The November 11th ceremonies which were held around the world yesterday rightfully recalled the valor and sacrifice of those who fell in the many wars of the 20th Century. Being as it is the centennial year of the outbreak of the First World War, it was fitting that the English, French and Germans jointly held ceremonies which recalled the terrible sacrifices of 1914. Many more ceremonies will no doubt be held by those countries in the following four years as such WWI battlefields as the Somme and Verdun will receive their due memorials.
It is interesting though how little attention is now paid to the fallen of America’s most consequential war. In the Veteran’s Cemetery , not a mile from my house in Los Angeles, there lie buried hundreds of men who fought or participated in the American Civil War. No one is alive now who remembers them and time has washed away their personalities. There are no flowers on the graves of these soldiers.
I thought about this last month when my sons and I took a four day tour of some of the most prominent Civil War battlefields in Pennsylvania and Virginia. There we visited Antietam, Manassas ( the First and Second Battles of the Bull Run), Harper’s Ferry in West Virginia and the greatest of all battlefields in the United States- – Gettysburg.
One can read about the Civil War and its many battles, but there is nothing like being right there, standing on the very soil where combat ensued and so many American lives were lost. The documentaries presented in the visitors centers of the Memorial Battlefield sites portray the devastating impact of the war on the young men who signed up to fight in the volunteer armies and what it might have been like to be under fire during that time. There are many things I learned which I would not have known had I not been there.
For example, I did not know that in the first battles of the Civil War, regiments were made up of an assortment of volunteers who had no uniforms so they would just show up in their regular work clothes. On the battlefield this caused endless confusion as many were dressed in the opposite colors of the regiments they were assigned to. In other words, Confederates were dressed often in blue and the Federals often in grey, which would mean that sometimes troops would be fighting men from their own armies.
I learned that in the early battles the two sides would line up facing each other, sometimes just 300 yards apart, and would fire at one another in succession. One row of soldiers would fall and the next row behind it would replace it. There was no seeking cover and no breastworks. The carnage was appalling.
I learned that Confederate soldiers often had no boots and had to steal them on the battlefield from both their own and the enemies’ dead.
I saw the famous ‘Sunken Road’ at Antietam – a dirt track running beneath a corn field where the Union dead who had been crossing the field – and then the Confederate defenders who had tried to stop them – piled up so high that observers later said that after the battle, you could walk nearly a mile down that road and not touch the ground for the amount of corpses that lined its banks and floor. As I gazed at that very simple farm road I had to wonder how obscure landmarks in the geography of a location can become such important strategic elements in the outcome of a battle.
I had not known that Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. , the future Supreme Court Chief Justice , was a 23 – year-old junior officer at Antietam and was wounded in the neck during the battle, barely surviving; Nor had I known that several future U.S. presidents fought in the battle, including William McKinley, who served as a Union captain.
There was no greater revelation however than the Gettysburg Battlefield itself where the Union forces withstood the full might of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and threw it back after three days of desperate fighting. The battlefield is actually several miles long – another surprise – and lined with monuments commemorating the heroic stands of the hundreds of both Union and Confederate battalions. The beautiful rolling hills of Southern Pennsylvania made it hard to picture the utter devastation which ensued over those three hot summer days in July, 1863. But the cemetery at the site tells the story. Many thousands of young men – as young as 15 – perished in the heat of those afternoons.
I have never faced volleys of unrelenting rifle fire or persistent, pounding artillery in battle. I have not had to step over the body of a dead comrade, pick up his rifle and shoot at men storming my position from 100 yards away. I have been told that the terror of that experience can never be effectively conveyed in film, print or even by word of mouth. All one can do is to stand in these now silent fields, look over the edge of these ridges and try to imagine young boys, barely out of school, hardly familiar with their weapons or even each other, confronting the horror of death and the desperate struggle for survival.
What drives such young men to abandon all thought for their personal safety and commit themselves to win such battles at any cost – even if the cost is their own lives? It is not an easy question to answer. Perhaps history itself provides a clue. For if the Union Army had been defeated at Gettysburg, Lee’s forces would have almost certainly proceeded to besiege Washington D.C. itself, which might have been left largely undefended. The war might have been ended a few months later by a negotiated peace with the United States finally forced to recognize the independence of the Confederate States of America. Lincoln would have lost the 1864 election; there would have been no Gettysburg Address and slavery in the South may have continued as a protected institution for many decades into the future. How different might the history of the world looked with such an outcome?
The Union soldiers who manned their positions on the foothills and ridges overlooking the Gettysburg battlefield were almost certainly not thinking about such geopolitical consequences. But much like other soldiers throughout U.S. history, they must have had the intuitive sense that a defeat had deep irreversible implications which could affect not only themselves, but their families and possibly even the future of their country.
On Memorial Day it is therefore fitting and appropriate to recall our veterans as ordinary men -not overly brave, not by nature perhaps even that courageous – but who were thrown into extraordinary circumstances and fought, often to the death, so that our prosperous lives and our freedoms would continue.
If you can’t remember their names, remember at least such commitment and that will be a fitting memorial.