Bivouac of the Dead*

My thoughts turn to my hometown of Nancy, Kentucky, on Memorial Day.

The town is set on a little hill, just west of Haney’s Apple Orchard. On the hill’s northeastern edge is Mill Springs National Cemetery, spreading over more than six acres of ground. There are no stop lights, even now, but there is a gas station, a feed store, and more than one dollar store these days.

The town let go the name “Mill Springs,” and also an older name, “Logan’s Crossroads,” as the Civil War came to a close. A national cemetery was dedicated in 1867, a quarter-mile from the post office. It was named “Mill Springs National Cemetery,” for the battle of Mill Springs, the first Union Army victory of significance. Yet, the town came to be named “Nancy,” and has kept that name despite a plethora of local memorials.

Local legend has it, the post master’s wife, “Nancy,” took over her husband’s duties when he left to serve the Union Army. The postmaster’s job in the area was crucial. Not only sorting mail, or keeping track of people. In a farm community, local gossip of illnesses and fires, church happenings, crop failures and successes, were vital. Though her husband never returned from his time in the Union Army, Nancy maintained the town’s center until her death well into the 20th century.

To the south of the town of Nancy, such at it is, is a park dedicated to General Felix Zollicoffer. He was a confederate general and newspaper editor from Nashville, TN. After being shot by his own men, he had to be snuck out of Nancy (where not only Union sympathies were against him, but resentment of an urban, patrician general was also a factor) and back to Nashville, where a hasty funeral cortege was created outside the city. Between the formal dedications of Union and Confederate cemeteries, lie rolling farms belonging to our cousins and neighbors.

It was across that farmland, in the 1970s, when I was little girl, that battle re-enactments occurred. They were a sight to behold and complete with full cannon brigades, and members of the local Quarter Horse riding clubs shining in full military dress as the horses stepped high across the pickets to avoid early crops of corn or tobacco.

Modern veterans, those uncles and cousins and neighbor farmer’s sons, were there. But it took me growing up to understand the local pageantry around the Civil War, and by contrast, the silence and hush surrounding those who served in WWI, II, and later conflicts. I only knew as a child, that to be kind to my uncles, most of whom were vets, was not to mention their military service. In retrospect, it was my mother, aunts, and the ladies of the church who taught me to stay removed and quiet. Since I was a chattering child and a reader, I see, now, their wisdom. I can compare the words, which in their opinion were of little value, with the action they took.

Behind the lack of pageantry, in a small, practical place, care and action took the place of words. There were no widows without food or places to live, and no orphans allowed to hungry. The women of the community made sure whatever might be needed, and then some, was delivered. After all, a missing limb or wound could keep a harvest from happening, or the every day small chores from keeping a household afloat. They kept close track of who showed up to strip tobacco or take in hay, and praised or cajoled the rest of us to return service for service, accordingly. Though I was too young to understand, I recall the quiet command issued when a soldier came home, and the community acknowledged in whispers, he’s a different person. “Just go and have a word,” mother and the aunts would reply, “or do something to help. Otherwise, shut up.”  

How grateful I am, now, to have been kept quiet. To have gotten to listen, and watch, both graveside and out among the living and the doing. The women and the men who served, whether recognized in a tomb stone or town name, building some ephemeral coming together of belief and empathy.

When there is a storm on the horizon, I think of my little home town. That place which is a crossroads, and where Taps was played this morning by a lone trumpeter from the green peak of the hill, just as it has been for one hundred and fifty-three some odd years. Today, I am a child again, and Aunt Freda, a war bride famous for her chocolate mousse and fried chicken, is saying,

“If you want to do something, hold a hand.”


*Bivouac of the Dead. An elegiac poem by Theodore O’hara. Placed in part at Arlington National Cemetery, Antietam, Mill Springs, and other national cemeteries as of 2001. Frequently unattributed to O’hara, despite the poem’s praise and recognition, as the Louisiana newspaper man and veteran of The Mexican American Wars, also served the Confederate Army.

Rabbit Holes. Tangents. And Other Trips Off the Beaten Path.