Wednesday, May 1, 2013

“What Will the Country Say?”

 Do those who argue that perhaps the war was unnecessary deserve the usual accusation that they are insufficiently alert to the moral evil of slavery? Could the wicked institution of slavery have been destroyed without the carnage of war? Did the differences in…social institutions make necessary the deaths of more than 600,000 Americans and the suffering of millions of others?Elbert B. Smith, 1967

A nameless Confederate, killed May 3, 1863.

It has become a cliché in the study of the American Civil War to use well-worn phrases like William Tecumseh Sherman’s adage that “war is all hell” to convey the sheer magnitude of the slaughter that took place from 1861-1865. But if one looks at today’s popular historical art, the pre-eminent focus on battles in Civil War literature, and the bloodless re-enactments that have marked the commemoration of the sesquicentennial thus far, it would not be unreasonable to wonder – have we come to terms with the unspeakable horror that tainted the hallowed fields of Antietam or Gettysburg? Can we wrap our brains around the deaths of approximately 700,000 Americans and still attend anniversary events with the same sense of excitement?

Can we remember the Civil War as it really was, and not as we wish it could have been?

To put it differently, are we haunted or angered by Elbert Smith’s piercing question? Do we feel its weight, or roll our eyes and skip ahead to the morass of tactical details surrounding our “favorite” battle?

To bring this question down to reality, let us consider the Battle of Chancellorsville, which began in earnest 150 years ago today.

The clash around Chancellorsville is a tale often painted in bold and dashing colors – the rascally braggart Hooker, with his impeccable battle plan that seemed near perfect until he lost faith in himself; the mad genius Stonewall Jackson, in a role he was predestined for, leading the way in an attack that would have been condemned as sheer folly had it failed; and the gambling knight of old, Robert E. Lee, who laughed at the odds stacked against him and pulled off what many claim was his signature victory.

Civil War buffs are very familiar with this well-trodden ground, and the film Gods & Generals helped to popularize this version of events.

What many people don’t realize is that the worst fighting of the battle took place the day after Jackson was knocked out of the fight, at a place called Fairview where a man fell killed or wounded every three seconds. Indeed, May 3, 1863 ranks as the second bloodiest day of the entire Civil War.

Chancellorsville was a battle that contained high drama, reckless courage, amazing feats of heroism – and it was almost completely devoid of any real consequences, other than the horrific number of losses.

In all, there were 30,764 combined casualties.

Robert E. Lee himself wrote after the battle that, “Our people were wild with delight – I, on the contrary, was more depressed than after Fredericksburg; our loss was severe, and again we had gained not an inch of ground and the enemy could not be pursued.”

Lincoln could only hold his face in his hands and moan, "My God! My God! What will the country say?”

It is not my intent to belittle the commemoration taking place this weekend, or go off on a lark about the futility of the American Civil War, or warfare in general. Far from it.

But I definitely think that we need to wrestle more with these issues.

Preserving the Union and Emancipation were both unquestionably worthy causes to fight for.

All I ask is that we count the cost

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