I recently returned from a four-day road-trip (with my nephew Noah and his parents, traveling separately) to some of the Civil War battlefields. It’s a pilgrimage I’ve made more than once over the years, a way of embracing both nature and history. (Those blood-drenched meadows look terrific in the spring.) Done right, it can almost feel like time-travel.
My favorite route is west from New York, and then down I-81, one of the beauty roads of the Northeast, arcing south through Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia’s panhandle (Shepherdstown, where we spent two nights, is a fine American antique in itself), and then down the Shenandoah Valley. Two hours beyond Charlottesville is Appomattox Courthouse, where it all ended when Lee surrendered to Grant in Wilmer McLean’s parlor.
The Valley, and Virginia in April, are an American heaven; the redbud trees were strewing their wild violet blossoms across the Appalachians, from the Blue Ridge up to Gettysburg and beyond.
The battlefields are something else again: America’s proprietary version of Hell on earth. Their outrageous physical beauty presents a particular challenge: the head and heart must continuously correct and edit the eye.
“When I think of the battle of Antietam,” wrote Dr. William Childs, a surgeon in the 5th New Hampshire Infantry, a month after the battle, “it seems so strange. Who permits it? To see or feel that a power is in existence that can and will hurl masses of men against each other in deadly conflict – slaying each other by the thousands… is almost impossible. But it is so – and why, we cannot know.”
During the drive, I listened to an audio recording of Walt Whitman’s Memoranda During the War. It’s a sobering account of his years as a volunteer in Virginia and the Washington-area military hospitals, where he ministered to the wounded and dying, a sharp and loving witness to an ocean of suffering.
I also dipped into Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering, which looks at how America reckoned with death on a new scale. These books are not what you would call mood-enhancers. But they enhance something else: a sense of who we are, and what our predecessors just five or six generations before us did and suffered. It’s not a waste of time.
It’s hard to see the Civil War chronologically, if you go by car. We began at Antietam, where the nation experienced its bloodiest day – losing more men than in all previous wars combined – on Sept. 17, 1862. (In the first part of the battle, in the Cornfield, the two armies fought each other to a standstill, each side losing 4,000.) Then on to Harper’s Ferry, where John Brown was captured in 1859, and which changed hands eight times during the course of the conflict.
Walking the battlefields is a secular ritual of connecting with the past and the people who inhabited it. You never fully succeed in connecting; but the effort is important, if not a patriotic duty.
And there are lessons to be continually learned and re-learned. Generals on both sides – but especially that of the Union – repeatedly committed the blunder of defeating the enemy and then failing to pursue and close the deal with a mortal blow, so as to forestall months or years of further bloodshed. The South committed this blunder at the first Battle of Bull Run; the North after both of Lee’s invasions, Antietam (1862) and Gettysburg (1863).
The Union Army, after a series of disastrous generals, was well-led by George Meade at Gettysburg. But Meade, like McClellan before him in Virginia and Maryland, failed to press the advantage and finish off Lee’s battered and retreating army. McClellan, cocky and insubordinate, had been a great military administrator and a terrible soldier. A photographic portrait of Meade, on the other hand, around the time of Gettysburg, shows a thoughtful, troubled man who is capable and confident but looks like he would really rather be somewhere else.
As Whitman writes in Memoranda: “It wasn’t a quadrille in a ballroom.” It was men and boys killing and maiming each other. That the battlefields look so beautiful has to jar any sentient visitor. That’s where our work begins: the task of lifting this beauty out of its context, as it were, and applying it to, in Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg, “what they did here.” We have to cut and paste.
Going to these places isn’t like visiting Disneyland. Antietam and Gettysburg (and dozens of other battlefields across the south) invite us to reflect and do the work of understanding American civilization. They are among our sacred places.
I’m not saying it was all glorious, or that the outcome was the best imaginable. The cost of what happened can be rung up fairly accurately at around 620,000 deaths (including that of our greatest president), and untold of additional misery and loss: a generation of widows, orphans, and amputees. Recently, revised estimates have put the death toll closer to 750,000.
I’m saying that however it played out – emancipation, America’s rise to a world power, Jim Crow, a century of appalling serfdom for African-Americans in the South, abiding racism and a cultural rift – we need to think about it. And we need to think about it for as long as this country exists. Put another way: when we stop being obsessed by the Civil War, its causes, tragic proportions, and implications, as the greatest breach in our Constitutional system, we stop being American. As a reckoning with slavery and an enormous sacrifice, it is our blight and our conscience: blood and beauty.
Appomattox, where Lee finally surrendered, after one last brief fight, is a roadside hamlet whose houses and surrounding meadows have been meticulously preserved by the National Park Service. On a fine weekday morning, only a handful of the thirty-odd cars in the parking lot were from Virginia; the rest were from Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Michigan, Texas, New York, Illinois, Arkansas, and even Manitoba.
Here, the Park Service has preserved the dignity of history – the right of the past to make itself known. The quiet display is worthy of Bruce Catton’s classic title, A Stillness at Appomattox. Even more than the battlefields or the national cemeteries, the tranquility of that mile or so along a Virginia road is elegiac, a poem of peace.