Destruction › The Long Shadow
I can recall the scene in fine detail. It was my spring break, seventh grade, April 1983. I am standing in front of the contemporary descendants of the “Copse of Trees,” the natural landmark along the sloping length of Cemetery Ridge that on July 3, 1863, had been the target of Pickett’s Charge. Dad and I took some memorable road trips. This one may have been tops. Stop 1 had been Cooperstown, New York, and The Baseball Hall of Fame. Stop 2: The Gettysburg National Military Park. The highlights of that trip run on a slide carousel through my head. But the one scene stands out. I can still picture it clearly. My view at that moment took in the entirety of the plot of Earth where the high-tide of the Confederacy crested and broke, what would prove the brutal finale to The Battle of Gettysburg. All considered, there may not be a parcel of land more important to the timeline of America. But as searing an impression as just standing there left on my thirteen-year old brain, there was something else about that scene, that moment. It was the first time I sensed it, something of a low hum that hovered over the landscape. It was not visible or audible. I did not see anything peculiar. I did not hear anything out of the ordinary. But I did sense it. It was (and is still) hard to explain. It was an energy. It was tangible, as if the plot of land itself was an electric field.
I recall a later scene in even finer detail. This was on a return visit to Gettysburg in 1993, my first solo Civil War battlefield tour. My knowledge and sensitivity towards the place and life in general was expanding rapidly and I distinctly recall how that energy—that charge in the air—seemed stronger, more visceral. I also realized that there was something else going on. I was now conscious of the tragedy embedded in that land, a thing that would have been hard for any thirteen-year old to grasp, let alone process. I was also coming to see that the presentation of the war in national memory was not a complete picture, that it had been invaded and in many ways conquered by myth. I was ten years beyond that life altering moment in The Angle back in 1983 and was more perceptive to the emotional barrage such a place can unleash, far more invested in what it all meant. That heightened sense, or phenomenon, or whatever it was I was sensing rose up from the ground to trigger a mood I can only describe as an anxiety laced with anguish, what in the 1860s might have been tagged “melancholia.” I was not then, nor am I now prone to depression outside the occasional blue day, which made it all the more puzzling. It was heavy and riven and I could not put my finger on it. But I knew the land on which I stood was responsible, that it was stoking emotional coals.
It would take twenty more years of exploring and discovery, and a dozen plus Civil War battlefields inciting similar floods of feeling before I came to understand what was barreling through my head in those moments. I was asking a question of no one person in particular, but of humankind. Arms spread and incredulous, I was asking, pleading: “Why war?”
The story of the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery was not new to me. But it was not until a deep research dive in 2002 that I absorbed the depth of their tragic moment. My immersion was in preparation for a tour set for that Spring. This would be the second of the “Civil War rambles” Dad and I would take between 2001 – 2006. The idea had been a last minute Christmas gift. Percolating up through the distracted thrum of 2000 (juggling a new millenium, a new small business, a new mortgage, a new engagement) were memories of a great tour Dad and I had taken of Civil War Charleston in 1995. It was marooned as a one-off despite repeatedly saying: “That was a great trip. We need to do that again,” and then, not. But in the Spring of 2001 we were going to break the cycle of saying / not doing. That trip proved such a hit that it was promoted to an annual venture, my annual Christmas gift to Dad. It now stands as one of the great things I have done. For I had no idea in 2001 that Dad only had six years left. None of us figured he would only have 68.75 years on this Earth, but that was all. And though Dad and I were not able to make it to Antietam in May 2007 (what was to be ramble No. 6), we managed to see a lot on rambles 1 – 5. It all started at Vicksburg in the Spring 2001, ramble No. 1. No. 2 would trace the last gasp of the Confederacy: “Lee’s Retreat” across southern Virginia to Appomattox. We would start at Petersburg.
Petersburg, we can now see, was the beginning of the end of the American Civil War. Not so much a battle as a stationary campaign, it was to be a struggle of endurance that pushed both sides to the brink. It would also showcase in glaring terms just how invested each side was in the destruction of the other. There was nothing to romanticize about Petersburg in its aftermath. It is barely even mentioned in modern overviews of the war. Aside from it foreshadowing trench warfare, it is all but unknown; and this, though in the end it would prove the hinge on which the outcome of the war would swing. It was brutality through and through, and at least to me the natural end point for the type of war that the Civil War was all along. There is nothing to romanticize about Petersburg. It was hard and mean. It was total war.
Dragging across nine long months, it consisted of numerous moves and countermoves, battles large-and-small, and all while wrapped inside a larger siege encompassing every scrap of land to the east and south of the vital railroad hub of Petersburg, and the Confederate capital of Richmond 25 miles to the north. The operations in and around these two cities would prove so total and voracious in appetite that it would spur the overnight transformation of the peninsula tip hamlet of City Point on The James River into one of the busiest sea ports in the world. Hundreds of tons of supplies poured onto makeshift docks and wharves round-the-clock to feed the leviathan Union war machine, the goal simple: supply one army with all the ammunition and sustenance it could possibly need to break and starve out another. Above everything, this was a siege updated and set to the (then) modern script. The vast scope of the military operations in and around Petersburg would even generate enough centrifugal force to spin off sub-campaigns that ventured far beyond southeast Virginia throughout the Summer and Fall of 1864, the sole intent of each: put the screws to the enemy’s will. But in the end, despite all of the secondary actions and reactions—the Union navy driving into Mobile Bay, the juggernaut of western and middle theatre Union armies driving on and beyond Atlanta far to the south—the war’s outcome, we can now see, would come down to Petersburg. And it would begin as they all did, with an instant of tragic human destruction.
The 1st Maine Heavy Artillery had begun its existence as the 18th Maine, the eighteenth regiment (a military organization at that time in the neighborhood of 10 companies of 100 men each) having been formed within the country’s then most northern state. A group of young men hailing from coastal fishing villages and timberlands up the Penobscot River Valley, they had come together during the last widespread wave of volunteering in 1862 and marched off to fight the war then raging to the south. But instead of front-line distinction, chance remanded them to a dull listless garrison duty outside Washington, D.C. It was only after two uneventful years manning a link in the ring of defenses (surrounding what was then the most heavily fortressed city on the planet) that they were shipped off to the front lines. Recast, they were one of a dozen regiments having served as an artillery unit in garrison that were given rifles and sent off to fight in the field during the Spring of 1864.
All of these so called “heavy artillery” regiments were sent south to replenish the battered and depleted U.S. Army of the Potomac, a force that had been engaged in near constant combat operations for a month-and-a-half, having just fought the most brutal land campaign in a war full of them. It was an army that was understandably spent. The physical and emotional toll was showing itself from major general to private, these rattled tens-of-thousands who had somehow managed to “come through” some of the most savage fighting of the war. Knowing the grisly gore that they had survived, it does escape comprehension that the army as a whole did not just come apart and collapse. Some individuals did. No one was untouched, those who did come through walking wounded nonetheless. Corporal Frederick Pettit of the 100th Pennsylvania, a veteran unit that unlike the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery had seen their share of front-line duty, their numbers having decidedly thinned since their own inductions, summed up the destructive brutality of that campaign in a spare manner typical of soldiers’ letters to home during the Civil War. He wrote that it was “such as I supposed it impossible for any set of men to endure. Any person not with the army can form no idea of its hardships.” This phrase would stick with me, riding alongside my trying to glean anything from this war. For I was coming to find that the experiences of war and combat, and enduring such human on human conflict are not (as a good friend once put it) “transferable.” The searing destructive chaos of war provides no guidelines by which to order and live a life, only its antithesis. And perhaps the gravity of that conclusion, in light of the litter of war and destruction scattered across all of human history, is what kept drawing me to it. I just could not understand it: Petersburg, this war, how anyone made it through.
In mid-June 1864 the 1st Maine Heavies were thrown into the thick of this brutality. They and others were right then being rushed towards the ridges on the outskirts of Petersburg and towards an opportunity that surpassed any other the eastern theatre had yet presented: to break through a weak defensive line and cut the final supply routes for Confederates holding Richmond. If it could be done, the war was over. And yet despite some success during the initial assaults of June 15, 1864, poor execution by Union generals in the three days that followed and the piecemeal attacks that had been the result (again, the army understandable spent), saw this signal opportunity evaporate. Robert Carter of the veteran 22nd Massachusetts, saw the scene for what it was in the moment, writing: “There seemed to be no concerted movement at all.”
What should have been a general all-hands-on-deck assault down the entire Union line south of the Confederate capital and Appomattox River (which separates Richmond and Petersburg before emptying into The James) never materialized. By June 18, 1864, all of the advantages for a decisive offensive opportunity of any sort had been lost. Confederate (C.S.) entrenchments in their front were now improved, manned with veteran units, and bristling. Nonetheless, Union commanders ordered the attacks to continue. And so, this regiment from Maine dressed ranks and went forward that afternoon, doing so against the pleading of veterans from two other regiments who had been ordered forward ahead of them but had refused—the execution exacted on them against a similar line of entrenchments at Cold Harbor east of Richmond only two weeks past.
This combat-green unit from Maine, having been engaged in a single fight to date and counting near full rolls when compared to the skeletal veteran regiments then pleading for them to take cover, went forward and was blown away. Better than two-thirds of its ranks were killed or wounded in about ten minutes: 632 men, a rate of loss equivalent to a man per second. Theirs would be the highest numerical loss of any regiment in a single action during the entire war.
The nineteenth-century writer Herman Melville is popularly known for a single work as arcane-seeming as the occupation of whaling itself. But he dilated a keen eye that took in the mean totality of this war. Having traveled to several eastern battlefields, freshly hallowed, and interviewing many (not the least of which: Ulysses S. Grant), Melville’s war poetry left a stark register of such tragedies as that which consumed the Heavies. Despite his regular hitting of celebratory and triumphalist notes (a fervent Union man, the style itself very much a product of the nineteenth-century), the aim of Melville’s tenor sought to keep focus on the unvarnished grit and toil, a “Hail to victory without the gaud.” Paraphrasing his poem, Armies of the Wilderness, Drew Gilpin Faust illustrated Melville’s more salient point in This Republic of Suffering: “Glory, plumes, sashes, banners have become irrelevant; men are but operatives, cogs in a machinery of destruction.”
I was a happy kid, outgoing even. The warmth of an unquestioned comfort and security was wrapped around me at all points. I went out into the world and beyond that secure shield as a happy unburdened kid. But like most, I encountered meanness early, the innate often vicious meanness that humans drop on other humans. And I can now see that it triggered a reactionary response in me that was most likely built-in: the environmental genetic imprint of hundreds of generations to be leery, to be on the lookout for those wishing to do you harm. But grasping that hard edge and learning to navigate it would take time. Many just learn to live with it. I never learned that lesson, and feel the better for it. But, it must be navigated. It must be absorbed in a way that does not swallow you whole with fear and, or rage. And that, I did not grasp; not right away. . . . As I moved into my teens it swallowed me whole. Knowing of meanness, that it was unpredictable and could be directed at me at any point—randomly, specifically—knowing this was too much. My response manifested as insularity. I went inward. I guess it was instinct. By going inward I could evade it, hide from it, or so I thought. But it found me nonetheless. There was no hiding from the meanness that humans dole out and often direct at other humans. And my going inward, I can now see, just made it worse. It had me uptight, sullen even.
I have often wondered if that road trip in 1983 had been Dad’s attempt to break me out of it. Having watched this once happy unburdened kid drift into a sullen boredom common to any modern American teenager (this modern phenomenon, ironically, proof enough that it actually was better for most American kids, less dropping out of school to work the fields, more teen ennui). But in my having arrived there earlier than most, I have to wonder if Dad saw hitting the high notes of baseball and history in one memorable trip might snap me out of it. I never did think to ask him if that had been a reason for that trip. I guess I figured I would have plenty of time to ask him such questions. That proved not to be the case, and neither did that trip bust me out of my insularity. But it did open a fault line, one that would lead to earthquake revelations, if down the road. . . . As a young kid I had encountered the meanness that we all do. By the time 1983 and my teen years had arrived, my answer was to fall back on a hyper-sensitivity towards any hint of a wrong or a slight, friend or foe, real or (more often) perceived. I now see that meanness—general, targeted—did this to me.
Of course, I have to consider myself lucky that in my version this involved only random acts of meanness and the occasional bully. It did not include those trying to kill me, or destroy my culture. Yes, I grew up beneath the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation; but even that seemed so remote as to be, almost, not a threat. That it was very much a world ending threat did not much penetrate the half-truth that America, understandably, had to tell itself back then: that it, likely, will never happen. And my being a distracted teen without the worldly ability to think through an end-times nuclear war helped. Besides, I was too invested in ingesting and trying to make sense of all the meanness. I could see it everywhere. It was not so much in my little corner of the world (love and support more the backdrop, however I might grouse). But even those few face-to-face run-ins with meanness set it up as an outsized presence inside my distracted head space. It seemed to be everywhere. I drank to get past it. I smoked pot to get past it. High school would be the only time in my life when I for sure leaned on both not for recreational escape, but as a need. A lifetime social drinker and marijuana smoker, I have and still do turn to both to loosen up, float away cares, expand my mind; but I do not need either as an antidote to an insularity that could be downright sullen.
I came to see it clearly: This was all due to meanness. “Why are some humans so mean to other humans?” I was asking, pleading, incredulous, arms spread. I could not comprehend how / why humans were so mean to other humans. Knowing meanness had turned a happy outgoing kid into an uptight reactionary one. I went through all of my teen years on the defensive. Unless I was drunk or high, I was often prickly, a live wire waiting to lash out in my defense. It was not until I was introduced to a much larger, more diverse pool of humanity beyond high school and my hometown that I gained distance enough to realize what meanness had done. More important, I realized how I had let meanness get the upper hand.< p>
That pin on the timeline backlit a moment when my mind was opening to the enormity of the world in which we live. I was shaking off a shielded and insular view of the world, and the piss poor version of me that had been its result. I was invested in the course-correction, even if I did not fully know at the time that central to it was shedding what meanness had done. I had allowed it to dictate the terms, that I did know. But all of my perception was shifting by the time I turned nineteen. Insularity and a reserved touch-sensitivity to all things would do me no good. It never had. It did not and would not protect me from anything, but only hinder my ability to join this chaotic beautiful mess of a world. Meanness had stunted my ability to see all that this world had to offer. By the time I turned nineteen and then twenty, I could see for the first time how many different people and cultures and races and opinions and views there were to see. It was overwhelming to see. But in the act of seeing, of being curious, I began to move past the long shadows of my youth.
I can also look back at that reactionary over-sensitive teen and see just how susceptible that made me to self-serving myths. I could see how insularity allowed unsustainable myths to go along unquestioned, how they served as sham little life jackets, a thing the weaker mind must cling to in the face of shifting norms, standards, beliefs. It was the intractability of that insular me, that things will never change and probably should not, that could allow me to believe the uncomplicated presentation of something as patently questionable as the then popular Civil War trope that the war had been fought by honorable Americans, all, fighting for causes in which they believed, honorably. I had been conditioned by a sheltered upbringing and all the tales in circulation at the time that wanted to support a less complicated national narrative, one that had attempted with much success to whitewash the brutality of prejudicial bias, of a crude historical meanness. I had gone along with that which had been taught to me, because insularity had closed off all routes of escape. My tenderized mind accepted things as if written in stone.
But then, I met other people from other parts of the country and the world with different views and different backgrounds, those whose story and experience and outlooks were different by degrees, and by leaps and bounds. Quite suddenly, a defensive insular posture in this world was no longer tenable. Self-gratifying myths dissolved in the greater world. I was not the center of the universe, and my small-bore problems and insular reactionary ways were small and held me back. But along with it arrived an equally profound realization: that coming to accept a national narrative buffed to a sparkling sheen held me back from understanding the American past in full and honest. The historical truth was much more nuanced, much more complicated, and at points much more mean than I had been led to believe. My views were not the only ones worth knowing, let alone defending. There were all these others, and they were good and not mean and seemed more normal than my homogenous monolithic upbringing had led me to believe. Diversity was actually the norm. It was, and is, the single most consistent trait the world over. It is the natural order. Homogenous self-serving myths were just that.
As I began to piece this together, I knew that I had to move beyond an inward insularity. What I thought was a life jacket keeping me afloat despite the meanness had been dragging me under. It put off the reckoning(s) I needed to pass through in order to live a more honest life. I would have to deal with meanness in this world as an inevitability. I could not let it win. It had me lashing out in a self-serving defense. Meanness had made me mean. Insularity, inwardness, that was meanness notching a win. Understanding that it was out there and that mean people looked to do me harm at random or specific intervals could not lead to insularity. That was a living death sentence. No, I had to know it and live life brightly in spite of it. I was becoming aware of something I had probably always known, but had not been able to clearly define: that instinctual meanness in a person is a pathetic remnant of those who fail to open up their minds and lives to others and other ideas, of those that continue to live on inside the insular lie that our own person, our shallow little ego, is the center of the universe. I came to see it clearly. Mean people failed a key test: to get beyond their own self-serving / self-gratifying myths. In small weak little ways they went along believing the age old lie that our own viewpoint is the only one worth a damn.
All of this was sorting itself in my head out as I veered into my twenties. Chance had it that this was also a moment when I found myself reengaging with something that had been as central to my growing up years, something my Dad had likely known and attempted to leverage a decade earlier: an odd deep set interest in the American Civil War. I was processing the world completely as for the very first time: fact, fiction, all of it. And I was reengaging with a subject that had been with me since I could remember. But this time around I was seeing it for what it really was, not the sanitized version I had been led to believe it was. I was able to see through to truth in my life as for the very first time. And I was beginning to see the truth of history through all of the clutter of half-truths and mythic lies. What I had been told and shown was incomplete. There was no glory to be found in war. There could be honor, depending. But the “honor and glory narrative” then dominant was shot-through false.
The U.S. army’s push in the middle of June 1864 to out-march, outflank, and cut off Confederate defenders and the few final supply routes in and around Richmond, had failed. In a masterstroke of deception, logistics, and engineering (which included laying down the longest pontoon bridge of the war across The James, a tidal river), The Army of the Potomac achieved the out-marching and outflanking part, but could not finish the job; and this, due mainly to the just in time arrival of the mentioned veterans from the main eastern army of the Confederacy, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. A tried, tested, and well-led force who was not on hand for the initial assaults of June 15th, was in place on the outskirts of Petersburg to receive and destroy the final Union assaults on June 18th, the young patriots from Maine in the van.
And with this, conditions on the ground evolved into the Petersburg that has come down through histories of the Civil War: a drag-on trench warfare full of sparring and jabs and a few full-scale attacks set against the continual, if slow-burrowing, stretch of lines westward. Both sides, worn, weary, and depleted, dug in, shook out their sharpshooters, and kept their heads down . . .
. . . and at night all the front glowed with flashing fires as the armies sniped and bombarded each other, and the great mortar shells climbed the sky in high slow parabolas, fuses burning red in the black sky.
Bruce Catton — A Stillness At Appomattox
This is the Petersburg that would come to serve as the prototypical historical template for a future conflict that would shock humankind in its time in the way that the American Civil War had shocked humanity in the 1860s. As an historical parallel, it is depressing enough that the largely unconsidered destruction of these wars would prove so devastating as to quickly drown whatever naive optimistic expectations—most animated by a predictably crude “otherism”—popularly held at the start of both. Of course, that future conflict was The First World War. And though much has been written of the military parallels between Petersburg and the infamous World War I killing zones along its western front—the trench-warfare, the constant artillery fire, the indifference of sharpshooters (or snipers as the term would evolve), the no man’s lands—we find little on this: that the cost of the American Civil War would register in no seismic way to halt or even slow the sprint of offensive war, still a fully “legal” method for nation-states to acquire territory and resources, cure wrongs real and, or perceived. And all this while the technology of war and killing sprinted ahead with mind-warping disregard.
It is an oversight so glaring as to blind. And the more I dug in to the history of both wars the more I began to make connections that seemed overt, grim, and worst of all: obvious. In coming to know the tragic charge of the 1st Maine Heavies, I could not help but see a direct-line from it to a much larger mistake to be committed 52 years later. . . . I realize that comparing the final Union charge on June 18, 1864, to the epic assault of the British Fourth Army at The Somme on the first day of July 1916 is not a clean parallel, but that the latter follows the former as an obvious historical template for its tragedy alone; and that this—in and of itself—fails to get anything close to the scrutiny it should in aligning such historical parallels, generally, and fixing Petersburg’s long shadow in the historical record for what it really was: an example of pure brutal destruction.
As was true of the young men from Maine, the young men in the British Fourth Army were comprised largely of green citizen soldiers having answered the call. After a week-long bombardment, during which some one million shells were expended (which it should be noted was not uncommon for a bombardment during that war), they were sent forth on the morning of July 1, 1916, across hundreds of yards of open and fully reconnoitered no man’s land to storm strong entrenchments that had not been reduced by the bombardment, as hoped. Predictably, the young Britons were annihilated by the tens of thousands. Despite the vast difference in scope and combatants there is this stark through-line between the experience of the British Fourth and 1st Maine Heavy Artillery a half-century earlier: both were scenes of mass state-sanctioned murder on orders of cold military calculation in which the destruction of humanity was carried out with a clipped industrial efficiency. The battles fought in 1864 were but a preface to an even more horrific brand of human destruction having been realized by 1916. This was considered progress.
How senseless is everything that can be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out . . . [ Paul Bäumer ]
Erich Remarque — All Quiet on the Western Front