April 10, 2011

Drums and guns

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the start of America's Civil War, and the media is milking that for all it's worth: books, magazines, radio, TV and the Web chock-full of Civil War stories, analysis, photographs, biography, much of it content people started working on years ago knowing that 2011 would be the sesquicentennial of something really big, something that would sell, and the rest of it content from bandwagon jumpers who don't research anything in depth themselves but put a quick, shallow spin on trendy topics and spit them out to buyers and perusers of shallow content. I expect pieces on Civil War recipes, music and fashion to appear anytime now. I'm a cynic, being in the writing biz, and I know how this works. The Civil War is a product, one that has potential for brisk sales this year, so everyone with a keyboard, camera or microphone is manufacturing content.

America's overtly at war in three places right now, and we're hearing more about a 150-year-old conflict than we are about our daily death toll, about the number of American limbs blown off weekly. While Americans die and war rages today, the Civil War is all the rage. It sells; Afghanistan doesn't.

Both the lack of focus on our current dying and the hyperfocus on our past dying because a media-pretty anniversary date has rolled around bother me.

But I do know a bit about the heavy drape of the Civil War, the way the Civil War can feel, even after and through 150 years. An excerpt from my book, Ribbons of Highway: A Mother-Child Journey Across America:

As part of its “Hour of Classical Music,” Memphis public radio played the Kansas City Chorale singing “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye,” an Irish war lament whose haunting melody echoes the Civil War song, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” The doleful notes, the chants of “drums and guns and drums and guns,” and the long, hushed “hurroos” hung in the air like spirits unable to sleep.

Since Tennessee, the war whose ghosts walked the landscape had changed. Farther north, we’d passed fieldstone taverns where the Continental Army had planned attacks on redcoats.

Now, we passed silent fields where hundreds or thousands of boys in gray and blue died. The weight of war felt heavier in the south than I feel it up north. Back home, buildings and monuments of the Revolution are the stuff of school field trips to clapboard places like Paul Revere’s house. Its fighters are valiant figures with rousing collective names- Sons of Liberty, Founding Fathers, Green Mountain Boys.

But those men were over two hundred years away from us, known through writings and artists’ renderings. I thought of them as icons, not as somebody’s son, brother, father or friend.

Here, it was closer, more intimate. The boys who lie under this grass were not so far in time from us. There were photographs to show who they really were. We could study their eyes and hands and the buttons on their shirts. They were men and boys somebody loved and cried for.

When we passed the sign for Shiloh, Adam and I exchanged a glance. Shiloh. The word had a powerful sadness. We had left behind places where Americans created the nation and now looked on places where they almost took it apart.

The hush of these southern knolls and grasses intensified the ability to imagine the death played out here. As if it happened yesterday. I’d never felt so palpably connected to war. www.LoriHein.com