Civil War battlefields stir our souls, humble our hearts and muddy our minds. I know because I recently visited battlefields at Harper’s Ferry, Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania, Antietam, Richmond and Gettysburg. Wow!
Old battlefields are among the most peaceful places you can visit. The tall grass sways winsomely in the breeze. Rustic crooked wooden fences define the boundaries. Noble monuments stand still and silent. Old barns feature bullet and cannon ball holes forever unrepaired. Visitors are not in a hurry. The notion that we are treading on the bones of countless long gone soldiers who perished in a blaze of violence somehow multiplies that feeling of peace. The word reverence applies.
Many stone and bronze monuments dot the landscape. They tell powerful stories and stand as vestiges of a time when artists labored to portray honor rather than horror. Yet we know that both honor and horror were woven together in the tragic stories that inspired each monument. But the vast majority of stories that played out on that field long ago will never be told, heard or fully understood.
The deafening sounds of countless gun shots, bullets whizzing by, canon fire, boots on the ground (for those lucky enough to have boots), desperate commands, rebel yells and trumpet blasts have all faded into the distant past. So have the haunting moans and groans of the wounded and dying after the battle. So have most of the hopes and dreams that died here.
Yet, a patriotic visitor can still somehow hear those sounds. The peace one senses from grass swaying, leaves rustling and birds singing is unforgettable, and yet, incomplete. Questions keep ringing in your mind.
Most visitors want to hear about the troop movements, the casualty counts, the heroics, the “what ifs,” the profiles of great leaders, the blame games and more. We ask which side was outnumbered. When we learn which side won, we wonder what winning actually meant. Was slavery worth all this? Was slavery really the point? We presume to second-guess the motives of the main players. We judge the strategies in hindsight, with no bullets blazing past our heads. The horrendous statistics you hear from guides or see on plaques just cannot land in a comfortable place in your mind. Yet you want more.
You go to the Battlefield Visitor’s Center and see black and white photographs of the same fields you just toured. Instead of the beautiful green landscape that gave you such peace, you see decaying bodies piled up on each other. You cannot put those two pictures together in your mind no matter how hard you try.
You realize that statistics don’t really count. Photographs don’t tell the full story. Famous quotes and speeches inspire, but you fail to get a good grip on the real context. That entire world is long gone. You feel anger and awe at the same time. Your brain is spinning and your heart is broken for people you never knew.
Suddenly, you realize the rest of your group is waiting for you in the van and they are hungry for lunch!
Life goes on.
Editors Note: All pictures in this post are taken by Joel. Please enjoy the photo gallery below as much as I did.
Battlefield of First Manassas (Bull Run); July, 1861). Here, Union Colonel James Cameron, brother of U.S. Secretary of War Simon Cameron, was killed in action. His brother Simon was among the crowd of spectators who came out from Washington, D.C. to picnic on the high ground and witness the battle from afar.
Battlefield at First Manassas (Bull Run). Monument to Stonewall Jackson in the distance, near where he got his famous nickname for holding ground against the Federals.
The Sunken Road, Battle of Fredericksburg (Dec. 13, 1862). 3,000 Confederate infantrymen lined up here and decimated the charging Union forces who lost 8,000 trying to overtake this wall.
Burnside’s Bridge at the Antietam National Battlefield (Maryland) where some 500 Confederate soldiers from Georgia held off repeated attempts by the Federals to take the bridge on September 17, 1862. The Battle at Antietam was the bloodiest single day in American military history and much of the blood was spilled here.
Battleground outside the Dunker Church, Antietam, September, 2014.
Battleground outside the Dunker Church, Antietam, September, 1862.
Monument to Maj. Gen. Gouverneur Warren who graduated 2nd in his West Point class of 1850. On July 2, 1863, he recognized the importance of holding Little Round Top just in time. His quick action may have been the difference at Gettysburg.
1st Pennsylvania Cavalry (sculptor: H.J. Ellicott). A soldier at ready (Gettysburg).