I sat in my usual fashion, feet slung across the top of the office desk, my torso pressing back in an old wheeled executive chair barely able to keep me from pitching all the way over backward--which I had indeed done, on a number of occasions-- though it hardly mattered anymore. There was no one around to witness the comic scene, no one to laugh. When I did go over, all the way, no startled reaction was discernable from me. I just went with the motion, relaxed and composed. Then I'd pick myself up and assume the precarious posture again.
The phone cord was stretched taut, running between my crossed feet then the length of my body to a dirty receiver I pressed tightly to my ear. The pull of the cord countered the backward force almost perfectly. I stretched out a bit more and felt the weight vacating the front legs of the chair entirely. I was balanced then, teetering on two rear castered wheels. I liked finding that balance spot, the fuzzy zone between stability and catastrophe.
The voice emanating from the phone receiver came in a gravely southern drawl. Jack Cato, was returning my call. Lebanon's chamber of commerce had informed me Jack was the town's resident, Civil War expert that I needed to talk to. "Yes, there was a battle fought right in town here," Jack said. "John Hunt Morgan rode all around this area. There's a Confederate cemetery right here in town, Cedar Grove, it's across the street from our Wal-Mart. A Confederate general is buried there."
I didn't know much about Confederate generals buried across from Wal-Marts. I didn't really care. Lebanon, Tennessee--still a relatively small southern town, population about 19,000, some twenty-five miles east of Nashville--had been tentatively selected as the first stop on my Civil War pilgrimage for other reasons. I had read, in an old regimental biography I owned, that in and around Lebanon, in the spring of 1863, detachments from the two opposing Civil War armies had patrolled, crossed paths, and skirmished, nearly on a daily basis.
GOING OVER THE EDGE
the federal soldiers or anyone else suspected of Yankee sentiment.
In early April of 1863, while on patrol, two soldiers from the Union brigade of Colonel John T. Wilder were captured by local "bushwhackers" near Lebanon. A day later the abducted men were marched from town, tied to a tree, and unceremoniously shot. Four bullets pierced each of their skulls. Incredibly, one of the men survived. A local slave would help him to the Union lines at Murfreesboro where he'd recover and tell his story. Three weeks later, when passing through Lebanon again Wilder's men took their revenge, hanging a tavern keeper alleged to have made menacing remarks to the two prisoners as they were taken away for execution.
Tennessee in 1863, or a hundred other miserable places in the world of modern times, I was struck by the similarities of temperament and butchery. In any era and place, so it seemed, human passions could be a very frightening and explosive kindling.
Jack Cato startled me back from thoughts that had drifted elsewhere, "When ya-all going to be down here?" he asked. "On the fifteenth," I answered. "Well, give me a call when you're in town. You'll have to come by the store. There's a lot of Civil War history around. We have 63 members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans right here in Lebanon."
I decided not to mention to Jack just then that my granduncle's grandfather served with Colonel Wilder; he'd been a Yankee invader. In fact, I was a Yankee too. Jack Cato probably already suspected something to that effect. Later that day I would write Jack's name and number in my trip planner with a large question mark placed beside.
Behind my desk, in the empty office, when I cared to look, was a large UPS scheduling calendar taped to the wall by the window. Pictured across the top of the calendar, an eighteen-wheeler rolled along some lonely desert highway, heading somewhere. The calendar months of the year were printed below, each with its stack of neat empty white boxes. Those plain vacant squares had become a sort of reminder to me. A reminder of what had become my seemingly inconsequential, nondescript life. To judge my existence by that callendar, the past, present and future were all blandly the same. Yet, there was one week in September, on the callendar, where the boxes were penciled in with phrases like "Arrive in Nashville;" and "Thursday morning--see Lebanon." One box said, "Find Hoover's Gap," and another boasted "Chickamauga battle weekend!" A life had apparently sprung up, there, in those white boxes on the calendar, in that one week--a Civil War life, of sorts. Beyond that week, though, more empty squares trailed off into oblivion.
Outside the office I could hear the rattle and whine of an electric forklift truck. My last remaining employee, friend, and coworker was rolling through the warehouse on his machine, up one aisle and down another, skirting between tall steel storage racks filled with wooden pallets of retail products, mostly gathering dust now, going nowhere.
When the conversation with Jack Cato came to an end, without thinking matters through, I removed the phone from my ear, and realized too late that I had upset the balance of things, again. In perfect grace and ease I pitched over backward, muttering as I went, "Look out below."
When not shooting at each other the armies foraged, the Union by far the more aggressive in this endeavor. The federal soldiers seized from the local populous livestock, the field crops, and of course slaves. (The spoils of war.) What they were unable to take away with them was usually destroyed. Farms and towns throughout central Tennessee were decimated. Frequently, angry southern home guards and others with Confederate sympathies ambushed
A WILLIAM TRAVIS RENDITION OF UNION SOLDIERS "FORAGING" ON A TENNESSEE FARM
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