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 topped the charts. Stop 1 had been Cooperstown, New York, and The Baseball Hall of Fame. Stop 2 landed us at The Gettysburg National Military Park. The highlights of that trip run on a slide carousel through my head. But that one scene stands out. I can still see 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 in The Angle left on my thirteen-year old brain (the plot named for a sharp turn in a stonewall bordering this climactic acre), there was something else about that scene, that moment. It was the first time that I sensed it, something of a low hum that hovered over the landscape. It was not audible or visible. I did not see anything peculiar. I did not hear anything out of the ordinary. But I sensed it. It was (and still is) hard to explain: a tangible energy, 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 battlefield tour. My knowledge of Civil War lands and a sensitivity towards life in general were both expanding rapidly. It was at once an exhilarating and confusing time. There was a lot up in the air for me at age 23. It was liberating: free, on my own. It was fraught: what the hell am I going to do with my life? And I distinctly recall how that energy out on the fields of Gettysburg—that charge in the air—seemed stronger, more visceral. There was something going on here. I was conscious of the tragedy embedded in the land, a thing that would have been hard for any thirteen-year old to grasp, let alone process, outside a basic outline.
In step, I was coming to see that the presentation of the Civil 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-check moment in The Angle back in 1983 and was far more perceptive to the emotional barrage such a place can unleash, far more invested in what it all meant. I was roaming about inside a heightened sense of perception, surrounded by an energy, or energies, that rose up from the ground to trigger a mood I would describe as anxiety laced with anguish, what in the 1860s might have been tagged “melancholia.” I was not then, nor am I now, prone to the debilitating effects of depression outside the occasional blue day, which made this 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 exploration and discovery, and dozens of other Civil War fields inciting similar floods of feeling before I came to understand what was careening through my head in those moments. I was asking a question of no one in particular, but of humankind. Arms spread and incredulous, I was asking, pleading:
( The First 10 Pages — )
The tragic story of the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery was not new to me. But it was not until a deep dive in 2002 that I absorbed the depth of their tragedy. My immersion was in preparation for a tour set for that Spring. This would be the second of the “Civil War rambles” that Dad and I would take between 2001 – 2006. . . .
The original idea of the “ramble” had been a last minute Christmas gift. Percolating up through the distracted thrum of 2000—juggling a new millennium, a new small business, a new mortgage, a new engagement—were memories of the tour Dad and I had taken of Civil War Charleston in 1995. It was marooned as a one-off despite our repeatedly saying: “We need to do that again,” and then . . . not. But in the Spring of 2001 we would break the cycle of saying / not doing. That first ramble proved such a hit that it was promoted to an annual venture: my yearly Christmas gift to Dad. It now stands as one of the great things I have ever done. For I had no idea in 2001 that Dad only had six years left. None of us foresaw that he would only get 68.75 years on this Earth, but that was all. And though Dad and I did not make it to Antietam in May of 2007 (what was to be ramble No. 6), we managed to see a lot on rambles 1 – 5. It all began at Vicksburg, ramble No. 1 in the Spring 2001. Ramble No. 2 was the following Spring and would trace the last gasp of the Confederacy: “Lee’s Retreat” across southern Virginia to Appomattox. We would start at Petersburg.
Petersburg would prove to be 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 destroying the “other.” There was nothing to romanticize about Petersburg in its aftermath. It is barely mentioned in modern overviews of the war. Aside from it foreshadowing trench warfare, it is popularly 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 cruel. It was total war.
Dragging across nine long months, it consisted of numerous moves and countermoves, battles large and small, all while wrapped inside a larger siege that encompassed 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 peninsular 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 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 down 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 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, Abraham Lincoln’s re-election—the war’s outcome, we can now see, came down to Petersburg. And it would begin as all campaigns did, with 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 understandably spent. The physical and emotional toll showed itself from major general on down to the privates, these rattled tens-of-thousands who had somehow managed to “come through” some of the most savage fighting of the war. Knowing of the grisly days that they had survived, it escapes comprehension that the army on the whole did not just come apart and collapse. Some individuals did. No one was untouched, those who did come through comprising as army of walking wounded.
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 always stuck 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 life. War is the antithesis of all of that. War is all hell. And perhaps the heavy gravity of that in light of the refuse of meanness and cruelty, of war and destruction, that lies scattered across human history, is what kept drawing me in—and does still. I just could not understand it and yet felt I had to understand it: Petersburg, this war. How did anyone make it through?
In the middle days of June 1864 the 1st Maine Heavies were thrown into the thick of this brutality. They and others were rushed towards the ridges on the outskirts of Petersburg towards an opportunity that surpassed any other the eastern theatre had yet presented: to break through a weak defensive line and cut the supply routes for Confederates holding Richmond. If it could be done, the war was over. And yet despite some push during the initial assaults on June 15th, poor execution by Union generals in the days that followed and the piecemeal attacks that resulted (again, the army understandably 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 an all-hands-on-deck assault across 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 the Union (U.S.) front were now improved, manned with southern veterans, and bristling. Nonetheless, U.S. 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 U.S. 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 cruel totality of this war. Having traveled to several eastern battlefields, freshly hallowed, and interviewing many (not the least of which was Ulysses S. Grant), Melville’s war poetry left a stark register of such tragedies as that which consumed the Heavies. Despite regularly hitting celebratory and triumphalist notes (a fervent Union man, the style itself very much a product of the nineteenth-century), the aim of Melville’s verse sought to keep the focus on the unvarnished grit and toil that was the reality of every second of that war—a “Hail to victory without the gaud.” Paraphrasing Melville’s poem: Armies of the Wilderness, Drew Gilpin Faust illustrated the more salient point in her work 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 right away, the innate often vicious meanness that humans drop on other humans. Now, the mean embarrassing slights of bullies or even kids I thought my friends in a small town setting is, of course, a tempered brand compared to the innumerably worse, existentially-threatening settings by which cruelty and meanness are often dished out to the young. Still, that meanness and cruelty all comes out of the same instinct to do others harm, to humiliate “others” as an assertion of some sort of self-awarded superiority, or just of bitter sadism—cruelty for the sake of cruelty.
And I was a sensitive kid, a good and bad thing to be as a kid. Good in that it cast a high-resolution radar that picked up the myriad of human and nature-made signals that flood us in every waking moment, and yet seem lost on most. From an early age, I felt like I was taking in more life than most. That piece of it seemed a gift: “How can no one else see this, hear this, feel this, when it is all I can see, hear, feel,” a thought that shoved its way through (and still does) often. The rush of a wind gust rolling through the trees? I was mesmerized. The vibrant glow of a goldfinch, umbrella flowers of mountain laurel: astounding. The smell of freshly-split hickory: a life being lived full. And it was life lived full of the privilege to enjoy all of these things in my own back yard. Still, privilege aside, my high-resolution radar caught it all. The ability itself seemed fully formed upon my grasping consciousness as a thing. It was an evolved gift, a rare-Earth gem I could call my own. . . . The bad side? Well, you see where this is headed. All that sensitivity made for a fragile self when confronted by meanness. I was simply outgunned, had no ability to counter its offensive firepower. Approaching the world as I did with a sense of stunned wonder, a high sensitivity to the amazing of it all—only to get dragged down by petty meanness. I could not understand it. I could not solve it. “Why all the meanness?”
And I entered a world that did not seem so happy, was most definitely burdened; and if only because all of the meanness everyone was dropping on everyone. There seemed no escape. This triggered a reactionary response in me that was most likely built-in: the genetic imprint of hundreds of generations to be leery, to be on the lookout for those wishing to do you harm. It had me looking over my shoulder, leery from a very young age: nine, ten, eleven. I never had a reason not to trust those around me, until it seemed I had every reason not to trust many of the people around me. But grasping that hard edge reality and learning to navigate it was a skill that would take years, decades, to develop.
Many just learn to live with meanness, fated to a world full of mean cruel people acting indifferently, selfishly, vindictively. I have never accepted it, have fought it since that point that I realized it was a thing; and it has caused me plenty of anxiety, often laced with doses of anguish. It would be years, decades, before I learned to navigate human meanness in a way that does not swallow you whole with fear and, or rage. But not before it did swallow me whole across all of my teenage years.
Knowing meanness, that it was unpredictable and could be directed at me at any point—randomly, specifically—knowing this just was too much. My response manifested as insularity. I went inward. I guess it was instinct. By going inward I figured I could evade it, or hide from it. But it found me nonetheless. There was no hiding from the meanness that humans dole out and often direct at other humans. And I’m not talking about the more innocent insult humor that is innate across all groups and all ages of humanity, a soft mean designed not to injure but only to rib, to “keep real.” No, I am talking about that which is, by design, meant to harm. It was a thing I had no answer for. I was simply outgunned and too young to develop presence of mind enough to escape its dead-to-rights aim. Of course, I can now see that by going inward I just made it all the worse. The more you avoid a demon—internal, external—the more bold and destructive it will be. Meanness made of me an uptight teenager: sullen, reactive, uneven.
I have often wondered if that road trip in 1983 had been Dad’s attempt to break me out of it. Having watched a once happy unburdened kid drift into a sullen anxiety. Sure, that was all common enough among any modern American teenager (acknowledging the spoiled status that even allows for such a thing: dropping out of school to work the fields having been replaced in my first-world setting by teen ennui). But having arrived there earlier than most, I do wonder if Dad saw the distractions of baseball and Civil War history as a way to snap me out of it. I never did think to ask. I must have figured I would have plenty of time to ask. That was not the case, and neither did that trip bust me from out of my insularity. I went through all of my teen years on the defensive. Unless drunk or high, I was often prickly, reactive. But that trip did one thing if nothing else. It opened a fault line, one that would lead to earthquake revelations down the road. It opened me up to what I felt coursing through me in The Angle, April 1983.
The U.S. army’s push in mid-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 stitching together 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 masterfully, but could not finish the job; and this, due mainly to the just in time arrival of the mentioned veterans of 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 . . .
. . . 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”) were 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 indifferent sharpshooters (the nineteenth century term for snipers), 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 at that time a fully “legal” method by which nation-states acquired territory and resources, cured wrongs real and, or perceived. All this while the technology of war and killing sprinted ahead with mind-warping disregard.
The more I dug into 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: 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. And that 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