Sunday, August 28, 2005

The Voice of God

Often romanticized, those who fought in the American Civil War understood intimately the carnage and human wreckage wrought by great battles. Major General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who wrote prolifically about the American Civil War, offered a glimpse of the personal internal conflict still raging after the guns ceased.

"With the declining day I slowly rode over the stricken field. Around the breastworks lay a hundred and fifty of the enemy's dead and desperately wounded. We had taken also in the counter-charges and eddies of the strife nearly two hundred prisoners - happier than they knew. These we sent away for safe keeping. But we had with us, to keep and to care for, more than five hundred bruised bodies of men, - men made in the image of God, marred by the hand of man, and must we say in the name of God? And where is the reckoning for such things? And who is answerable? One might almost shrink from the sound of his own voice, which had launched into the palpitating air words of order - do we call it? - fraught with such ruin. Was it God's command we heard, or His forgiveness we must forever implore?" - Major General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, "The Passing of the Armies" Describing a battlefield outside of Petersburg towards war's end.

As we consider this period in our history, we would do well to answer these questions so long ago posed and to honor the memory of men who, knowing these risks, fought to forge the foundations of our country.



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Sunday, August 21, 2005

This Great and Good Man

On the other side of the protective black wrought iron rail beyond which no one may pass, the small modestly furnished room appeared much as it had, or so the attendant said. No decorations adorned the plain white walls. The clock on the mantle in this small outbuilding of the Chandler plantation perpetually read 3:15pm. Having stopped eons ago, no hand raised to again set its gears in motion. A faded upholstered chair sat facing the foot of the single bed joining the few other items of comfort sitting on the worn, wide wooden-planked floor. The bed had a few blankets neatly covering the thin mattress, barely long enough to comfortably hold an average adult. "One of them, along with the bed, is original" the attendant added proudly. Somehow, the setting hardly seemed befitting of the man who had so ably held the admiration and devotion of the aspiring nation.

But here, decades before the existence of the protective rail, men immersed in sorrow slowly and with heavy steps walked sullenly from this room. Overwhelmed by loss and unable to suppress their emotion, most cried. This man, so revered and respected, passed away at 3:15pm on that spring Sunday afternoon, the day of the week that, if given his choice, he had said he wished to die. His wife who had just days earlier introduced the proud commander to his tiny newborn daughter would later say, "Tears were shed over that dying bed by strong men who were unused to weep."

Only a short walk to the west of the outbuilding still lay the tracks that guided the train to Richmond, carrying the body of this man about whom others said they would have gladly gone in his stead. His men, the army, and the nation mourned deeply. His commander, filled with grief, lamented to the army, "The daring, skill, and energy of this great and good soldier, by the decree of an all-wise Providence, are now lost to us." [1] Of his arrival in the Confederate Capitol, one newspaper man would write, "It seemed as if every man felt himself an orphan, and the sad tone that gushed from the popular soul dwelt upon the sense like the touching and dreamy wail of the miserero. It would be impossible to measure the depth of love felt by the people for the great and good man whom they were now come forth to mourn." [3] A former student would later sorrowfully write to his family, "The intelligence of the death…came upon us like a shock. We feel that his death is a national calamity. The poorest soldiers among us appreciated his worth - loved the man, and mourn his loss." [4]

Just days earlier, Confederate General Robert E. Lee, upon learning of his wounding, wrote a personal note wishfully imparting, "Could I have directed events, I should have chosen, for the good of the country, to have been disabled in your stead. I congratulate you upon the victory, which is due to your skill and energy." This victory occurred at Chancellorsville, a Confederate triumph won with audacious brilliance as the Army of Northern Virginia soundly defeated a Union Army which outnumbered them more than two to one. The Federals had the Southerners pinched between the main body of the Union army and a force based along the Rappohannock River. Union cavalry roamed just to the south. Yet, on May 2, 1863, General Lee's trusted Lieutenant, through a deception twice executed and a wearing ten mile flank march, slammed into and crushed the unsuspecting bluecoats holding the far right of the Federal army's line. As the mantle of night fell and success quickened his heart, he road out in front of his men to scout the Union position, determined to exploit the days gains to their fullest.

His men cautioned against this excursion past the protection of their lines, but the tenacious corps commander sought to crush the disorganized, routed Federals. Returning from his mission, as he approached his own lines, the men he had just lead to one of the South's most commanding victories, shot him three times after mistaking his party for Union cavalry. With bones shattered and blood loss mounting, his men endured a hazardous journey through dark woods filled with raging Union artillery, bursting shells, and screaming iron balls, to carry their commander to safety. The corps' chief medical officer, Dr. Hunter McGuire examined the wounded general at the Wilderness Tavern a few miles behind the Confederate lines. Dr. McGuire described his actions that night. "The round ball (such as is used for the smooth-bore Springfield musket), which had lodged under the skin upon the back of his right hand, was extracted first. It had entered the palm about the middle of the hand, and had fractured two of the bones. The left arm was then amputated about two inches below the shoulder, very rapidly and with slight loss of blood, the ordinary circular operation having been made. There were two wounds in his arm. The first and most serious was about three inches below the shoulder-joint, the ball dividing the main artery and fracturing the bone. The second was several inches in length; a ball having entered the outside of the forearm, an inch below the elbow, came out upon the opposite side just above the wrist. Throughout the whole of the operation, and until all the dressings were applied, he continued insensible." [2]

At the orders of General Lee, Dr. McGuire transferred the wounded General to Guinea Station, hoping that he would recover the strength to permit removal to Richmond. Days later, in the small, modest room now with the protective iron rail, this man instead would die. After issuing commands in delirium, his final words, "Let us pass over the river and rest under the shade of the trees" marked a serene end to this revered warrior's life. [1]

Just outside of the Chancellorsville Visitor's Center rests a small National Park Service Marker. Most pass it by in their zeal to venture on and tour the fields. Those who stop though receive a rare and precious gift. Reading the text, they learn that the marker stands sentry along the remains of the old Mountain Road. Along this road, General Lee's Lieutenant, flushed with victory, rode into the night feeling for the far right of the Union line. On this road he would return to be met by the flash of friendly musketry. His horse would run in terror to a point just to the signs' right. Nearby, the wounded commander would be taken from his frightened mount and begin his journey to the Wilderness Tavern and then Guinea Station. As long as this ground remains, with each person who comes here to gaze in awe down the tree covered dirt road as understanding and the sanctity of this place permeates the spirit, this man, General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, lives again.


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[1] Jackson wounding monument. Chancellorsville Battlefield.
[2] Stonewall's Surgeon: Dr. Hunter Holmes McGuire
[3] Civil War Richmond
[4] Virginia Military Institute

Saturday, August 13, 2005

The Smothering Mantle of Irrelevancy

Despite thousands of books, articles, columns, web sites, and various productions concerning this segment of our history, one question lingers like a specter eternally lurking maliciously in the shadows. It feasts on controversy such as that enveloping the current proposal to establish a casino just outside of the Gettysburg Battlefields. With this conflict to fuel its fire, the question springs forward as someone queries aloud, "Why do these grounds matter?" Relishing its power, the inquiry bears its sinister, toothy grin as it lunges again with, "Do the lands bordering Gettysburg, or any battlefield, significantly impact the life of those I love?"

As you might guess, I would argue strenuously in the affirmative. But that was not always the case.

Until recently, I did not care much for this particular period in our history, considering its study hardly useful. However, about five years ago, I found myself pacing impatiently in a bookstore, lamenting my inability to find a satisfactory read. But, as discussed in a previous entry, I happened upon the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, "Killer Angels". Moving with increasing eagerness through its unexpectedly enthralling pages, I found that I had stumbled into an undiscovered world where men held dear seemingly antiquated qualities such as duty and honor. These citizens turned soldiers willingly and repeatedly endured hardships surpassing current standards of acceptability for little identifiable gain. Men became hardened to marching twenty or more miles daily, over rough, stony roads, frequently without shoes or adequate food and water. They did so both in the sweltering unforgiving heat of summer and the icy biting cold of winter. Week upon monotonous week passed drilling, marching, or doing nothing while trying to maintain some measure of morale and desperately missing home. Woven in-between the months of grinding tedium, soldiers encountered threads of savage conflict which destroyed countless lives, families, and at times, entire communities.

Currier and Ives' pictorial interpretations, gracing the pages of the illustrated papers, influenced how many citizens of that day pictured battles both great and small. Usually including one or two obligatory wounded, the images, especially early in the conflict, depicted lines of perfectly aligned men, dutifully advancing into battle courageously lead by a chivalrous mounted sword-wielding commander. Glory and fame awaited the majority who, these renderings implied, would survive this magnificent scene. Sadly though, the elegant images captured little of the real tragedy of war.

Officers frequently led men into battle in Napoleonic formations, often ignorant of both the position and number of the enemy in their front as well as the danger awaiting them. At Antietam for example, Union Major General Joseph Mansfield, proudly assuming his first field command, perished when shot by a foe he believed was elsewhere on the field. Just to the South, Union Major General William French's men advanced valiantly forward over the rolling hills of the Roulette Farm, marching in perfect formation unknowingly towards a solid gray line sheltered in a sunken farm road. Cresting a small rise, the bluecoats earned for their advance the reward of cold death and unspeakable pain as the Confederates opened fire. Irish and German immigrants, along with thousands of American citizen volunteers, whole just seconds before, would suffer the bone crushing impact of the violent hailstorm of lead balls filling the air from a massed array of carefully aimed muskets. The crash of the musketry merged with the agonized cries of the wounded to smother the commands of any officers still standing. Smoke from the hundreds of guns fired would obscure vision. Lacking a clearing breeze, formations crumbled as unsympathetic projectiles whirling towards them mowed down men standing out in the open, firing bravely at their sheltered foes.

The cornfield just hours earlier held similar scenes of horror. Union Major Rufus R. Dawes, writing of this fighting reported, "As we appeared at the edge of the corn, a long line of men in butternut and gray rose up from the ground. Simultaneously, the hostile battle lines opened a tremendous fire upon each other. Men, I cannot say fell; they were knocked out of the ranks by the dozens." George Smalley, a correspondent for the New York Tribune also wrote of this day, "The field and its ghastly harvest which the reaper had gathered in those fatal hours remained finally with us..….The dead are strewn so thickly that as you ride over it you cannot guide your horse's steps too carefully. Pale and bloody faces are everywhere upturned. They are sad and terrible but there is nothing which makes one's heart beat so quickly as the imploring look of sorely wounded men who beckon wearily for help which you cannot stay to give." [1]

Soft lead bullets and the iron fired from relentless artillery swept these fields tearing flesh and shattering bones. The wounded lay among the dead on the unforgiving, unsheltered ground, unsure whether aid or death would find them first. The figure of 23,000 casualties for one day's fighting remains grim enough on its own. But many more suffered slower, lingering deaths from wounds, disease, or the aftereffects of amputation and crude surgeries. The citizenry would endure trials as well as contagious, untreatable diseases ravaged many families who offered their homes, resources, and energy to help save those mangled by the unfeeling hand of battle.

Countless pages could be filled with equally horrid descriptions of such savagery. Mentioning such underscores that these labors, once survived, destroyed most illusions of the glory of war. Those who fought these battles knew the brutality that would tirelessly seek them out. Those who fought at Antietam would, less than one year later, fight, struggle, and die on the fields in and around Gettysburg. That they knew the dangers awaiting them is without question. One Southern soldier, moving northward in 1863 would write home to his family, "I have been this morning over the old Sharpsburg Battlefield and have witnessed the most horrible sights that my eyes ever beheld. I saw the dead in any number just lying on top of the ground, their bones bleaching and they by the many hundreds. Oh what a horrible sight for human beings to look upon." [2] Witness to the unprecedented killing of Antietam, the merciless slaughter of Fredericksburg, and the carnage of Chancellorsville, with thousands of dead killed by there sides, these men marched onward towards the inevitable collision at Gettysburg.

Walking the fields of Gettysburg, most appearing as they once did, you begin to comprehend. Certainly, countless books offer vivid depictions of what these men did, especially when concerning Gettysburg, the best-known battle of the four-year war. However, to stand on Seminary Ridge, at the foot General Lee's watchful eye atop the Virginia Monument, next to the now silent cannon, and begin the slow mile long walk towards the Union line on Cemetery Ridge, lends to a level of understanding which no printed page can attain. As the vegetation crunches under your feet, you marvel at their relentless advance into the face of the enemy, knowing that they understood what lay before them. You involuntarily sense relief when dipping into the occasional sheltering swale that mercifully offered fleeting but welcome concealment from the punishing artillery fire. About halfway through your walk, when you reach the Emittsburg Road, you enter within musket range of the men in your front. As you step forward from behind the post and rail fences and advance into the ever widening line of what was thousands of waiting primed muskets, the growing sense of awe sears itself into your soul.

Gleaning this from the undulating terrain of the field of Pickett's Charge, we owe this lesson to the preservation of the fields on which men fought, bled, and died some 140 years past. Books, articles, and publications hold the potential to inspire. Photographs or video can grip or tear at the heart. Yet lacking the ability to touch all of the senses, those inspirations sadly fade with the turning of the final page or the switching of the channel. But, some hot July afternoon, walk the fields at Gettysburg. Feel the rough ground under foot as you endure the wearing heat. See the distance traveled and the barriers overcome. Taste the dust kicked up from the dry ground as you walk along with the increasingly desperate determination as with each unwavering step you close on the Union lines. After such an experience, understanding what these men knew as they advanced, no heart can remain unchanged or forget the deeds which laid another brick in the foundation of our nation.

In a time when fleeting, disposable, and impermanent describe much of our society, our shared heritage remains one of the few enduring treasured constants. When disregarding the lessons of our past, we allow ourselves to remain susceptible to the pitfalls of political intrigue, manipulation, greed, barbarism, and the undesirable facets of many periods in our country's storied history. However, the valorous deeds of the common citizen turned soldier offer an inspiration that seeps into the soul to rekindle an awareness of the better angels of our shared identity.

These fields alone complete that lesson. The grounds where great deeds occurred offer a nourishing fragment of the spirit of those who marched, fought, and sacrificed here. Left unthreatened and unchanged, they hold the same potential for touching and inspiring generations yet to come.

With this, the question of the relevance of these sacred grounds shrinks back into the shifting shadows, surrendering its former ferocity to the smothering mantle of irrelevancy.



If you would like further information regarding the concerns with the proposal to establish a casino near the battlefield, please visit

All original material Copyright © 2005. All Rights Reserved

[2] Antietam: A Documentary Film. Media Magic Productions Historical Films Group

Saturday, August 06, 2005

The Beauty of Those Hallowed Grounds

Words often fail to capture the essence and beauty of the now sacred grounds at Gettysburg. But slowly walk those fields, experience them free from modern intrusions, and you begin to understand. Please join me by turning on your sound, shifting back in your chair, and clicking below to view a multimedia slideshow entitled:

The Essence of Gettysburg

(Please, this slideshow is recommended for broadband connections only)



All original material Copyright © 2005. All Rights Reserved