Have you ever swum in a race from one side of the Mississippi River to the other?
Or wrestled to the ground a pet bear after other Union soldiers had been bested one by one by the creature?
Have you ever facilitated the Union Army's advance on Jackson, Mississippi by snuffing out the lives with your rifle of two opposing cannoneers?
Or shot down a Confederate flagstaff a half mile away?
If you are still living, you could not possibly have listened attentively to an 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debate.
And if you had been born in 1835 you would be most unlikely to die aged 105 in 1941, in fine health almost to the end.
You didn't. You couldn't. And neither did/could I!
So who did?
A five-foot six-inches tall Scots-Irish American born in Tennessee who died in Illinois named Tilman Manus. His lightly fictionalized real-life story is told in the 2013 book by Tennessean Keith Pruitt called SHARPSHOOTER: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF TILMAN MANUS. When he was 18, young Tilman impregnated a maiden of a neighboring Indian tribe. Before his son, whom the young woman named Tilman Manus, Jr., was born, 19 year old Tilman and his slightly younger uncle Jim decamped for Shreveport, Louisiana (which Tilman later insisted was in Texas) steering two wagons for a wealthier family traveling in the third to make a better life for themselves. On that trip, the boys forded or were ferried across rivers, fought a mother bear defending her cub and generally enjoyed themselves.
Instead of returning to Tennessee, in 1854 the two boys trekked and trekked and sought work on the railroad near Cairo, Illinois. Although having only a second grade education, Tilman is literate enough to read and enjoy newspapers, moral enough to detest slavery and for that reason to become attracted to Abraham Lincoln whom he heard debate Senator Stephen Douglas in Illinois in 1858. Manus foresaw the Civil War, fought for the North under Ulysses Grant at Vickburg and elsewhere. After mustering out in Illinois in 1865, he resumed his marriage, begat more children and had his illegitimate half-Indian son brought to live with him from Tennessee. He eventually made peace with his father who had disowned him for fighting for invader Abe Lincoln.
In later years he retained his sharpshooter's eye and increased in power as a teller of tales. He became a Methodist and then a Baptist. As war clouds gathered over Europe and in Asia in the 1930s Tilman Manus followed current events.
There were, of course, hundreds of thousands of American males who fought in the Civil War. Nor was Manus unique in swimming the Mississippi River or wrestling a bear. He had critiqued the technique of his losing competitors as follows before he tackled and threw the pet bear from the rear: "You all trying to wrestle this bear like it was another man" (p. 149).
In reality Manus was not himself a mover of history. Why therefore should Tilman Manus be of interest to others than family genealogists?
I suggest that it is because his distant kinsman Keith Pruitt uses Tilman Manus quietly but originally to teach young people how to find meaning in the lives of even ordinary people in their family. You don't have to have lived for nearly 106 years to be remembered. And if some kinswoman does not take your oral history or some kinsman does not dig through newspapers and archives to learn the legends about you, you will surely be forgotten.
On the other hand, study the facts about your aunt or your great grandmother, flesh them out with plausible imaginings, sketch their brushes with giants like Lincoln, Douglas and Grant, write a fetching lightly fictitious memoir and you will bring them back to life, even for readers not mentioned in the last wills and testaments of impressively American men like Tilman Manus, sharpshooter.
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About the reviewer
(Thomas) Patrick Killough (qigongbear)
I am a retired American diplomat. Married for 47 years. My wife Mary (PhD in German and Linguistics) and I have two sons, six grandsons and two granddaughters. Our home is Highland Farms Retirement Community … more