Monday, February 26, 2007

Post Script

A few people have been kind enough to ask that I leave this blog on-line for future reference. I will do so. After some time passes, perhaps I will yet begin again.

Thank you.


Sunday, February 25, 2007

Farewell, For Now

Writers worldwide eagerly herald the creation of about 175,000 new blogs each passing day. With these new literary births, a smaller number simultaneously fades less dramatically into oblivion. As recent readers know, I have been considering adding this blog to the count of the latter. After much though, I have made my decision and I now mournfully and reluctantly set down my pen.

I reached my decision this week after much consideration of the responses to the blog articles that I have written these past few months. As I tended more to address the darker side of war, enthusiasm for my writings diminished. While I never sought to obtain an unfettered adulation from those visiting here, my concern increased over the lack of reader receptivity to the less "Currier and Ives" portrayals of our shared past. I also remain troubled that I may have inadvertently contributed to an overly romanticized image of perhaps one of the most tragic kinds of endeavors in human history. As I pondered my choices over the last several weeks, the words of Nathan Bedford Forrest rang progressively louder in my ears. "War means fighting," he proclaimed, "and fighting means killing."

Consistent with a change in the tone of the comments I have recently received, one example may serve to encapsulate them all. The very fine web site, Civil War Interactive, has over the last few months chosen to ignore many of my posts in their weekly reviews. I had grown accustomed to the lack of a response to my writings on the previously proposed casino at Gettysburg but grew troubled by the disregard shown for what I consider my darker posts. Instead of acknowledging any specific disapproval and despite the presence of new articles most weekends, they instead implied that I had ceased to write.

I have come to believe that avoiding the discussion of the more savage aspects of war damages the perception of both the degree of our ancestors’ incredible sacrifices and of the importance of the lessons we take from their excruciating ordeals. The continued lack of enthusiasm for the discussion of the brutal, raw side of war contributes to my concerns that avoiding such issues increases the likelihood that those who have not experienced combat may conclude that war is more glorious than is justified. Given that between 170,000,000 and 216,000,000 people have died during the wars of the 20th Century, the highest total in thousands of years of civilized human history, I can no longer satisfy my conscience while writing what may contribute to a sterilized, romanticized view of warfare. Questions broaching which soldier could have constructed a more efficient offensive or defensive strategy too often resemble the casual discussion of a football game rather than addressing how to avoid the massively tragic slaughter altogether.

Certainly I could continue to write regardless of the response and push ahead with discussing the horrors of war. At this point though, I have neither the energy nor the desire to continue with that struggle. I need only look inward for the source of this apparent shortcoming and, in acknowledging as much, I must accept responsibility for the portion of the diminished enthusiasm that originates from within.

Once I have had the time to develop a greater understanding of the origins, justifications, and costs of warfare and the degree to which my small corner of the cyber world influences individual opinions, I may again take my pen and breathe life back into the pages of this blog. For now, I maintain my continued unwavering respect for the veterans of all of America’s conflicts and wholeheartedly thank everyone who has stopped here to read and reflect.

God bless.


This writer acknowledges the right of the web authors noted above to conduct their web sites as they so chose. I intend no implied criticism by my interpretation of their actions.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

My Struggle

Last weekend I posted a message saying that I wished to take some time to think about the direction of this blog. For those who have been kind enough to visit here over the past few years, I feel that I owe you an explanation.

In a post some time ago, I mentioned that I came to my interest in the American Civil War in an entirely serendipitous manner. I stumbled upon Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece, "Killer Angels", and was so moved that I immediately drove to Gettysburg to see the place where such deeds had occurred. Standing for the first time on Cemetery Ridge, I gazed across the mile wide open fields where Southern men advanced into the awaiting frenzied maelstrom of Union rifle and artillery fire. I could not fathom the courage such an act required and set about trying to comprehend.

For the better part of the last decade, I have walked the fields where our ancestors fought and marveled at the hardships they endured to forge the country we now call home. I began to think that perhaps I understood some of what occurred. I wrote blog articles implying as much, expressed opinions, and created a large web site with over 600 pages of photographs and information. I read constantly. The American Civil War became my obsession. Yet, despite all of my work, another chance event has made me question whether or not I have approached any real understanding at all.

Several weeks ago, I began to read more about later wars in American History, looking for evidence for or against the uniqueness of the internal conflict which had captured my fascination. Settling on World War II, I began to read about the primary events, the causes, and the staggering numbers of casualties. Despite some knowledge of the second Great War and the number of American casualties, I was stunned to read the estimates of 60 million people or more killed during WWII, with civilians making up more than half of those numbers. As I continued to read, my focus on the primary battles naturally led to June 6, 1944 and February 19, 1945.

On the morning of latter date, the United States forces set foot on the black sandy beaches of the island of Iwo Jima, a Japanese stronghold coveted by the Allies as a necessary staging area for their continued counter-offensive. The battle lasted over a month, much longer than expected, and resulted in slaughter on a horrific scale. Of the 22,000 Japanese who sought to defend their ground, almost all were killed. The Americans suffered about 26,000 casualties of which over 6,000 died.

Similarly, on June 6, 1944, the Allies launched their assaults on the beaches of Normandy. Serving as the beginning of the Battle of Normandy, the Allies would suffer about 10,000 casualties with some 2,500 dead on that fateful day. Estimates of German casualties on D-Day, although not verifiable, fall between 4,000 and 9,000 men.

These very familiar battles carved gut-wrenching suffering and pain into the hearts of thousands of families, into the psyche of those who braved the machine gun and artillery fire, and into the wounded soul of humanity worldwide. And yet, the human wreckage at Gettysburg paralleled and by some measures eclipsed these battles. Again, to anyone who has even a passing knowledge of our history, the casualty figures ring all too familiar.

I am not a veteran and have never seen combat. I realize that what I have read, what I have seen, and what I may imagine, cannot begin to approach true comprehension of the horror of battle. I cannot place myself in the boots of the American Servicemen who tenaciously fought a faceless, hidden enemy at Iwo Jima, one willing to die where he fought. I cannot fathom the staggering degree of courage required to surge forward on Omaha Beach in the face of such terrifying, horrific losses.

Although I cannot conceive of what these men endured, I have written for years about the great battles of the American Civil War, Gettysburg, Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Fredericksburg among them. In each of these battles, men were torn apart by canister, shot, and shell. Minnie balls shattered bodies leaving the less fortunate to writhe in agony on the unforgiving ground. In some instances, soldiers died via the bayonet, rifle butts, rocks, or anything else which served to assault or defend. At Gettysburg, in just three days, ten thousand men died. Thirty thousand men emerged no longer whole. Another ten thousand were officially designated as missing. By some estimates, the killing at Gettysburg reached such a level of devastation that about as many mules and horses were killed at Gettysburg as Allies and Germans combined on D-Day.

As mentioned in a recent post, the 20th century saw about 200,000,000 people killed by war, a greater number than at any other time in human history. While I unquestionably admire the bravery of the United States servicemen and veterans, while I remain ever grateful for their contributions to the world that we now know, and while I will forever honor their memory, my questions are simple. I wonder about my responsibility for the impact on the children of today of what I write. I wonder about my responsibility to the men and women who are dying right now in yet another human war. By writing in a manner which to some degree glorifies and romanticizes the exploits which occurred during warfare, do I add my small voice to the chorus of those who may view war as acceptable or even desirable? If the answer is yes, do I then, even in a small way, contribute to the acceptance of the continuation of this human holocaust? I cannot help but wonder if by writing with such admiration and wonder about the soldiers of the American Civil War, I perpetuate the idea that war is somehow an acceptable mechanism to resolve conflict. At times, to fight is necessary. But should it ever be acceptable?

Perhaps I flatter myself. Perhaps what I write is ultimately irrelevant. And yet I fear that even in a small sense, I may contribute to an unnecessarily romantic image of what is one of the most brutal and unforgiving of human endeavors.

As the fires of each previous war flicker out, the echoes also fade of the countless wishes that this war will finally be the last. Perhaps, just this once, I should listen to the long, stilled hopes that our ancestors had for this country.

In "Killer Angels", Michael Shaara implies that we have within us a divine spark coexisting with something much darker. What I must decide is, have I perhaps inadvertently fed the latter.

With all due respect and sincerely,


D-Day Museum

Sunday, February 11, 2007

A Short Break

I'm going to take a short break from blogging. I need some time to consider the direction this blog will be taking.

Thank you and hope to be back soon.


Sunday, February 04, 2007

An Obscure Question or Two

I recently received an e-mail from a gracious reader. She mentioned that she had recently visited Evergreen Cemetery in New Haven, Connecticut. While touring the cemetery, a re-enactor mentioned that several of the Civil War veterans were buried standing upright as if at attention. An e-mail to the cemetery elicited a denial that this was the case. However, my question is whether or not this practice ever existed. Research on my part only revealed the occasional practice of vertical burials to save space.

My second question involves a piece of information I heard several years ago during one of my first tours of the Battlefield at Gettysburg. The guide mentioned while we toured Oak Ridge that there had once been an airstrip in the fields just south of Oak Hill. Since that time, I have not found any information concerning a runway at Gettysburg. Of course, the battlefield had once been the site of Camp Colt, a US Army tank training camp during World War I but I have not heard of an airstrip associated with that camp.

One point of interest. The single pine tree (above) along the Emmitsburg Road just west of the Angle at Gettysburg was planted by the soldiers of Camp Colt in honor of their Captain, Dwight D. Eisenhower. They planted the tree with soil from each of the then 48 states.

I would very much appreciate any clarification or information concerning either of the above.



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An Incident in 1913

While reading a very interesting book, "The Gettysburg Gospel", I came upon a brief unexpected passage. The author, Gabor Boritt, parenthetically mentions an incident which occurred at the 50th Anniversary Veterans' Reunion at the Gettysburg Battlefield.

"As the thousands of Yankee and rebel soldiers celebrated together on the old battlefield, at the local hotel a nasty altercation took place. A man claiming to be the son of a Confederate general applied a "vile epithet" to Lincoln. A Union veteran, hearing it, struck the unrepentant rebel, who then went on a rampage, stabbing eight. The war was not over for all of the people."

Although I have not yet finished the book, I have enjoyed it a great deal. It offers multiple perspectives on the Gettysburg Address and how the American public has changed how it views this now sacred document over the decades since 1863. The book begins with a description of the condition of the battlefield and town that by itself is worth the read.



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Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Stars and Bars

While enjoying the songs and accompanying music on the Poetry and Music of the War Between the States web site, I found these intriguing lyrics and accompanying commentary from the June 21, 1861 edition of Vanity Fair.

Please forgive the vulgar language. No offense intended.

"Having understood that the Southern Confederated States of America were suffering for want of a patriotic song -- a national anthem -- to the stirring tones of which their chivalry might march gallantly to victory, or death, or both, we have set ourself to work to produce such a composition. This we do in pure charity and benevolence, without hope of reward or emolument from the new Republic of Fools. Republics are inevitably ungrateful.

The only national song that has attained any great popularity in the Federal, or United States, is the "Star-Spangled Banner" -- a song all about our flag. Very well: why not have a song about the Confederate flag? Sure enough -- but then, their flag is only a modification of ours -- a sort of bunting parody, as it were. Just the thing! They shall have a sort of fustian parody of our flag-song, to be in keeping; and its flowing numbers shall be chaunted far and near, wherever cotton is grown, corn-whiskey guzzled, and niggers licked.

Gentlemen of the Southern Confederated States, here is your national anthem."

Anonymous (1861)

O say, can you see -- though perhaps you're too tight --
What so feebly we hailed at the twilight's last beaming --
Whose broad bars and few stars o'er our scurrilous flight
From the rumshops we filched, were so gaudily streaming?
When the rockets' red glare and bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof, though we ran, that our rag remained there?
O, say, does that Bar-Strangled Banner still wave
O'er the land of the thief and the home of the slave?

On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's honest host in its glory reposes,
What is that which the breeze -- while we fearfully creep
To escape deserved blows -- half-conceals, half-discloses?
Now it sullies the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In dishonor reflected now taints the pure stream --
'Tis the Bar-Strangled Banner, that foully doth wave
O'er the land of the thief and the home of the slave!

And where is that band who so truthfully swore
That the might of the law, and a stern retribution,
A hold for rebellion should leave us no more?
Their guns have ploughed up our footsteps' pollution!
Their protection we crave, both rebel and slave --
None other we hope for except in the grave,
And our Bar-Strangled Banner no longer shall wave
O'er the land of the thief and the home of the slave!

O, thus is it ever, when traitors may stand
Against a loved land and its administration;
In rout and destruction, our treacherous band
See the error we have made in arousing a nation;
Be conquered we must, for our cause is unjust --
They look but to God, while in Mammon we trust;
And their -- not our -- Banner in triumph shall wave
O'er South as o'er North, o'er the free as the slave!"



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Source: Civil War Poetry

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Development Still Threatens Battlefield

An editorial from The Hanover Evening Sun

"We suspect a bunch of the no-casino folks have declared victory and marched home.

But we hope they stick around a bit longer - the fight to keep the battlefield safe is far from over.

One group that insists it's in the fight for the duration is the Civil War Preservation Trust, which spearheaded the national fight against the erstwhile slots parlor in Straban Township.

"The casino proposal itself was merely a symptom of a larger development problem plaguing Gettysburg," trust President Jim Lighthizer said after state gaming authorities denied the license application for local slots. "The ... trust is committed to working with other preservation groups to protect the Gettysburg battleground."

The CWPT is reportedly interested in helping to save Hunterstown, the village north of Gettysburg near the site of a ferocious cavalry battle July 2, 1863, the second day of the three-day battle.

Hunterstown activists say they've been trying to get the trust's attention for years. Maybe the casino controversy, together with the recent inclusion of Hunterstown within the American Battlefield Protection Program, are what put Hunterstown on the national preservation radar.

But it's probably too late for Hunterstown. The historic village is certainly worth preserving, but the battlefield itself will disappear in the next few years. A local developer has already received Straban Township approval for a development of about 2,000 homes, some of which will sit on the fields once fought over by blue- and gray-clad horsemen.

But on the other side of Gettysburg, it's not too late to save the Baltimore Pike, which will no doubt feel development pressure when the new visitors center opens near there in 2008.

The restaurants and trinket shops along Steinwehr Avenue that followed the current visitors center have forever obliterated a key portion of the Gettysburg battlefield. No amount of tree removal or historic fence installation can ever recapture the center of the Union line as it appeared in 1863.

Those who truly care about hallowed ground should work to ensure the same thing doesn't happen along the Baltimore Pike.

During the late great casino fight, a common rejoinder on the part of pro-casino folks was to ask the opponents where they were when the Wal-Mart was built, or Gateway Gettysburg, or any of the other projects that bring traffic and asphalt to this national shrine.

This is their chance to show their opposition was more about saving the battlefield than it was about the morality of gambling.

There will be those who insist such development is necessary, that it brings needed jobs and tax revenues. But the recent battle over the casino suggests there are some things more important in the minds of many. And they still have a real fight on their hands."



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All original material Copyright © 2005-2007. All Rights Reserved

Source: Hanover Evening Sun

Monday, January 15, 2007

Closing This Chapter on the Gettysburg Casino

Now that Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board has rejected the proposal for a casino near the Gettysburg Battlefield, I am removing the list of links to articles that I have written concerning that near tragedy. I will leave on link to this page which lists all of the aforementioned articles. Thank you again everyone for your support in the effort to keep a casino from marring the grounds of the battlefield and exploiting the memories of the soldiers who died on those fields.

I suspect the Battlefield will face future threats from those who would seek to profit from the sacrifices of our ancestors. But for now, we can feel good about the results of our efforts knowing that the Battlefield can safely continue to honor those who helped to build this nation.

List of Articles:

Gettysburg Casino No Vote – More Good News
Thank You for Saving the Gettysburg Battlefield
Tomorrow’s Final Vote
Free Alcohol at Gettysburg Casino
Letter to the PGCB
Gettysburg Casino Update
$60 Million and Our Heritage Lost
The PGCB Dismisses Dissention
More Opposition to Proposed Casino
Gettysburg Casino Hearings
Last Chance to Testify
A Casino in Gettysburg - The Danger, The Truth
The Smothering Mantel of Irrelevancy
Letter to Governor Ed Rendell
A Vision Place of Souls



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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Short Story: One More Soul

Traces of the bitter smell lingered in the still evening air, held there as a bleak reminder of what had occurred this day. The cool autumn wind which earlier had kept these fields free of sight-obscuring smoke had vanished, distancing itself from any responsibility for the carnage. The late October sun seemed to also retreat, moving effortlessly towards the distance horizon, painting the sky with glorious oranges and reds. Sadly, even this natural brilliance did little to recast the horror on which the light from the retreating sun would soon fade.

Having regained consciousness, and uncertain of the location of his regiment, a soldier rose slowly and gazed about at the host of prone, unmoving figures. He gently rubbed his head where something had hit him. No blood. Puzzled but relieved, he began to walk cautiously among the dead without thought to direction. Dry grass and fallen leaves crunched quietly under his feet as he looked at the shattered forms of what used to be men. Somewhat grateful for his mind’s partial numbness, he wondered at the absence of the familiar bobbing lanterns heralding the grim searches for the wounded.

Patches of surrounding brush still burned. The yellowish tint combined with the setting sun’s ebbing light to color the wispy smoke a hellish crimson. The slight tinge of red served to deepen the fiendish taint of the haze that mercifully obscured the full scene of catastrophic battle. Stopping, he took a deep breath. A fetid taste of death sourly permeated the life sustaining air. Touched with a sense of sad resignation, he continued forward, scanning the ground to avoid treading on the detritus of battle, not knowing in which direction he should go.

Elsewhere on the field lay an anonymous form, once vital and energetic, now bleeding more that life could long sustain. Yet the fluid that ebbed from his body did so slowly enough to allow the retention of sensibility. As he held on to precious life, he suffered the agony of a shattered leg and a rifle shot to the chest. Neither wound would allow the mercy of a quick death although the infliction of both ensured that eventual end. He wondered where his comrades had gone, if he would die here alone on ground so far from his home.

Looking up at the sky, he marveled that while God saw fit to take him from this world, He had at least offered him the final gift of a beautiful sunset. He took his breaths slowly, deliberately, to lessen the pain in his chest.

Through the tall grass that rubbed against his face, he noticed a figure moving towards where he lay. The burning smoke in his eyes did not allow him to focus. He could not distinguish the color of the man’s coat. At this point, perhaps that it matched his own blue uniform would not matter so much. He hoped that at least this man may have water to quench his growing, consuming thirst.

As the man moved closer, his vision cleared. Although the nearing figure wore gray, fear of the enemy seemed no longer relevant. "They can’t kill me more than once," he thought. He opened his mouth and, with a struggle, forced himself to call out, "Hello." His only response was the unmistakable taste of blood in his mouth. The raspy, weak utterance did not reach the approaching man’s ears but did add to the pain from the hole in his chest. Wincing, taking a deeper breath, the air drawing into his lungs mixed with the fluid filling them. He tried again. "Hello." This time, the man in gray turned his head, looking for the source of the single friendly word.

"Who?" he asked, puzzled, again rubbing his head. To this point, none of the fallen shapes had spoken to him.

"Here," the northerner gasped, the exhalation bringing more pain.

Glancing about, he saw a man in blue looking back at him from the ground. The Confederate quickly scanned the prostrate form, taking in the wounds that contributed to the glazed look in this beckoning man’s eyes.

"Need help," the Yank said with obvious exertion. "Water?"

After a reflective pause, the southerner reached for his canteen, then moved towards the fallen man. Kneeling slowly beside him as if the blood commanded reverence, he held out the container of water. "Can ya move?" he asked, looking closer at the growing stains on his woolen clothing.

"No" he said. "I’m afraid…I should soon die." Both winced at the anguish in his labored speech.

Moving closer, he tipped his canteen towards the wounded man. The water poured out, some into his mouth, some down the sides of his face. His sudden coughing forced out as much water as he took in, bringing another look of stabbing terrible pain. The agonizing waves swept across his powder stained face as he tried to remain still. He grabbed at the ground with both his hands.

After a moment passed, he again took in air preparing another effort. "Would you," he paused, stopping to take several short difficult breaths, "letters…my pocket." His body, more rigid as he spoke, relaxed once he finished as if just finishing some arduous task. As the southerner found and removed the bundle of letters, a photograph fell to the ground. He rescued the keepsake from the grass and, brushing off tiny bits of soil, looked at the faces. Two young girls and a woman looked back at him.

"Please?" The fallen man pleaded glancing at the picture. A compassionate hand held the photograph about a foot from his face. A different softer pain now overtook him. After several seconds, sorrow closed his eyes.

A few more breaths and he again tried to speak. "Please, could you," he inhaled again, "a note?" Seeing the kneeling man’s questioning look, he responded, "In the bundle." Quickly flipping through, he found a blank piece of paper. Seeing a name repeated on several envelopes, he looked at the man and asked, "Johnny?" The stricken man nodded. The unfortunate irony did not escape either man. He reached into his pack and pulled out a pencil.

With gasps, pauses, and great effort, the Federal uttered a brief letter. "My Darling Wife. I die for my country, but my last thoughts are of you." He took a longer pause to regain some strength and then said more clearly, "We will meet again." Looking up at the man writing, he pleaded, "Send it…please," then weakly gestured with his hand "in the bundle." The other man nodded, knowing he would find what he needed to send this last letter to a soon-to-be grieving family.

A few moments passed. The land continued to darken. The Confederate looked around the field wondering how many others still lived, fated to spend the night alone on the unforgiving ground. He signed deeply and, in seeming response, the other man spoke. "The pain," he panted. "Please. I cannot live." His eyes pleaded in a way his voice no longer could. The other man stood suddenly. "No," he said quickly, looking away as if searching for a place he would rather be.

"I…cannot live," the dying soldier repeated. The man in gray suddenly felt apprehension sweep through him. He glanced around rapidly, peering into the closing night. Hours ago, he fired as quickly as he could at the advancing, attacking blue lines, obeying ever officer’s command. Now, when this enemy wished death, he could not oblige. He looked down at the struggling man who now lay with his eyes closed, his shallow breaths bringing the only movement his body could tolerate. Once again, he heard the word, "Please." Taking his own deep breath, he looked over the cluttered ground, focusing on the numerous bodies lying nearby. Finally, seeing what he had feared he would find, he moved away.

Returning with his sad prize, he knelt over the man, took his hand, and with anxiety ensured all was in working order. Then, after whispering a brief prayer, the soldier in gray released his hand. The man uttered one last word. "Letter." "Yes. I will," was the reply. The Confederate soldier walked away, tucking the bundle of letters and newly written note into his knapsack.

After some time, a single shot broke the stillness of the battlefield. Were he close enough, he would have noticed the faint smell of sulfur, and the slightest hint of what might be a surprisingly peaceful smile. Allowing his thoughts to drift back for a moment, he silently mourned the loss of one more soul. Then, walking just a little faster, he once again sought to locate his regiment.



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Sunday, January 07, 2007

War: A Commentary

Over the last year, many of these blog entries have addressed the looming spectre of a casino on the outskirts of the sacred fields of Gettysburg. During that time, some who supported such a venture questioned the meaning of these grounds. Responses frequently discussed the soldiers' sacrifices and their impact on our future while rightfully underscoring our duty to honor the dead of our country. In focusing on such, we often avoid the issue of war itself for without war, without the colossal spilling of blood on these fields, few would view Gettysburg with such reverence.

A Small Section of Arlington National Cemetery

Throughout our history, witnesses to sanguinary struggles often expressed their desire that the conflict they experienced emerge as the last of its kind. Few would question these sentiments. During the American Civil War, casualty numbers eclipsed anything the nation had previously suffered. Single battles left dead and wounded in greater numbers than those produced by multiple combinations of previous wars. However, after sectional hostilities ended, the United States would continue their war with the Indians in a quest to control the lands between the Mississippi and the Pacific Ocean. In the 1880s, a collection of Union and Confederate soldiers would volunteer to fight with a new wave of soldiers in the Spanish American War. With the birth of a new century, as Civil War veterans became fewer in number and the memory of their struggle faded, the United States would join the war to end all wars.

World War I, the Great War, produced devastation on a scale that, in comparison, relegated the American Civil War to a mere skirmish. Estimates for World War I vary but consistently range between 8 and 9 million deaths with a staggering overall casualty list of 30 to 35 million. In the summer and fall of 1916, the Battle of the Somme, which degenerated into a bloody struggle of attrition, would contribute over one million casualties to the angel of death's ghastly harvest. Civilian deaths added perhaps another 6 million or more to the war's grim total.

As the world suffered through the aftermath of World War I taking stock in what they had lost, the seeds of an even greater conflict already threatened germination. A few short decades later, the soul of humanity would cry out in sustained agony as over 60 million soldiers and civilians would lose their lives during World War II. At the end of the millennium, estimates for all wars conducted in the 20th century would range from between 170 and 216 million deaths worldwide.

Holocaust & Andersonville Camp Survivors

The Second World War will forever be linked with the atrocities of the holocaust. The temptation exists to view this immense tragedy as an event which, if remembered, will not occur again. But when viewing the skeletal forms of those who suffered through the years of Nazi persecution, one is reminded of the similarly emaciated forms of Civil War soldiers who emerged from our own prisoner of war camps. Motivations and intentions differed but this did not change the cruelty and suffering experienced by the individual prisoners.

In late July, 1861, as the press disseminated the casualty figures for the Battle of Manassas / Bull Run, many responded with horror that the conflict had killed over one thousand men in a single day. Less than one year later, Shiloh’s 23,000 casualties, with over 3,000 dead, would induce some to label General Grant a "Butcher" as Americans struggled to reconcile the costs of this expanding war. Antietam, Fredericksburg, Stones River, Chancellorsville, and then Gettysburg would bring new levels of horror as the countless lifeless forms laying on precious American soil exploded in number. Gettysburg’s 50,000 casualties with nearly 10,000 dead continued to shape how the populace viewed war. The shock after Bull Run had long since faded into a very distant memory.

The Overland Campaign of 1864 would numb the senses as the number of dead and wounded continued their ascent from the previous year. General Grant would lose 60,000 men between the Battles of the Wilderness and the initiation of the Siege of Petersburg. That dreadful count closely matched the total number of men General Robert E. Lee commanded when the campaign began. General Lee would likewise see some 30,000 of his men fall. Despite the sorrow that enveloped much of 19th century America, these terrible numbers served only as an omen of the conflagration yet to come.

The Dead of Cold Harbor

War is fraught with contradictions. General Stonewall Jackson, one of the south’s fiercest warriors, would offer in a letter to his wife, "People who are anxious to bring on war don't know what they are bargaining for; they don't see all the horrors that must accompany such an event." General Grant, although acknowledging the advantages of war, also stated in his memoirs, "But this war was a fearful lesson, and should teach us the necessity of avoiding wars in the future." Just a few paragraphs later however, he would also state, "We must conclude, therefore, that wars are not always evils unmixed with some good." After the war, General Sherman, whose forces devastated vast regions of the south, would offer to a gathering of Michigan students, "There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell."

Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest, vilified by some with accusations of a ferocious lust for blood, would offer to his defeated countrymen, "Civil war, such as you have just passed through, naturally engenders feelings of animosity, hatred and revenge. It is our duty to divest ourselves of all such feelings, and, so far as it is in our power to do so, to cultivate feelings toward those with whom we have so long contested, and heretofore so widely but honestly differed. Whatever your responsibilities may be to government, to society or to individuals, meet them like men." Of course, perhaps the most famous quote along these lines came from General Lee at Fredericksburg, site of an overwhelming Confederate victory. "It is well that war is so terrible, lest we grow too fond of it."

Few could advocate successfully for the general desirability of war. Yet a similarly small number could discount its necessity as long as men pursue power on a vast scale at the expense of the lives and liberties of others. Perhaps the despair expressed at the loss of 3,000 US soldiers in the current Iraqi war serves as an encouraging indication that we have learned from experience. Regardless of the degree of support or disagreement with the current administration’s policies, as a nation, we express sadness at the loss of each life while supporting the soldiers who at this very moment risk death or dismemberment while we read this article.

We must preserve the relics and reminders of our history so that such lessons do not surrender to forgetfulness or indifference. Our Civil War battlefields must survive the pervasive threat of the developer’s shovel so that current and future generations can remember the lessons so painfully learned at the cost of so much of our ancestors’ blood.

Without the perspective of history, we cannot fully understand the context of today’s public affairs. Lacking both, we cannot act to the better good and will remain captive within the same prison of ignorance, violence, and retribution. With several thousand years of history, the human race, taking stock in all of the lessons learned, should prove capable of finding practical solutions to most interpersonal and international conflicts. Perhaps then and only then, will we yield to the better angels of our nature and end the slaughter of millions.



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All original material Copyright © 2005-2007. All Rights Reserved

Project Gutenberg - Grant's memoirs
National Park Service
BBC: The Somme: Hell on earth
A Path Divided
The Quote Database
Century, Bloody Century
Wars and Conflicts
AMG Publishers

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Book Review: The Soldier’s Pen

According to the jacket cover, author Robert E. Bonner, "has done something remarkable – he’s given us the ability to view a long-past war through the eyes of the average enlisted man." I would have to agree. Mr. Bonner combed through more than 60,000 documents from the Gilder Lehrman Collection and chose for publication a fine sample of letters, drawings, and diary entries of enlisted men north and south, black and white. After initial introductions, he takes you on a journey following a unique collection of men from enlistment to either mustering out or, sadly in some cases, death. This allows the opportunity not only to hear the soldier’s thoughts at critical junctures of the war but also to watch the attitudes and beliefs expressed by each soldier change as the conflict progresses.

The letters include comments on issues too numerous to attempt to list comprehensively. However, some of the topics addressed include politics, religion, current battles, deserters, army life, arming slaves/free negroes, the health of friends, the Emancipation Proclamation, attitudes of the day, duty, patriotism, requests for needed items, sacrifice, and of course an incredible longing for home. Also included was the occasional angry admonishment directed towards those at home who did not vote for, or associate with, parties or persons that support the ideals for which the soldier now routinely risked his life or for which some of his friends had died.

Although not difficult to follow, the letters as presented offer a snapshot of the confusion many must have felt as they tried to understand the aspects of army life with which their loved ones contended in both the northern and southern armies. The collection offers varied points of view upon a great number of subjects but not in an orderly or necessarily predictable fashion. For example, after primarily asking for supplies from home, the next set of letters may discuss the resentment and anger felt towards deserters or the growing desire to pursue desertion. "The Soldier’s Pen" also occasionally includes something all too commonly lacking in much civil war literature. As can be seen from the picture below, the soldiers, despite their sometimes dire circumstances, could display a refreshingly lively sense of humor.

The text also included some rather interesting surprises. I quote part of the letter with one unexpected passage with the original spelling unchanged. "…we have taken some negro rebel prisoners. One was caught in a tree fireing at our scurmishers, there was a white reb also with him but they killed the white one and captured the black one and he declared if he was back there he would fight us just as hard again…" As can be seen, the author opted to leave the original wording and punctuation untouched. Although challenging to read at times, it offered an unsanitized vision of what the soldiers relayed to their loved ones at home. Mr. Bonner also included photographs of some of the letters and some very unique drawings by a creative but unfortunately anonymous soldier. In the center folds (see above), the reader finds several color photographs of paintings done by one soldier at various stages throughout his time in the field. Again, the changes in the imagery clearly indicate the progression of attitude and experiential change during the war.

Because he obviously could not include all of the letters that he read, Mr. Bonner offers his insights on trends and tendencies throughout his book, often relaying his opinions concerning the degree to which the letters included represented those in the larger collection. But the letters, and thus the soldiers themselves, rightfully never lose center stage. In this manner, the soldiers from north and south can once again speak to those willing to listen about their individual experiences during this long and complex war.



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All original material Copyright © 2006. All Rights Reserved

Personal note: As mentioned with previous reviews, in the interest of fair disclosure, I wish to note that I received a copy of this book specifically for review. As a condition for agreeing to write a review however, I stated that, if in my judgment I found this book unjustly biased or lacking the appropriate degree of scholarship, I would not write a negative review but would simply remain silent. The presence of the above is again my acknowledgment that I thoroughly enjoyed this book.