Thu Feb 16, 2017, 01:00 AM

When Day Becomes Night

Last edited Thu Feb 16, 2017, 03:59 PM - Edit history (11)

In a recent post I noted that I made a test ride to Fort Donelson which I first visited by motorcycle about 1990. I wrote this fanciful story afterward, blending some history, fiction, and real events from that day. Years later I sent it to a now defunct motorcycle club to publish in the membership's newsletter which I rediscovered while I was sorting some of my belongings for an intermediate move from our current home to a new one. Here it is for readers interested in a little historical fiction. I hope you enjoy it.

It was early April and a new day was dawning when I hit the road riding southwest from Clarksville, TN on Highway 48 trying to forget the winter hibernation so recently ended. All around me leaves reached out to the light. The Dogwoods scattered within the sea of green burst forth with vibrant pink and white blossoms.

Suddenly, above the low rumble of my '83 Yamaha Virago 920, I heard the sharp crack of gunfire. Was it my imagination? Maybe. It might have been blasting in a nearby quarry. Impulsively, I turn right onto 149 in search of the answer.

This is an '83 Virago 920. It's a pretty simple ride. Fun and easy to maintain shaft drive, but it has weak brakes (single disc up front and a drum brake on the rear wheel). I put a lot of miles on that bike and she never let me down.

Riding north through Cross Creeks National Wildlife Refuge, I concentrated, listening for an echo of the shot. Nothing. I could only hear the wind whistling by the fairing as it punched a hole through the fragrant springtime air.

I saw very little activity along the road until I approached the outskirts of the town of Dover. Bending through several turns I reached the junction with highway 79 to find a brown sign which read Fort Donelson National Military Park.

"Hmmm," I thought, "this could be interesting."

Not quite knowing what was there I decided to take the complete tour. Slowly, I descended toward the outer trenches on the west flank. Like disjointed graves, the procession of trenches stretched across the ridge top overlooking the Cumberland River. Although cleared of trees at the time of it's construction, arboreal sentries stand watch over those trenches today.

Continuing the tour, I approached the fort entrance where I was greeted by an eight-foot earthen wall that snaked away from the road in both directions. The river came into view immediately after passing the gates. A barge passed and it's horn wailed.

A man and woman stood near the riverbank, behind the batteries pointed upriver. They had parked their mobile home in a shady spot and busied themselves by crawling over the earthen works built around the shore batteries. Noticing my presence, the man asked if I would photograph them.

"Sure," I responded.

I accepted his camera, lifted the lens to my face, and centered the couple in the viewfinder as they grinned.

"What happened," I thought.

I lowered the camera enough to look over the top.

"Ok, they look fine," I thought. "The sun is hotter than I imagined."

"Go ahead, push the red button on the top," said the woman.

I lifted the camera again to find the same image in the viewfinder. Instead of Bermuda shorts, the man wore a ragtag gray uniform. The woman stood erect, cinched tightly in a corset and hoop dress. I snapped the photo.

Feeling a little befuddled as I returned the camera, she said, "We're from Shiloh."

"My grandfather fought here," added the man. "He was shot in the face during the battle and walked some 30 miles to his home after escaping capture."

"My great grandfather, William M. Evans, was wounded here too have . He was evacuated to a Clarksville hospital." William attempted to rejoin his unit late in the war, at Murfreesboro, but was refused on the ground he was no longer fit to serve although he did live until 1926.

The couple soon departed and I got the jig. You know, a sudden uncontrollable muscle spasm, as if I just received a mild electrical shock. I reached into my jacket for the information pamphlet given to me by the park ranger and began to read. The Confederate forces, overwhelmed by a numerically superior Union army, attempted a breakout. When it failed, the generals acted to salvage what they could. About 2,000 men escaped under cover of darkness and headed for Nashville. Others joined them later having simply wandered away during the commotion following the garrison's surrender.

"What happened to those soldiers after they left," I wondered. "Where did they go?" The sun was nearing it's apex so I had at least half of a day remaining to discover the answer.

Riding 79 east I followed the path of the fleeing army to Clarksville, site of Fort Defiance. It sits at the confluence of the Cumberland and Red Rivers.

Earthen works at Fort Defiance.

Perched high over the rivers, Defiance was built as a back-up to her larger sister forts of Henry and Donelson. However, Defiance is by far the smallest of the three and was quickly abandoned as the entire left flank of Tennessee's defense crumbled. Nashville, only 45 miles south of Defiance, became a beacon of refuge for the fleeing army in whose vacuum thousands of citizens followed as the they fled the advancing Union army.

Approaching Nashville on 41A, the state's capitol building was a focal point for the people flooding into the city. Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnston proclaimed martial law in an attempt to maintain order, but the citizenry was near panic as rumors circulated. Would the Union army torch the city or would the Confederate army reduce it to rubble in an attempt to deny the Union army the spoils of their victory? Mrs. Irby Morgan wrote of the roads going south from the city,""(They) were filled with every kind of ...conveyance to which a horse could be hitched. They were driving, lashing, yelling and galloping - and my little children and myself in the midst of them."

Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnston (1807-1891)

Fortunately for Nashville, Johnston decided defending the city wasn't feasible without laying waste to it, so he continued the withdrawal and ordered the city's remaining stores be distributed to the citizens. Brigadier General Basil Duke, on hand to witness the scramble for goods, says enormous bales of stores were pitched from the fourth and fifth floor windows of the courthouse to a swaying mob below. They stayed there, he said of the crowd, regardless of the dangerous blitz about them. Newspaper writer John Miller McKee reported the mayor turned a steam-engine water cannon on the mob to which the crowd responded with laughter, the spell broken.

Brigadier General Basil W. Duke (1838-1916)

The fleeing Army of Tennessee continued it's withdrawal to Corinth, Mississippi where they joined other Confederate units mustered there awaiting their chance to take the initiative and reclaim what was lost.

I found Tennessee 99 and rode south. The sun was beginning to decline by the time I passed the Columbia home of President James Polk. I then proceeded to Centerville on highway 50 and took a left onto 100.

This part of Tennessee seems very remote from Memphis or Nashville. Most of the local homes sit high on either side of the highway. Buzzards circled overhead.

Suddenly, I realized I was approaching the scene of carnage and devastation where Confederate forces made a last, all out attempt to halt the advancing blue tide. I turned left onto state highway 69 in Parsons. My heading was due south, riding along twisted roads, spellbound by the slithering asphalt under my wheels. I rode on until the trance was broken by the approach of Shiloh.

The recently amassed Confederate army at Corinth had no intention of relinquishing their state. When the Confederates discovered their pursuers were outnumbered they decided to strike Grant's army quickly "otherwise all is lost," said General Pierre Beauregard.

Brigadier General P.T. E. Beauregard (1818-1893)

Near the visitor's center at Shiloh, I noticed an abundance of artillery. The Union army was driven back to this spot by the initial Confederate assault. However, the Confederate counterattack was stymied by the Union troops who spat their hail of lead from concealed positions in the Hornet's Nest. During the night, Union reinforcements arrived under cover of darkness at Pittsburg Landing and the beleaguered Confederates were forced to withdraw.

I stopped for rest at stop 13 to give myself time to ponder the day's adventure and prepare for my return ride. As I sat thinking, watching the shadows reach across the surface of the small pond in front of me, my imagination asserted itself again and I was no longer alone. The pond was surrounded by the dead and dying. Many of the young faces in my midst were downturned in the water, their parched throats burning for a final sip from the crimson-colored pond.

Thankfully the images of war faded with the sunset and my normal vision returned as the sounds of the approaching night reminded me that I still had a long ride to make before day's end so I fastened my helmet, started the Virago and turned north for a cool ride home.

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