Saturday, December 10, 2011

"The War" comes home, second verse

Earlier I had written of how a book chronicling a historical foot soldier who fought at Spotsylvania Court-House, where my own great-grandpa was wounded while also fighting under Gen. Lee, had made "the War" (between the states) come home. Well, in a somewhat different fashion, this same conflict which tore our nation apart 150 years ago came home yet again this morning!

You see, dear reader, the Tennessee State Library & Archives where I work hosted a seminar this morning featuring authors Traci Nichols-Belt and Gordon Belt (wife and husband) and their recently-published book, "Onward Southern Soldiers". In the past couple days I skimmed the TSLA's copy, then I attended the seminar today before signing-in for work.

The book's sub-title is "Religion and The Army of Tennessee in the Civil War." It covers historiography about religion's impact in the antebellum and Civil War South; political and military leaders and "elite" clergy in how they nourished Southern religious thought; the role of army chaplains and the thinking of foot soldiers concerning religion and the War (as expressed in their letters home, memoirs, etc.).

Where the book and the seminar brought "the War" home for yours truly is three-fold. As with the earlier coming-home of the War Between the States, my great-grandpa's wounding at Spotsylvania (12 May 1864) was a major connection the topic - even tho' he was in Gen. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia rather than the Army of Tenn. Furthermore, I myself had served as an Army chaplain in the 1980s, a time of peace. I found it enthralling to read accounts of Rebel chappies on the battlefront, particularly those few who not only served the religious needs of the soldiers but also commanded units. Most notorious of these was Bishop and General Leonidas Polk (there's a fort named for him in Louisiana).

And of course forming the third personal connection were my passions for history and spiritual things. In commencing the seminar's talk, author Nichols-Belt confessed to these same two passions (and how they came together for her as she worked on her Master's thesis and this book). I ought to point out that "Onward Southern Soldiers" is made up of copious quoting from original documents -- diaries, letters, orders and so forth.

Gordon Belt briefly addressed the matter of sources for the book. And TSLA was a major fountain of archival items they used.

I had several comments or questions at the q & a point of the seminar. One was whether Herman Norton (whom they cited as a secondary source) is the Disciples of Christ historian with whom I'm acquainted -- he is. A more involved question related to fighting clergy such Polk. In my reading I had found it strange that clergy like him, supposedly representing the Prince of Peace, could so readily take up weapons to kill, or lead soldiers on the killing fields. How did they justify this glaring anomaly? The authors only touched on this issue as it pertained to the general rebel conviction that they were fighting to defend their homes and altars (and thus theirs was a just war). But I really would like to know, HOW did Polk et al., reconcile the two roles?

Upon the seminar's conclusion I shared a couple other questions or observations privately with Gordon Belt, and made arrangements to purchase a signed copy of the book "Onward Southern Soldiers".

And so, once again "the War" had come home for yours truly!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Ah-h-h-h. . . the Memories!

Tuesday the 29th Steve and I were working the reception desk in the Tennessee State Library & Archives when a silver-haired couple entered the building. We ascertained that this was their first visit and began the process of registering them.

As they filled out the registry cards they chatted with Steve and me. And in the dialog the man commented that the two had entertained at Opryland Park.

As soon as he said that I recognized them despite the silver hair. I happily blurted out, "You're Russ and Becky Jeffers!"

The couple had performed for 24 years at the bluegrass stage in the park, with its cabin backdrop, in their "Country and Bluegrass Show". It turns out both Steve and I had been to this show numerous times. Indeed, Steve claimed more than once that he'd seen the show "150 times." To which assertion I finally commented, "And I'd seen it 151 times!" in a little light-hearted one-upmanship.

So, the four of us got to talking at length about the park, which all of us had loved so dearly. Steve admitted that he cried when they killed the park. And I, too, had cried. Becky remarked about on work days -- if performing a music one loves can be called "work" -- she'd let their kids have the run of the park. Opryland was THAT SAFE, secure and family-friendly of an environment! Becky was far from the first parent I'd heard speak of just turning their kids loose for a day there.

And I learned a bit of history. Russ told of how theirs was the very last show to be performed in the park before its murder. Since it was the Christmas season the show was slotted to be done in the New Orleans Theater. But Russ talked the crowd into adjourning to the country and bluegrass cabin for this finale. And the very last song to be sung in Opryland USA was "Rocky Top", the newest on the list of Tennessee's official State Songs. I suppose one could say that "Rocky Top" was thus the swan-song, then, on 31 December 1997.

Rest in peace, my dear Opryland Park! And God bless Russ and Becky Jeffers for patronizing the State Library and awaking fond memories for their fellow ex-employee! (I worked at Opryland in the 1990s, as ticket seller and then as tour coordinator of Grand Ole Opry Tours.)