Remembering the Fallen of the Civil War

November 12, 2014

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.



Scotland Takes the Morning After Pill

September 22, 2014
On Friday morning the Scottish people must felt like the failed suicide who awakes in hospital the next day and wonders to himself: ” Now why in the hell did I do a stupid thing like that? ”

The convincing drubbing that the independence movement took on Thursday should have made most Scots aware of how facile and threadbare were their ideas of separation.

Without a solid financial structure, with the threat of the U.K. withdrawing the usage of the English pound and with the EU ‘s own President declaring how difficult it would be for Scotland to gain entry into the European Union, there was, in the end, really no doubt about the result. Secession would have brought  economic and political pain beyond endurance.

Suicide averted and now life can move on.

But the foolish Scottish secession movement may be a harbinger of more drastic things to come.  Put simply, the drive to break up great nations has not ended; it has only just begun.

Catalonians and the Basque in Spain, Quebecois in Canada, the Flemish in Belgium, the Faroe Islanders in Denmark, Venetians in Italy and Bavarians in Germany have all contracted something of the same secessionist bug.
Which is not to mention  Wales, Cornwall, Northern Ireland in The United Kingdom, Silesia in Poland, Frisia in Netherlands/ Germany, Corsica in France, Aaland in Finland and Kashmir in India .  These countries all sport incipient movements that call for breaking away from the motherland.  And over time, the movements will only gain in strength as the nation state as we know it comes under relentless pressure to fragment.

One of the causes of this process of dismemberment is the resistance to the intense globalization which has affected the economies, social structures and political climates of all Western oriented nations.  As these countries see more of their jobs outsourced to Asia; as they feel their own wealth drained by supra-national entities or else by heavy taxation from a central government which sends back very little in return or as their distinctive cultural identity is eroded by an invasive English language- based  culture , there is a tendency to wish for the days in which one could claim to actually belong to something other than a nominal state, whose political  and economic frontiers are fast disappearing to the point of invisibility.

There is also no doubt that the emergence of the European Union has significantly sliced away at the distinctive cultural identities of Europe’s nation-states.  In the effort to meld 28 European states into a cohesive economic unit, the Brussels based bureaucracy has gingerly skipped over the significant cultural, political and historical differences that divide its constituent members, imposing a rather bland and impersonal ” “European” identity to which few can truly connect. There is, after all, no distinctively European language  ( the experiments in Esperanto having miserably failed) ; nor is there a universal cultural affiliation which is

uniquely European – and no significant effort to create one either. There is, in short, no such thing as a ‘ European’ – and nor is there likely to be in the near future.

The decline of nationalist spirit, evident throughout the West, is really an issue of collapsing identity.  I discovered this first hand in a walk through southern England in the summer of 2008.  There I met villagers who complained to me that they were mystified about who they were supposed to be – were they British, European or world citizens?  Their pubs were now served by Polish barmaids who barely spoke English;  their cars serviced by Czech mechanics who knew very little about their British made cars and even their parks and wild lands managed by immigrants from Bangladesh.  England, I discovered, was a place where multiculturalism and an attempted integration into Europe was eating into the very fiber of British identity, stripping away centuries the view of Great Britain as one of the great civilizing forces in world history. .

I write these words, of course, at the time of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, a conflict spurred, in large part, by escalating, unfettered nationalism.  The Europeans’ answer to the ‘nationalist’ problems of the 20th Century was to de-emphasize the nation-state in favor of the collective. The irony, of course,  is that in doing so, they have tampered with the basic human need  for paternalistic symbols – whereby one shapes his or her identity – and perhaps even existence – by reference to a defined sovereign entity, which reigns over our individual lives beyond family and beyond our immediate communities.

The problem of failed identity in a world without frontiers will bedevil the citizens of the 21st Century.  The governments of western countries must therefore recognize that the utopian drive towards integration and collective identity – and the inherent emptiness of that enterprise-  will necessarily stir to life the dormant, but very real attachments citizens have to their language, culture and history.  There can be no surprise then when a country such as Scotland, for 300 years a peaceful, if not exactly placid, constituent member of the United Kingdom, suddenly rebels against British dominion and demands independence.  Strengthening the spirit of nationalism, drawing on a nation’s rich history and collective memory, emphasizing national uniqueness and pride as well as the nation’s special mission, is a task worthy of any Western leader.  The question remains whether we have any leaders left worthy of the task.

Avi Davis is the President of the American Freedom Alliance in Los Angeles , the coordinator of the AFA  Identity Crisis Conference in Rome in 2008 and the moderator of the Outbreak of the First World War and its Consequences conference held on September 21, 2014.

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