Sunday, September 11, 2005

A Brothers War

While recently enjoying a three-day trip to some of the battlefields in Virginia, I decided to stop by Chatham Manor which overlooks the Rappahannock River and the town of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Part of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, Chatham served as headquarters to Major General Edwin Vose "Bull" Sumner, commander of the Army of the Potomac's Right Grand Division, during the battle of First Fredericksburg in December of 1862. Although certainly looking forward to my visit, having walked the grounds there many times previously, I thought not much new would likely present itself.

However, one of the new National Park Service volunteers, stationed at the Manor for just over one month, made my visit much more meaningful than anticipated. Eager to provide a tour of the grounds, she enthusiastically instructed me concerning the history of the property. While enjoying her presentation, I waited somewhat impatiently for her to address the mid-19th century and the era that has become my consuming passion.

Moving throughout the old manor, we made our way to the northern most room. Void of furnishings, the somewhat small room had a solid, dark wood floor, white walls, a painting of George Washington, and a tattered Federal Division flag. As her discussion progressed to the battle's aftermath, she mentioned the building's use as a hospital, somewhat reverently mentioning that the room in which we stood served as the main center for surgery. Now thoroughly riveted to her words, she relayed that Walt Whitman had come to Chatham after learning that his brother, serving with the 51st New York, had been wounded during the fighting. At some point, he sought him here.

What Whitman saw horrified him. From this very room, a steady stream of lifeless severed limbs flew towards the yard from the open westerly-facing window. Fragments of shattered humanity piled under the two still present catalpa trees just outside the room.

Wounded soldiers experienced immense suffering on a sustained and grand scale. Many of those treated on these grounds would be buried here, resting under its sod until re-interred at the National Cemetery on Marye's Heights. Ironically, the ground no Union soldier could take, the ground whose attempts to storm would destroy thousands of lives, now served as the hallowed resting place for over fifteen thousand.

One of the included displays at the manor housed the grim instruments of Civil War medicine that earned the physicians of the time the epithet "Sawbones". Bone saws, scalpels, and needles now harmlessly encased in glass meant pain and misery to the men who obeyed their orders and braved the fields east of the solid Confederate lines. All around lurked reminders of what these men endured, underscoring the degree of valor and bravery each displayed as they, knowing what could be their fate, advanced forward as volunteers for the Union Army.

But this day, one other scene surprisingly lacking in horror would singularly capture the imagination. Also housed safely behind glass sat a sword scabbard with fading, chipped paint, obviously not of the original form. A closer look revealed the word "Fredericksburg" and several scenes painted on its sides. To my astonishment, the display's interpretive note reported that a convalescing soldier painted the vastly incongruous images on this instrument of war. Towards the top of the scabbard, clear for all to see, a Union and Confederate officer shook hands in reconciled friendship. Just beneath it, hands labeled "US" and "CS" embraced with similar sentiments.

This soldier, this man, surrounded by suffering, misery, and death, wounded during one of the Union's most tragic bloodbaths, thought only of rekindled friendship. While his body strove to again become whole, as many of his comrades slept eternally under Virginia's sod, this man dreamed of peace. Never did the label of "The Brothers War" fit so well.



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Also, today especially, please take a moment to remember those who lost their lives and loved ones during the September 11, 2001 attacks. Pray for their families and all who remain to carry on.

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1 comment:

Novus Livy said...

Each blog entry surpasses the previous one in the eloquent portrayal of the scenes you describe, and the meaning you ascribe to them so subtlely.

Do not ever stopr doing this, please.