sandy beach perhaps ten yards wide. The west side is somewhat steeper.

There is an excellent small museum with exhibits on everything from the equipment of the average soldier at Shiloh to a surgeon’s tool kit. Some of the artifacts are fascinating (a gunner’s tools, for example).

In the cemetery, the lines of tombstones follow the contours of the small hills and hollows in a circle around a central monument on a bluff overlooking the river. Apparently Beauregard wrote Grant the day after the battle asking that Southerners be allowed to claim and bury their dead. Grant replied (courteously) that he had already buried them (in common trenches).

Some battlefield overwhelm. Shiloh is huge and empty, but there seem to be men’s shapes flitting through the woods and cries at the edge of hearing.

We just missed an unsuccessful reenactment of the battle. Thirteen thousand men turned up to refight the battle, many more than expected, and were rained out!

A last question. The attack apparently was on a Sunday. Was the decision to attack at dawn on a SUNDAY difficult to make and controversial? I have seen no discussion of this. I think of the hate directed at the Japanese for attacking at Pearl Harbor early on a Sunday. In 1862 it would have been an even weightier issue, or would it?

4/14.. On to Memphis.

The war is over. We’re owling on to Memphis. And the King. We’re skirting Mississippi’s northern border, east to west, between the Tennessee River and the Mississip. The hills are slumping down again, and the long sweeping strokes of the landscape are getting more lashed by harvesting machinery. The log rigs are lined up at the entrance to a big Tenneco mill, turning woods into fiberboard, and raising a stink.

We roll up to a roadwork traffic stop. Just over the brow of the little rise ahead we can see the top of an old bridge arch. KA-CHRUNCH. Pieces of rock flying in the air. Now that’s the real ordinance. And we laugh at the surprise. The worker waves us on. Four guys are running around on the bypass road, kicking shattered concrete to either side. One of them is shouting as we bump over the debris: “He could have waited to let you through.” Rather elegant English for one pissed dude, I thought.

We moved in and out of sloping woodlands and flat alluvial farmland, the creeks running yellow with mud. Cypress swamps drowning the river margins. More beaters and brokedown pickups. Catching sight of an old main street in our fleeting peripheral vision, we U-turned to cruise La Grange. Sagging, dingy, and shut up. Tin-roofed shotgun houses, hip-roofed stores with widesloping eaves and deep porches. Antique gas pumps under a crooked car port. And one shabby little brick house, but surrounded by flowers and tacky ornaments. We waved at the sad-eyed woman rocking with a baby on the porch. Keep your heart light.

Then the cotton fields turned into horse paddock. We were merging with the flossy eastern burbs of Memphis. Downtown Collierville, twenty miles west of La Grange, is a different kettle of poisson. Quaintly restored. Tea rooms and cachet shoppes. Old railway pullmans parked beside the station house. Espresso bars. Ladies in mohair and pearls getting into BMWs. Cops giving longhairs the eyeball. We caffeine up and out of there.

But it’s rush hour as we cross into greater Memphis, and we start looking for a place to hang until the heavy metal goes easy listening. The Audubon Botanical Gardens in the west end sound like a good bet, and after a couple of false tries we flutter down into their lot. The Gardens are a foretaste of the Memphis experience. Half-finished, a bit seedy, sprawling, full of pretense, but short on charm. Granted, it’s a relatively new park (although many of the trees are venerable), but the flowerbeds look slept in.

Botanical Gardens

Our thought was to do some drawings. The “Japanese Mediation Garden” sounded likely. But it was more in the Japanese dinosaur movie genre. There was a lacquered red bridge and some stone lanterns, to be sure, and a couple of crooked pines, but the scale was all American. Nothing spoke to anything else. And the blessed geese had shat everywhere. When you approached the turbid waters’ edge herds of goldfish, some gigantic, congregated at your feet, as did the geese. You hesitated to get too near the edge. They looked REAL hungry. The geese honked demandingly.

Meditation Garden
Peggy and I wandered off in different directions to draw, and when we compared our efforts later it was fun to see that we’d both composed scenes out of dispersed ingredients in the Park. A mass of azaleas here, a dogwood there, that pine, a stone lantern, and, of course, the red bridge. May I see you artistic license, Madam?

When we figured it was safe to reinsert the Owl in traffic we moved in on Memphis. It’s a huge outflung metropolis, going full-throttle on a maze of sixlanes without mercy. The downtown isn’t visible from the outer flats, and what is doesn’t entice. It’s a hard-looking place. We’re back in the Mississippi Valley. The same sinking feeling we got in Southern Illinois and Southeast Missouri sucks at you in Memphis. Was it King Cotton and the slave economy, or just the downhill slide that finally settles out as Mississippi mud? You feel the ooze of this alluvial angst could swallow all your joy. And it looks to have done that for the residents.

Those who aren’t hustling you. Every time we made a wrong turn and pulled in for directions or to use a phone we got spare-changed and moved in on. Edge City, fellow travelers. We’d been warned to keep our money in our shoe in this town, and I’d scoffed. Now I was swallowing my pollyanna. Man, these bottoms are the pits. Our Super-8 catalog and our Triple-A guides were useless again. The Motel wasn’t finished yet, and the 4-star restaurant had disappeared, along with the neighborhood. We settled for a Days Inn in the flightpath for Memphis International, conveniently adjacent to a showgirls lounge. And I mean show.

Bottom Feeders

After getting lost again trying to find a recommended dinner, we seized on a Black Italian Restaurant, playing loud opera to an unsuspecting audience. In honor of the King we ate way too much pasta, and bloated back to the Indian subcontinent. That’s right. Ever since Atlanta the chain motels have once again been managed by graduates of the New Delhi School of Hostelry. Pronounce that as you will. The towel racks fall off? The toilet runs? Shrug.

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