Sunday, October 06, 2019

A gift from Larry DeBerry, the master storyteller of Shiloh

Larry DeBerry stands near a case full of Civil War relics at his Shiloh Battlefield Museum and Souvenirs,
near Shiloh National Military Park in rural southwestern Tennessee. He gives tours of the battlefield.

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Moments after greeting a visitor at his small museum/shop near the Shiloh (Tenn.) battlefield, 72-year-old Larry DeBerry deploys a time-tested technique to win him over: He tells a great story.

"See over there?" he says, gesturing to painted toy figurines that fill several shelves at Shiloh Battlefield Museum and Souvenirs. The longtime accountant tells how he acquired the massive set (from an elderly man in New Mexico) and points out figurines of Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong ("look at that receding hairline") and a reviled Japanese World War II military commander (Hideki Tojo) whose name escapes him.

Toy figurines at Robert E. Lee's last council of war with Stonewall Jackson.
On a table in front of me, I admire toy figurines of Robert E. Lee's last war council with Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville. Even the tiny, fold-out map that Lee holds is finely detailed. On a table near the entrance of the shop, visitors may examine toy figurines of Marines attacking Japanese at Tarawa, an especially bloody World War II battle in the Pacific. And on a wall nearby hang images of Civil War officers DeBerry admires: Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest and Union general Ulysses Grant.

DeBerry's place, advertised as the "largest private collection of relics and artifacts on display from Shiloh," is filled with curiosities: fired Yankee and Rebel bullets that fused together after crashing into each other; muskets pulled from the near the Tennessee River; dozens of Union and Confederate belt plates; artillery shells and fragments; and thousands of fired and dropped bullets. Nearly every relic in the shop, which he has operated since 2012, is from Shiloh.

And, of course, DeBerry offers for purchase the usual battlefield knick-nacks: T-shirts, hats, flags, books and the like. If you want to own a Donald Trump coffee mug, you may purchase one here, too. (Wary of developing a sudden desire to swear on Twitter, I pass.) The longtime student of Shiloh battlefield also gives tours of the field.

But most of all, DeBerry offers stories, in rapid-fire doses, for free.

"Have you heard the story of the mystery woman of Shiloh?" he asks. Then he has son print out of copy of her tale.

In a rush to visit Civil War history-rich Corinth, Miss., 18 miles south, I leave after 20 minutes or so. But on the return trip, another stop is required to listen to more from the master storyteller of Shiloh.

Among Larry DeBerry's vast collection are these fired bullets that fused together after 
crashing into each other.
Civil War muskets found near the Tennessee River at Shiloh.
A tag states a musket was found "115 years after it had been dropped" at Shiloh.
Twenty-six of DeBerry's ancestors ("more than anyone") are buried in the small cemetery near the site of the war-time Shiloh church. Most of them lived on or near the battlefield. One of them, DeBerry's great-great-grandfather George Washington Sowell, helped build the small, log structure that was used as a military headquarters and hospital during and after the Battle of Shiloh. It was destroyed in the battle's aftermath.

DeBerry has lived in this rural area of southwestern Tennessee all his life. His family has deep ties to the country's military history: Five of his great-great grandfathers served during the Civil War for the Confederacy, another ancestor fought in the Revolutionary War, and five brothers served during World War II.

On the reverse of this breast plate, Union soldier
Dewitt C. Hunt etched his name.
Each time I aim to depart for the 2 1/2-hour drive back to Nashville, DeBerry lures me back with another fabulous story, much like a master angler would reel in a large-mouthed bass.

He points out four muskets found near the Tennessee River decades ago. Then he pulls from a file cabinet a fascinating artifact, found by a relic hunter near his house by Shiloh National Military Park. On the reverse of the Union breast plate, now coated with a beautiful chocolate patina, the soldier etched his name -- DeWitt C. Hunt -- company and regiment. A 39-year-old corporal in the 11th Illinois Cavalry, the married father of three children died of typhoid fever in mid-October 1862 in a  hospital in Jackson, Miss.

Before I grudgingly walk out the door, DeBerry presents me with several gifts: two Shiloh bullets, each with a fine patina, and a book about the battle. When I eye two circa-1920s and 1930s Shiloh postcards in a small box, he tells me to take a couple. I hand him a book of my own, perhaps cementing a bond.

Then DeBerry tells me one, final story: His beloved wife Glenda died in 2012. She was a smoker, Larry says. Cancer killed her. He reaches back into the file cabinet, pulls out two xeroxed pages, folds them in half and hands them to me. It's a note his wife wrote a month or two before she died to their daughter. I thank him and promise I'll read it upon my return home. As I read Glenda's words Sunday morning, I knew the note -- posted below with DeBerry's permission -- is the best gift of all:
To my Beautiful Little Girl. I love every inch of you, from your head to your toes. 
When you were a baby, in the morning when you woke up, you would be smiling. That was what I looked forward to every morning and when you got older, I wanted to shake you, but I never stopped loving you. I'm very proud of you if you are reading this after I'm gone, but I hope not forgotten. 
Not any of these words I am saying are what I want to say and feel, but just know in your heart how much I love you. Take care of the Babies and Daddy & Robert for me. I love you all so much and may we be together some day. Just look up and you will see me looking down on you. Stay in Church and teach them girls about God. I hope you can read this. 
Love, Mom.

Enjoy the journey.


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  1. Outstanding and interesting post. Thank You,

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  4. Thank you, John. I very much enjoyed this blog!