As our nation celebrates the start of the Civil War, my thoughts return to 1998 when I walked on battlegrounds that my grandfather fought over, 136 years before, and I stand in awe of a man I never knew.
Since he died in 1908, I never had the chance to sit at his knee and listen to stories of the war for Southern Independence. I will never understand what cause could send a 19-year-old walking and riding across most of the state of North Carolina and all of the state of Virginia to fight for something which I’m not sure he understood completely in the first place. Historians tell us that the average Confederate soldier, under-fed, under-clothed and self-trained, anxious to escape the rigors of life on the “hand-to-mouth” Southern farm and discover the exciting life which lay “over the next hill," was gradually transformed into one of the best fighting men the world has ever known.
Eight years ago, as I stood on the field at Gettysburg and gazed up and across the farm and pasture land that served as the arena for Pickett’s charge, I found myself wondering if all this wasn’t some kind of crazy dream, that the history books were all wrong, that nobody could talk young men into stepping out of shell-splintered woods, dressing up their ranks and, muskets on shoulder, stride purposefully into a maelstrom of canister fire and rifle volley. Surely, no one would rush forward to pick up a fallen banner from the bloody hands of a friend and advance it three or four steps before they, too, fell victim to a battle plan they couldn’t win.
Two years later, I faced the same mystery as I stood on the heights at Fredricksburg and gazed down on the killing fields in front of the Confederate batteries. And again in the briers and thickets at the Wilderness, where young men huddled in shallow trenches and listened to their wounded comrades and their enemies scream as flames roared through the trees. And yet again as I roamed the fields around Chancellorsville, where my grandfather lost an arm and was taken prisoner, never to fight again.
Now, I know that there were such men, and at any one time there were probably 50,000, ready to support a cause they believed in and protect a friend who walked shoulder to shoulder with them. I now believe that, early in the conflict, the average Federal soldier was unfit for the job he was called on to do, and the routs at Bull Run, Chancellorsville, Cold Harbour, Fredricksburg and the Wilderness were the direct result of nothing more than a New England factory worker or store clerk facing a hardened Southern hunter with the skills required to survive in a war of attrition.
When I stood in Harpers Ferry at the spot where the mighty Potomac joined forces with the Shenandoah and rushed eastward into history, I felt the presence of Lieutenant Robert A. Tate of A.P. Hill’s Light Division and pondered his role in the battle. Did he later stand in the doorway of the fire engine house, where, three years earlier, John Brown had barricaded himself in with a handful of faithfuls and where President Lincoln later visited to inspect the facility? Did he appear at Arsenal Square to help in the dismantling of the weapons machinery for its long trip southward? Above all, I'm sure that he welcomed the brief respite from combat as his unit accepted the surrender of Harpers Ferry, dealt with the capture of over 12,000 Federals, and prepared to move out for Sharpsburg in support of General Lee.
And yes, I stood on the hill near Sharpsburg, gazing down into that beautiful valley where lay Burnsides Bridge and pictured the Union hordes pouring across the bridge and surging toward Sharpsburg and victory, only to be met by A.P. Hill’s finest and stopped short of Sharpsburg. Even though the 22nd North Carolina had force-marched 17 miles in less than eight hours, they didn't see action that day.
But the one thing that burns in my memory is the fact that over 23,000 men were killed or wounded at Sharpsburg, and when the long, bloody day was over, the battle lines were almost in the exact place that they were when the sun came up Sept. 17, 1862.
Yes, they’re all there at every battlefield, the pathetic little cannon, the breastworks dug by hand, the museums with the minnie balls, surgeon’s saws, tattered personal Bibles and letters from home, the glorious statues and monuments. Everything is there except the reasoning behind the whole sordid affair. An affair that found old politicians bravely offering up their finest young men rather than back down from little more than a long, nationwide debate, a small, senseless donnybrook that somehow “got out of hand.”
Think of all the potential contributions of all these young men and their heirs down through the ages, completely wasted, of the survivors who went to their graves with broken hearts, of the vast wealth of men and materials expended to bring this nation back to its original splendor, which seems quite spartan in comparison to what we now enjoy.
When the Federal ribbon clerks threw down their guns and ran at Manassas, overtaking and trampling the sight-seers from Washington who were dressed in their finest and riding in fancy carriages, couldn’t somebody step to the front and scream “Enough, already, this is getting serious!” Could no one foresee the years of bloodshed, loss of life and national and personal anguish that could be the only fate at the end of the road they chose to travel?
Remember, this article is titled “Personal Thoughts” and I certainly expect rebuttal and differences of opinion. I completely reject slavery as it was then and as it is now in other parts of this world. These thoughts are the result of extensive reading and travel. I urge everyone who is able to visit the battlefields and read the books. You'll stand in respect and awe of these brave young men, Northerners and Southerners alike.