Sunday, December 10, 2006

They Would Rather Die

While walking the fields of the Brawner Farm at the Manassas Battlefield, I came upon a narrow woodland trail, soggy with the recent heavy autumn rains. In the summer of 1862, just yards from this place, Union men marched east searching for the elusive Stonewall Jackson and his Corps of veterans. Jackson would remain out of site along the cut of an unfinished rail road, awaiting the opportunity to pounce on the prey that erroneously believed that they hunted him. As the blue coats passed along the road in his front, Jackson opened fire. Act one of the sanguinary drama had begun.

Looking to the wood line north of the road, Union Brigadier General John Gibbon ordered the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry forward to scatter what he mistakenly identified as Confederate horse artillery. Instead, he soon discovered his single regiment challenged Stonewall Jackson's entire command. Gibbon quickly ordered his brigade forward while the Virginians held firm, striving to obliterate their Federal foes.

Both sides shunned maneuver. Neither stood more than 80 yards apart, firing directly into each others' lines. Both endured incredible casualties. After several hours, the slug-fest ended with darkness appropriating the grimly contested ground. The men in blue withdrew to safer quarters and awaited tomorrow's fight.

In his official report, General Jackson would say only, "The loss on both sides was heavy..." John Gibbon's report more thoroughly underscored the reaper's ghastly harvest. "The total loss of the brigade is, killed, 133; wounded, 539; missing, 79. Total, 751." In just a few hours, he lost over one-third of his entire command.

Along the path on which I walked I found a small marker, faded, cracking, and seemingly forgotten. The lettering, light but readable, spoke to anyone who would hear of deeds some fourteen decades past. As the whispers of horror and heroism fade with time, this tiny sentinel cracks open a window into a time that violently forged our country's identity. The faded facade still bears the words of a nameless soldier, long since dead, who once more speaks of the events of that day.

"We soon found that we had to deal with General Ewell's whole division of picked men. We advanced within hailing distance of each other, then halted and laid down, and my God, what a slaughter! No one appeared to know the object of the fight, and there we stood one hour, the men falling all around; but we got no orders to fall back, and Wisconsin men would rather die than fall back without orders."

Many on both sides did.



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