It was 3 AM when the clock radio issued its rude awakening. Mornings were never my strong point. Even my usual 7:30 AM rising was not a pretty sight, but this seemed near insanity. And it was all for what? Did I believe this would be the beginning of some grand adventure? My baggage waited in the front hall: There was a brown Land's End duffle bag stuffed tightly with wrinkled clothing. There was a long wooden crate with the words Springfield Armory stenciled in black on the outside. A week earlier I'd shipped eighty pounds of various Civil War attire to my friend Scott in Louisville. Now, if all worked out according to plan, when I landed in Nashville, he would be there waiting with the gear.
When the car was loaded I made a final trip through the house, peering in at my wife who didn't stir. I still wasn't sure what she thought of my trip. I looked in on each of the kids, their little angel faces turned up innocently. It was difficult to imagine a week away from them. If I had a growing sense that my own life had somehow stopped progressing, the children's had incredible inertia. It was both frightening and fascinating to watch. A week away from this family would be a very long time. What was I going to miss in my absence?
And then also, there was the thought, at times bordering on alarm, what if something went terribly wrong while I was gone? Of course I had no specific ideas of what that terrible something might be. But if one was to believe the local nightly news (which I didn't necessarily), at any time, general catastrophe was not only possible, it was probable: Earthquakes, floods, crazed rapists on the loose, flesh-eating bacteria -- take your pick. And amidst all this likely mayhem, paraded before my eyes on the news each night, I was leaving my family. And for what; a week of Civil War nostalgia? It was crazy, and certainly selfish; It had been from the start. What was I thinking?
I would be hundreds of miles away when the inhabitants of my household woke later in the morning. They'd begin the daily confusion of dressing and redressing, looking for lost shoes and mates to odd socks, gathering homework papers, breakfasting, brushing teeth, then out the door in time for school and work. The daily morning chaos would begin, on schedule, unimpeded by my absence. When their day began, the kids would be unaware of the emotional turmoil their father had suffered moments before his departure as he stood at the foot of their beds.
My 5 a.m. flight from Oxnard was delayed; fogged in. After an hour and a half of waiting for the small commuter flight most of the passengers had decided on ground transportation to Los Angeles. I resolved to sit things out there in the terminal.. I sat rereading passages from Benjamin Magee's old regimental history of the 72nd Indiana." First published in 1882 it was the chronicle of an Indiana regiment's three-year service during the Civil War. The 72nd Indiana had been part of John T. Wilder's famous Lightning Brigade, eventually an elite unit of mounted infantry. Wilder's men were some of the first soldiers ever to obtain and use repeating rifles in war. The regimental history, written by Magee, a six hundred page book, named places and described events from the Civil War as the 72nd Indiana campaigned throughout Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia and Alabama. This rather obscure publication was to be my guide, my primary roadmap, for the upcoming trip.
At 6:30 a big pilot with a jelly donut requested that we board quickly; visibility had improved, possibly enough to get clearance for takeoff. By seven we were indeed in the air, headed for Los Angeles and my first flight connection -- which unfortunately had departed more than an hour earlier. Thus began my journey back to the Civil War.
On a sunny clear September afternoon the last leg of the flight began a slow descent toward Nashville. Far below, somewhere north of the city, the Tennessee landscape was mostly green squares and brown circles, a sort of giant agricultural checkerboard, infrequently interrupted by small towns, meandering streams or an occasional patch of woods.
Nashville was an appropriate starting point for my trip. It had been the first Confederate state capitol to fall into Union hands. As early as February of 1862 the Federal army had marched into the dejected, sullen city of 17,000. The town was quickly turned into a central base of operations for the Union troops and supplies that would gather there, then start south in the coming campaigns. By October of 1862 an endless procession of steamboats was churning along the Cumberland River toward the city. The boats brought hardtack and flour, sugar and whiskey, everything needed by a voracious growing army. Nashville would become a boomtown overnight, its population swelling to 80,000. The prospect of easy money would quickly attract every unsavory character imaginable, all hoping to profit from the new war-fueled economy. In early December of 1862, the busy, muddy streets of Nashville sprouted vagrancy, intoxication and crime and the Nashville Daily Press remarked that the city was "filled with thugs, highwaymen, robbers and assassins."
PART THREE: NASHVILLE
A BASE OF OPERATIONS
OFF TO THE CIVIL WAR
THE SEARCH FOR JOHN WESLEY HARGRAVE
OF WILDER'S LIGHTNING BRIGADE
(A Mid-life Crisis Adventure and Travel Essay)
In November 1862, the military man in charge of all this turmoil was Union, Major General William S. Rosecrans. Forty-three year old Rosecrans would eventually control more than 80,000 soldiers in and around the city. Included among these troops were the men of the 72nd Indiana. And in company D of that regiment there was an 18-year-old private from Thorntown, a boy really. His name was John Wesley Hargrave. Some seventy-four years into the future John's grandson would marry my grandaunt. It was John Hargrave's original 1882 copy of Magee's narrative, given to me years later by that aunt, which now sent me on my quest of ambiguous objective.
From the small window over the wing I could look down and see Interstate 24, paralleling our flight south. East of
24, angling toward us from Louisville was Interstate 65. That converging highway still generally followed the course of the old Civil War pikes that had once run in a rather whimsical fashion, from place to place, between Louisville and Nashville. My friend Scott's drive down from Louisville, hopefully completed by then, would probably have taken him less than three hours. In the 1860s traveling between the two points, unless one went by rail, would have required nearly a week on roads that were little more than rutted trails of dirt or mud, depending on the weather. In modern times the scenery that lay astride sixty-five's four lanes of concrete, even the pastoral surroundings, was mostly of twentieth century design. Finding the past in so much present wasn't going to be easy.
I pulled a topographical Tennessee atlas from a tightly stuffed knapsack and began searching for identifiable landmarks. Nashville was somewhere south, still, beyond my view, on the far bank of the Cumberland River. But where was the Cumberland? I couldn't even find the River! Unable to specifically identify anything of significance I found my intrigue replaced again by self-doubt. This peculiar unease had been periodically invading my planning for weeks. As final preparations were set in place, as destination points were selected, I sometimes felt this tremendous apprehension. Unsettling thoughts would strike me quite without warning: What if I found nothing that I was looking for? What if the places I hoped to locate were now all under the asphalt of K Mart parking lots? What if Wilder's Brigade existed only on the pages of old regimental histories, and in my mind? What could I really expect to find left of the mid nineteenth century, here in the waning months of the twentieth?
These recurrent doubts led inevitably to the other unanswered questions. Why was I taking the trip at all? What did I expect to accomplish? Certainly, my willingness to detach from my family for a week indicated I was anticipating some extraordinary and important experience or revelation. But what that was to be, exactly, I hadn't a clue.
Finally the great river came into view, twisting away before the music city's clean skyscrapers, dirty industry and urban sprawl. The grand Cumberland River was one feature of the land man had been unable to change in the 136 years since the war. Even from the air its often-rocky banks and wide lazy blue travel were impressive. No wonder the Union forces that mobilized here were named for the river: the "Army of the Cumberland."
At Nashville International Airport Scott was waiting, unfortunately my bags were not. United knew where they were, they assured us; in Chicago, but it would be 10 p.m. before my clothing and the armaments would catch up to us at the hotel the airline provided for our wait. Scott and I ate dinner in a restaurant with peanut shells on the floor, our reunion, as observed by any outsider, unspectacular. We spent our evening trying on gear and modeling uniforms in front of the mirror, two forty year old men adjusting hats and suspenders, playing together again for the first time in many years. We examined the stacks of maps, books and brochures I'd brought along, reviewing and planning activities.
It was always amazing how little catching up there was to be done between us. There wasn't a great deal of, "How have you been?" or "What have you been doing?" It was always that way. We just picked up where we'd left off last, as if we had never left off at all. One might think we still saw each other daily, as we had all of those years growing up. Time apart now was measured in years on the calendar and at this meeting more than three since our last. Yet, there was a peculiar and amazing continuity to this relationship. It was something you couldn't really put your finger on. There was an enduring constancy between us, through all the years, frequently taken for granted. Still I knew how incredibly rare and fortunate it was to have had all of our lives.
"Tomorrow we'll go to Lebanon and see what's there," I said. "Then over to Liberty. We'll check out some of the country where Wilder's men patrolled." I took out another of my books on Wilder's Brigade. "Blue Lightning," by Richard Baumgartner, was the most recent addition to the lore and growing legend of Wilder and his men. I read aloud several excerpts from his book relating the brigade's activities around Lebanon in the spring of 1863. Scott sat listening, as if in deep thought, and when I'd finish a passage he'd rub his chin and simply say, "Hmmm."
Jack Cato was in Lebanon, the man I'd spoken to by phone before the trip; the man who told me he was a member of the Son's of Confederate Veterans. He'd said we should stop in and see him and I'd promised that we would. That night as I dropped off to sleep I wasn't sure what to expect from Jack and Lebanon, Tennessee. It was enemy territory, sure enough.