I am a church, more than mere wood assembled.
I see, hear and smell - even at distance,
And now I will speak.
-Let those who have ears hear.
In the dull gray mist of dawn on an April morning,
I bore witness to the alpha of "His terrible swift sword."
-A crude hut of rough-hewn logs was I,
My name meant place of peace,
Cruel irony, for carnage would soon surround me.
They are not ready - boys in blue with pitched tents all around.
They laugh, argue and breakfast sizzles over myriad campfires.
They have sent no cavalry, prepared no defensive works.
They ignore muskets firing in the distance.
30,000 Confederate troops I see deploying mere yards beyond the trees,
This morning they know not.... They are not ready.
Those troops too, are not ready - some carry outdated flintlocks.
The long march has worn them down.
Their portion of scant pork and corn cannot match the Yankee wheat and beef.
Their terrifying Rebel yell will carry them far, but it will not be far enough,
Not today, and not in the years to come.... They are not ready.
They are not ready - the mothers, fathers, wives, and sweethearts back home.
Not ready for the blood, for the long lists of names in the papers,
Not ready for Mr. Brady's and Mr. Gardner's photographs,
Not ready for the hundreds of thousands never coming home.
Not ready for a leg, an arm, or other parts missing,
Victim to the terrible Minie Ball and new rifled artillery,
Reaching distances not imagined in the tactics of old.... They are not ready.
He is not ready - The General who commands the division around me.
He reconnoiters his lines.
The aide riding beside him is shot out of the saddle.
A Rebel bullet grazes his hand.
Back to camp he rides,
Yelling for buglers to sound assembly.
He wakes up to what confronts him -
On this day and hereafter.
By nightfall forever changed he will be.
Most reviled in the South to this day,
Soon to be the father of total war, but this morning.... He is not ready.
Onward they come, the grey tide inexorable,
Sweeping all before them, until they surround me.
But what's this? They stop... Has their courage faltered?
No, they are hungry.
The bountiful breakfast abandoned around me tempts them,
And there are other treasures besides...
Up rides the pride of the South - General Albert Sidney Johnston,
From out in front he leads, as is his custom.
He picks up a battered cup.
"Let this be my share of the spoils today!" says he.
His men understand...
The plunder is left; the fight resumed.
Yet too far out in front he is.
A bullet clips the flesh behind his right knee.
It touches no bone, so onward he rides;
Full of adrenaline; driving scattered units onward.
Blood flows undetected down his leg - through his boot - out a hole.
Johnston bleeds to death slowly,
His beloved Confederacy suffering the same fate,
He will not live to see.
They shroud his body to hide his death from his men.
P.G.T. Beauregard takes command, but too far behind the front is he.
In the chaos of contact adjustments are not made,
In this wooded, brushy, wet, gully-ridden terrain.
For I am a poor church - in rough country indeed.
Backward slowly go the lines of blue through the day,
Beyond me, eastward toward the Tennessee River.
Holdout survivors in the center surrender,
That they lasted till dusk is a wonder.
Guns brought up to blast that road through the woods,
Shake my timbers and crack mortar with each terrible volley.
Light fades; the roar of the cannons and the rattle of musketry die down.
Exhausted, both sides collapse upon the ground they hold.
Clouds gather, approaching thunder is heard.
Rain comes, making life miserable,
Among the groans and screams of the wounded and dying.
It washes away at least some of the blood,
Spilled in quantities ne'er before seen on an American field.
Rain damps down fires lit by the casual sparks of war,
Burning helpless wounded men alive where they lay.
I am made a hospital - my floors sanded,
So the surgeons do not slip in grisly gore from their work.
Just beyond my door is a forlorn pile of limbs.
Against one of my walls outside, the dead await their shallow hole.
On the opposite side lie those in pain and mortal terror,
Awaiting the surgeons, with those who have passed through their ordeal.
So deathly important just a few hours ago,
A uniform's color matters not a whit here.
The surgeons take them in order,
Gauging how bad the wound, and chances to save.
Sounds like thunder shake the ground upon which men try to rest.
Union gunboats skip shells off the sloped muddy banks,
As a boy might skip stones across a pond.
Their fuses burst over the heads of the Rebels around me.
Shrapnel hits my roof, my door, and my walls.
Men around me hear not what I hear; know not what I know....
There are more than mere gunboats afloat in that river.
There are ferries, and all night they bring fresh Union troops.
Panicked soldiers who are fleeing the horrors of the day,
Try boarding the ferries, but are held back by bayonets.
Reinforcements continue to land - 40,000 Yankees by dawn,
Facing less than 28,000 battle-weary Confederates.
I hear a conversation in the distance,
The men in grey around me do not hear.
Two Union generals meet under a tree in the rain;
One is the man who was shot in the hand.
A lit cigar protected by the brim of a hat brought low,
Protrudes from the face of the other.
A friendship and trust, is forging this night.
Before three years pass one will let slip the leash of the other,
To tear through the South like a bull mastiff on the rampage.
"Well Grant, we've had the devil's own day, haven't we?'
"Yes.... Lick 'em tomorrow, though." the cigar itself seems to reply.
These two men begin to see what it will take,
They've seen what's gone on all around me.
No gallant charge will carry the day and the cause.
No single battle will decide this.
It will go on and on, and on -
Until the iron will of one side bows before the iron will of the other.
I am a church....
My name is SHILOH.
Skimming lightly, wheeling still,
The swallows fly low
Over the field in clouded days,
The forest-field of Shiloh -
Over the field where April rain
Solaced the parched ones stretched in pain
Through the pause of night
That followed the Sunday fight
Around the church of Shiloh -
The church so lone, the log-built one,
That echoed to many a parting groan
And natural prayer
Of dying foemen mingled there -
Foemen at morn, but friends at eve -
Fame or country least their care:
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)
But now they lie low,
While over them the swallows skim,
And all is hushed at Shiloh.
Shiloh: A Requiem, by Herman Melville
I am a church.... I am elegant and stately;
Like many of my parishioners over the years.
I am fortunate.
There was a time when the city around me lay mostly in smoldering ruins.
I was unscathed.
I bore witness to the omega of "His terrible swift sword."
He is in Pew 63 - his usual - it is communion Sunday, April 2nd.
A sexton walks down the aisle and hands him a note.
He opens it, reads it and turns deathly pale.
He rises, easing himself into the aisle, and slowly walks out the door.
He is noticed.
At first one, then by twos and threes,
Men surmise what the note given to Jefferson Davis contains.
They too slip out.
At Petersburg Lee can no longer hold.
To save what is left of his Army of Northern Virginia he will have to pull out.
Richmond -once proud capitol - must be evacuated.
By the time services end, half the congregation remains.
They are mostly women and children.
Their husbands and fathers have gone to seek safety for their sake.
Night falls - fires break out.
The ordered destruction of war materiel gets out of hand.
The arsenal explodes...
My walls shake - my stained glass rattles.
The next day Union troops enter the city.
Communion Sunday two months later, June 4th....
The guns have all gone silent, but the scars remain.
The Rt. Rev. Dr. Charles F.E. Minnigerode consecrates the bread,
In that slight German accent, lending authority over the years:
"On the night he was handed over to suffering and death,
Our Lord Jesus Christ took bread;
And when he had given thanks to you, he broke it,
And gave it to his disciples, and said,
'Take. Eat: This is my Body...'"
Movement in the back of the church catches his eye.
A stranger stands there.
He is tall, and well-dressed.
His head is held high, his shoulders are back....
"Alleluia! Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us;
Therefore let us keep the feast...."
The man makes his way down my center aisle.
Gasps follow behind him like a wave.
"Gifts of God for the people of... of... God."
The good Reverend stutters.
The man kneels at my rail with upturned palms;
One upon the other,
Ready to receive the body of Christ.
But he is not of this body,
Not of that portion on the main floor.
The folks who look like him in the western gallery are contained.
They must wait for the ones below to finish.
He is black.
He is alone at the rail.
Who is he?
Did he come down unnoticed from the gallery?
Did he slip in from outside?
What does he mean by this brazen behavior?
The minister, the flock, the man at the rail; all seem frozen.
The clock in the antechamber ticks....
From a prominent pew another man arises.
His hair and beard are silver.
He wears a threadbare grey uniform with no insignia.
He has lost everything.
Around his home at Arlington a national cemetery now lies.
Dignity transcendent is all he has left,
This he shares with the black man already at the rail.
He approaches - kneels next to him.
He too places his hands in supplication.
The parishioners come back to life.
They follow him in good order.
Men in my pews would follow him into hell;
They have done it these past few years.
Many had died for him.
Many more men here would have,
But he put a stop to it.
Their deaths would be for naught.
If he can do this -
Take communion beside a black man -
So can they.
The silver-maned man at my altar rail is Robert E. Lee.
I am a church...
I am St. Paul's of Richmond.
Down through the generations I whisper to my flock:
Be grateful... Be ever grateful...
The house was not "divided against itself,"
And still stands...
The "city upon a hill" shines yet -
Still the "last best hope of earth."