Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Civil War sesquicentennial and the horrors of war

It's the 150th anniversary, the sesquicentennial, of the Civil War, so I have attended two 150th anniversary events in the past year. In September, I went to Winchester, Va., for the commemoration of the Third Battle of Winchester, where my great-great-grandfather took a bullet to the abdomen while advancing with his 43rd North Carolina regiment and disappeared from the historical record. He presumably is buried in one of the unmarked graves at Winchester.

At Bentonville Sunday, I watched the re-enactment of the three-day Battle of Bentonville, where a badly depleted and outnumbered Confederate army tried to halt, or at least slow, the advance of Gen. William T. Sherman's march from Georgia up the coast to close out the Civil War.

I thoroughly enjoyed Sunday's event. We wandered among the sutler tents selling uniforms, weapons, civilian clothes and the provisions of the 19th century. We sat on the ground and waited for the re-enactment to begin, then watched as dedicated re-enactors fired historically accurate muskets, pistols, repeating rifles and cannon in an effort to show an audience of thousands what the March 19, 1865 battle was like.

For all of the fascination I and others held for this event, we have to admit that this was a sanitized, bloodless, danger-less, fairy tale version of war. The muskets fired black powder, which made huge clouds of smoke, but no musket balls or more accurate minie balls whizzed through the air. The re-enactors followed 19th century military procedures. They marched in formation. They wore authentic, handmade clothes and wore shoes and boots of the period.

Missing, however, was the horror of the war. A few re-enactors fell in battle, but they fell from the directions in a script, not because a minie ball had shattered a femur or because a cannonball tore off their heads. This was a battle without carnage. In a typical battle, scores of horses might die from artillery fire or bullets. Their carcasses would lie for days or weeks on the putrid battlefield as the hundreds or thousands of dead soldiers were buried first.

No one exploded into a red cloud when struck by a cannonball's shock wave. No one lost an arm to gunfire or to a cavalry sword. No arms or feet or legs littered the battleground when it was over, as would have been the case in a major engagement such as happened at Bentonville 150 years ago when 80,000 soldiers engaged in well-planned and pitiless murder.

This Civil War sesquicentennial is growing to a close, and that may be a good thing. I have been fascinated by the Civil War for more than 50 years, when America celebrated the centennial of that awful conflict, and I have visited many battlefields and museums dedicated to the war. But I see now not the glory of battle but the horrors of it. That is one thing we must not lose sight of at this sesquicentennial or at any other time.

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