I hope wherever you live there are beautiful sunsets, and in the summer season, twilights can be especially spectacular. So why talk about summer sunsets on a history blog? Can I tell you a story first? I promise there is a point to this…
The other evening the words were “not working” in a chapter of my Pelham manuscript. I was trying to write the section’s ending hook which would be the connector to the West Point chapter. Then I remembered this sunset at Cane Creek.
This past March I made a swift trip to northeastern Alabama. There were lots of good archive research finds, but I also went to see the land. One evening after some long hours in a library, I took the county map and went on a drive. There were a few places I needed to go to get photos for the book, but then I just drove, wandering by car. About sunset hour, I was parked at the top of a hill in a golf course country-club’s parking lot on the east side of Cane Creek. If the modern houses and a few trees weren’t in the way, I probably could’ve seen the location of the house where John Pelham had been born in 1838. (The house is gone, but the area is somewhat marked.)
The faint smell of smoke from a burn pile laced the soft spring air. The sunset was not particularly dramatic, but the dying light reigned with peace. I walked a bit, letting the smells and sights sink into my mind. This was where Pelham spent the majority of his life. Well, not exactly HERE, on the hill which is now a golf course, but here in this county. He was a boy on a farm for most of his short life. That’s not how Pelham is remembered, of course. He’s remembered for blasting shot and canister with deadly skill into ranks of men he had to consider the enemy.
“Sometimes I used to sit…and wonder if it could be true that he was the man they were all talking about, the man who could aim those guns so that they would kill and kill and kill…. He was, you know — a boy, a splendid boy.” (Bessie Shackelford, a wartime acquaintance remembering Pelham)
A few weeks later I felt so glad I had spent some time watching the sunset in Alabama. Thinking back to that evening and the noticeable sights, smells, sounds, and thoughts noticed in the scene, the words about Pelham’s life started unraveling and flowing in the manuscript again.
Maybe you’re not a writer and the writing portion of this story doesn’t mean anything to you. But I’m guessing — if you’re reading this blog — you had an interest in history. Do you take time to process what you read in those battle books? Do you take time at a battlefield or historic site to focus and notice all the little details of the place?
I think sunset hour gives us a golden opportunity (pun intended) to intentionally pause. If social media is proof, the history community likes sunsets. And not just the photographers among us. I see a lot of sunset photos from battlefield visitors…usually at Gettysburg, but that certainly counts!
I know this blog post very different from the usual weekenders. (We’ll get back to the reality places and leave the abstract in the next weekender.) But summer is nearly officially here. The challenge to myself and to you, dear reader, for the season: watch a sunset at a historic site. At least one. It’s that wonderful chance to slow down for a few minutes. To really absorb the moment. To think and reflect. To know that you’re standing on a battlefield, in someone’s footsteps, or at a place where history happened and think about what all that means.
So take time to laugh, to live for this day… Live every moment with no regret, and whatever you do, don’t miss the sunset.
(Chorus excerpt from “Don’t Miss The Sunset” by Doug Anderson)