December 1960 | Volume 12, Issue 1
Once the land had no great names and no history. It was a good land, with wood lots holding shadows beside the hot fields, bine hills hazy on the horizon, country roads going in aimless meanders from creek bottom and country store to places of no particular importance. Nothing ever happened in it, except that men made homes and towns, with springtime plowing and autumn gathering, Finding their drama in corn-huskings and barn-raisings, and in gay tin-pan chivarees lor the young married couples, Building churches by little groves, looking off the earth into mystery beyond mounded graves, Wresting a living from the land, trying to get ahead, having a good life, happy because the world left them alone. They put names on towns and crossroads and rivers, borrowing harsh words Lhe Indians had left behind, using homespun words of their own, naming their land so they could know it. The names had no ring or shine to them, then. They were just names, put there so that a man could say where he was. A man could put in a crop beside Peachtree Creek, or hunt doves on the slope of Gulp’s Hill, or follow the clank of a cowbell into White Oak Swam, or try for catfish in Stone’s River— There was nothing in any of those names to stir remembrance and grief, nothing to put a catch in the throat or send one’s thoughts far into the mystery beyond the silent sky. Not then.
Then the armies came and the names became terrible. The armies tramped the lazy roads to ruin, raising endless dust clouds for a pillar of smoke by day, Lighting thousands of campfires for a pillar of fire by night, Tiny fires that glowed on lonely bivouacs just this side of nowhere. By the campfires boys looked into the dark to the home places they might not see again (Not looking ahead because of what they might see tomorrow), Writing letters to the folks to say where they were. And the postmarks on the letters carried the names, names that had grown menacing and evil, Names that would echo in American life forever afterward, telling of fire on farm and hilltop, speaking of the thousands who found the end of the road in some obscure place they had never heard of. The letters carried the commonplace news of the camp— We had hardtack and salt pork again today. … Lots of the boys are sick. … I wish I could get some cold water from the spring behind our house at home. … Maybe we won’t have a big fight I or a day or two yet … And sometimes llie news from the battle front reached home before the letters did, so that what the writers said came from beyond the grave, And the people back home looked at the postmarks, reading the names that meant fear and heartache and undying loneliness. Those strange country names from the war— Sharpsburg and Spotsylvania, Pittsburg Landing and Brices Cross Roads, Chickamauga and Games’ Mill, Milliken’s Bend, Olustee, Bentonville, Gettysburg, Corinth, Manassas, Cross Keys, Mechanicsville, Chattanooga, Franklin, Resaca, Dover— Quiet names of doom, stamped on soiled envelopes, going across all of America, iveaving a crimson thread into the nation’s memory, names that many families would never dare say again— Not until years and the growth of quiet pride had done their work.
There were other names that did not get on the postmarks, Names given to stray bits of landscape, groven equally grim because death and anguish lay upon them— Missionary Ridge, the Wilderness, Cemetery Ridge, Malvern Hill, the West Wood and the, East Wood, Snake Creek Gap, Cedar Creek; And the names that came straight from the battlefields, coined by the men wlio fought, Names like Bloody Lane and the Bloody Angle, the Round Forest, Battery Wagner, the Peach Orchard, the Sunken Road, Devil’s Den, the Wheatfield and the Cornfield; Names of churches—Shiloh, New Hope, Dallas, and the Dunker church; Names of the houses people had lived, in—Widow Tapp and Widow Glenn, tlie iMnmma House and the Henry House, Chantilly; Names like the Emmitsburg road and the Valley Pike, and at last the haunted road that led past Sailor’s Creek to Appomattox; Names tliat will live as long as America remembers.
The agony is gone, the grief and tlie loneliness are over, with those who grieved going to join lhe men they mourned; The bitterness and the hot bewildered fury liave faded out; The last of the tragic overtones has echoed off to stillness beyond the horizon. But the names remain, never to be forgotten, never again to be simple place names from a land history had passed by. What America was is in them; What America is greio out of them; What America finally will mean rings through them. They still clang when we touch them. They are transmuted by what they say of America’s greatest experience, America’s most, profound and touching mystery.