All I really know about my great-grandfathers is that they tried to kill each other at the Battle of Shiloh. Opponents, one Southern, one not. The Carolina Regular was sixteen; the Volunteer from Ohio had just gone eighteen. Both hailed from semi-prosperous farms; both possessed tenor voices considered notable in parlours back home; both were the eldest of eight. Of course, they did not know each other. Not until much later when they met, united states, in me.

According to their letters, each boy spent three war years scared half witless. Each admitted that fear makes a fellow’s fingertips go numb. Each expressed an early terror of battle’s sound. Those deafening sophisticated munitions predicted our century. Imagine you are a country kid and the loudest noise you know is one bronze church bell in the nearby village or your squirrel gun or your hound’s barking. A commotion? All three sounds at once. Compare this to cannonades that shook, then levelled, Tennessee’s ancient oaks, or to the volleys that caused mules to lift then lower their long ears and, eyes pressed shut, evacuate. Noise of this force finds your sternum first, plucks your ribcage like some harp of tin. We all know such blasts from discos, jets, the jeremiads of haywire car alarms. The world’s pulse is now a nerve-ripping roar. We hardly notice. They did. ‘Dear Momma,’ my Southern kinsman wrote:

the sound of cannons and all is the worst of it so far. You first hear it from some considerable miles away. That will surely put the person on his guard way far in advance of there being one thing you can really do about it. No sound we ever heard touches a battle’s for loudness, as it is more like thunder but close down to the earth and man-made. You cannot tell which side causes which part of the sound. I shall simply call it ‘fearful’ and, in ending, endeavour to ask that you pass along my love to Emily et al.


Family Arguments
Death of a Harvard Man