Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, November 16, 2014

How I Spent My Vacation Thinking About War

There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all Hell. -- Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman.

We spent our vacation at Gettysburg this year. It wasn’t timed to the date of the 1863 battle that helped turn the tide for the Union during the Civil War - that would be July 1-3, when the crowds descend on this part of southern Pennsylvania for battle re-enactments such as last year’s 150th anniversary events. It wasn’t even timed to the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s address at the opening of the military cemetery - that would be a week after our visit, on Nov. 19.
One of the many regimental statues on the field where Pickett charged. (Margo D. Beller)
We came to see history, and left thinking about war.

We followed the auto tour road to the woods where a Confederate cavalry unit, heading south to rejoin Lee’s forces, ran into a northbound Union battalion near the McPherson farm. The battle was joined and expanded, spreading to Oak Ridge. At this place, on the 75th battle anniversary, Franklin Roosevelt came to light an eternal flame for peace. Some of the last surviving fighters from both sides shook hands across a low stone wall where once men died.

(photo: Margo D. Beller)
The tour takes you to all the scenes of the three days of battle - Devil’s Den, Little Round Top, Culp’s Hill, the Peach Orchard, Seminary Ridge, Cemetery Hill and the large field where Pickett’s men charged on the final day and were repulsed.

You stand outside your car and, despite the presence of other drivers, school groups and tour buses, you are overwhelmed by two things - the silence of the huge, open field and the statuary put up to mark where individual state battalions fought. Men from Pennsylvania, New York, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Alabama, Maryland, Texas, Mississippi, Florida. The stones and statues are meant to tell a story of pride and remembrance, of battles fought and the men who died.

I tried to imagine the thunder of cannon, the screams of horses and men, many wounded and dying, littering the battlefield with their bodies and blood. But there is nothing around me but markers and silence.

As I said, it is overwhelming.

War is overwhelming. We don’t use hand to hand combat much anymore, not in in this age of bomber jets, Agent Orange and drones. We have antiseptic wars with surgical strikes. “Boots on the ground” is only used as the very last resort, and for good reason. The military “embeds” journalists to keep them under control. No pictures of blood and body bags and screaming wounded civilians that so fired up the American public during Vietnam.

In today’s age of media saturation we are less concerned by pictures of foreign civilians being taken away in ambulances or stacked like cords of wood as we are about Kim Kardashian’s butt. Unless the field of battle is your backyard, it is easy to say destruction of villages and mass movements of refugees are not your problem.

After Gettysburg, the Civil War turned into a war of attrition. It was just a matter of when the south would accept the inevitable. The problem was, the south didn’t want to accept it.
Sallie, the 11th Pennsylvania mascot (Margo D. Beller)

To speed that acceptance, Lincoln - the same statesman we remember for his simple address at the consecration of the military cemetery  - ordered mass southern destruction. William Tecumseh Sherman’s “march to the sea,” from Nov. 15 until Dec. 21, 1864, sent over 60,000 Union soldiers 285 miles from Atlanta to Savannah, destroying everything in their path to destroy the economy and frighten Georgia's civilian population into abandoning the cause. Even then it took another four months before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

At Gettysburg, only 1 civilian died, a woman in her kitchen in town, not far from the battlefield. Soldier casualties totalled over 23,000 for the Union and over 28,000 for the Confederates. The military cemetery contains graves with names and as many graves with numbers because the names are not known.

Soldier monument, Gettysburg military cemetery (Margo D. Beller)

The cemetery is the last stop on the auto tour for a reason - it is a reminder that no matter how righteous or glorious the cause, men are going to die. But the two times we visited we found no school groups and few adult visitors. No one wants to be reminded of the ultimate cost.

After all, you don’t see cemeteries in video war games.

The Civil War saved this country. I can’t say what we are saving nowadays aside from our own economic interests. Did the U.S. have to drop Little Boy and usher in the nuclear age to end World War II? What did we “win” after all those years in Vietnam? Are we “winning” with “surgical strikes” against insurgent groups fired by religious fanaticism?

My trip to Gettysburg prompted questions but I have no answers. I do know Sherman was right. War is still all hell.