Shiloh vet first to canoe the Colorado

One role of a Scoutmaster is to tell short, funny stories to the kids.  Often these stories have a moral but usually, their main virtues are that they are funny and short.  They call these stories, “Scoutmaster Minutes” because the Founder of Scouting said if the adults drone on much longer than a minute, the kids should drag them out back and hang them!

Recently we took our Scout Troop to Shiloh Tennessee to do 60 miles of hiking and to immerse them in the history surrounding this turning point in the American Civil War.  A couple of weeks after we got back, it was time for a Scoutmaster Minute and the first thing that came to mind was the story of a couple of Union Soldiers at Shiloh who would go on to influence our country greatly – Ulysses S. Grant and John Wesley Powell.  One would go on to become our 18th President. The other would go on to lead the first geological survey down the Green and Colorado rivers through the Grand Canyon.

This story took somewhat more than a minute to tell, but it was cool enough that I got away without having my neck stretched!

There is a great quote attributed to U.S. Grant.  

In every battle there comes a time when both sides consider themselves beaten.  When you reach that point, the one who continues the attack wins.

I have found this to apply to a lot of life, but especially in hiking. 

At Shiloh, the halfway point of most of the hikes is right at the bottom of Pittsburg Landing, By that point, a lot of Scouts (and Scoutmasters) run out of energy and willpower and the tears start flowing when they look back up the hill toward the Visitor Center and National Cemetery.  I have literally seen Scoutmasters (not from our Troop) sitting exhausted on a bench at top of that hill, head in hands, elbows on knees, grieving over having gotten themselves into such a trek.

Similarly, Major Powell wrote in his memoir, “Through the Grand Canyon,” of the trials and tribulations of paddling canoes full of men and delicate scientific equipment down the Green and Colorado rivers.  They would often have to lower their boats down half-mile waterfalls by rope and then portage their gear and provisions to the bottom. Some days they could progress as much as 35 river miles but many days they’d only make a mile or less.

They were often entombed so deeply in sheer canyon walls that Powell and a couple of his helpers would have to scale those cliffs to get enough of a view to take astronomical and geological measurements. 

Powell did all this paddling and mountain climbing one-handed because most of his right arm had been blown off at Shiloh as he was pointing the way and shouting, “Charge!”

There is a story in this memoir of Powell trying to climb a cliff.  He got to a place where he couldn’t back down and he couldn’t figure out how to advance with only one arm.  He was stuck and exhausted, looking down hundreds of feet to his death. He managed to hang on while his climbing partner scrambled over him to the top, but then he couldn’t reach Powell to pull him up.  Powell’s climbing partner ended up having to take off his long underwear to have something to lower to pull Powell up!

Talk about hanging on by the seat of your pants!

Later in the expedition, there came a point on the Colorado River that they had exhausted or lost most of their provisions and gear and their ragtag band was “driving for supper” as hard and fast as they could, trying to get out of the canyons to someplace they could hunt something or steal something to eat from the Indians.

Three of his “right-hand men” men came to him exhausted and dispirited and said that they would go no further on that river.  Powell spent the rest of that night helping them to plot a route to safely get them to the nearest Mormon settlement, some seventy miles away through a sandy desert.

Powell writes about his doubts whether the rest of the crew could complete the expedition without them.  “I almost conclude to leave the river. But for years I have been contemplating this trip. To leave the exploration unfinished, to say there is a part of the canyon I cannot explore, having already almost accomplished it, is more than I am willing to acknowledge, and I determine to go on.”

Do you suppose, at some point in that long, dark night at the bottom of the canyon, Powell thought back to Shiloh and General Grant’s quote about persistence in the face of doubt?  I think he must have.

Shiloh was not only a major turning point in the Civil War, but it was also a proving ground for men who would go on to shape our country for decades to come. Shiloh tempered men of persistence like Grant and Powell and our Scouting program continues to teach those same lessons to the young men and women using adventures like 60-mile hikes in Grant’s and Powell’s footsteps at Shiloh Battlefield.