Mortality — The Blood and Bone of Iron and Stone
Kaetwasser, Pride, Barr, Graf, Bayliss, Samm, Moncreff, Crossland, Tomlinson, Bell, Parish, Stratton, Saunders, Boyd, Noon, Durham, Summer, Raymond, Knowlton, Jones, Yancey, Knox, Thompson, Morelock, Adams, Pauley, Wilson, Pond, Dixson, Ogden, Jackson, Loe, Jones, Bigelow, Look, Adams, Keener, C. H. R., Owen. . . . These thirty-nine names comprise Row 10403 of Union graves in Section K, a subtle arc of headstones among several dozen on the east slope of Chattanooga’s National Cemetery. On November 24, 2017, a warm clear Autumn day, I was halfway down this row before realizing that I had been reading each name aloud. By the time I reached the end I needed a moment to regroup. This was all rending and tragic. The vast scope of our national cemeteries can drape anonymity over such invariably sweeping scenes, the individual lost in a sea of white stones. But this was not that. This was me processing all of the suffering, all of the futility, all of the patriotic sacrifice and frustration with war and the human instinct for war and violent destruction at a deeply personal level. This was not a column in a deteriorating ledger of historical statistics, long forgotten. These were living breathing souls, blood and bone. Individuals all, having sacrificed all. Each stone was a man with a name.
( Part 1 — )
One question has persistently rattled around my head while standing at the grave of a Civil War soldier: “Could I have done what they did?” In the bulletproof days of youth, I assured myself that, of course, I would have rushed to volunteer following Fort Sumter. I would have donned Union blue, dealt with the privation, and fought with shaft-of-light courage—even in the face of all the carnage. But then the years began to stack up and such surefire proclamations found their way more steadily into the dead letter bin of young male assertions, of my having tried to sound the part of “being a man.” I will leave aside the sidebar that as a young human I would ponder over such things as “would I have volunteered to fight in the Civil War?”, an if / then not exactly lighting up the zeitgeist of the slick excessive 1980s + alt-everything 1990s that I traversed on my way to “adult.” Instead I will stick to the very real life-sorting this hypothetical would juice: the project of becoming a more resolute and resilient version of myself. An odd inspiration for such a self-improvement project, for sure. But there it was: that odd strange question informing my coming of age, my coming around to adulthood, my coming around to mortality.
In all, this time-frame brackets about fifteen years, give or take: 1990 – 2005. I came out of it very different than how I went in, or more accurately: I became that more fully realized version of the person I always was. I had to work long at calming temperamental reactionary instincts that stained my growing up years. I was more keen to our short stint on this Earth, and came to the wisdom of making my time count. I was damned sure going to fall on the right side of history, a state-of-being always in motion, always demanding a churning self-critical state of review (with course corrections as necessary). I was making a life-long commitment to curating my views, my attitude, and my ability to better recognize and respect others. And one of the first things I realized was this: being a grown up human male responsible for himself and others had not a thing to do with assertive hyperbolic claims, and everything to do with how I acted or reacted in the moment; and more over, how I did under duress.
The naive certainties of my late-teens and early-twenties (the late ’80s / early ’90s), had been blown away by the time I traipsed with a touch of trepidation into my thirties and a new millennium. By that point, I had experienced enough life reversal, minor though it now seems, to comprehend how much lies beyond our control. I had reconciled with a harder reality that I must have anticipated all along. I could finally see, full-frame, that the unknowns were always on the march; but that whether they served up seasons of good fortune or bad, the outcomes would not ever halt the living of life. Life went right on about its appointed rounds with or without you. So, I might as well jump onboard.
A key moment arrived when I realized the following: To live life well I had to respect that euphoria and suffering were just parts of the whole; and more over, be the living free-and-easy or tough-going one just has to keep moving. To absorb the reverberating shocks, to reconcile the almost imperceptible mini-setbacks and mini-defeats that pile up day on day on day, to keep moving regardless of what life threw at me—this was what it meant to live strong. To deflect and repress the existence of heartache and failure and regret, or worse: lean on the thin fragility of flattering myths, these had all come to be “mine enemies,” spike-strips thrown in the way. I was finding my way through the thicket of fortunes that we all wander through, and learning it was best to do so with some grace. By 2005, I was closing in on that me I wanted to be.
To ratchet up and carry on was a tactic foundational to the process, a mental toughness that would fit like a vital suit of armor. But it would take a radical unsparing honesty with the world through which I was then wandering to cement this all in place. To demand better of my world, I had to demand better of myself. It was to be a life-long project, ending only when my mortal instant was up. It could not end until the end. And in a well-timed piece of synchrony, this crystallization tracked with my walking the grounds of Antietam for the first time. . . .
Antietam tears down all façades. There is only space for a radical honesty given all of what occurred there. The romance and glory and overcompensation, all the big talk bluster, the cocksure certitude, all of that died at Antietam within angry swarms of bone-splintering bullets and gore-clot gusts of double-shotted canister. Across its now picturesque fields, the cocksure and confident, the anxious and terrified, died together in mass co-mingled heaps and with an appalling ease. September 17, 1862, was the most brutal day of combat death in American history. And by the time I took that first tour of the Antietam National Battlefield in October of 2005, I had come to realize that any thought I had about what I would have done had I been around in 1861 mattered for not. It was irrelevant and meaningless in the same way that initial thoughts about the war and an individual’s coming glory in it had been rendered irrelevant and meaningless to most of those Civil War soldiers that had volunteered in 1861, found themselves advancing in lines-of-battle on the eastern outskirts of Sharpsburg, Maryland, on that September Wednesday, and somehow made it through the slaughter of that day. Thoughts evolve to counter the hardship and threats we face, especially when what we thought we were getting into—be it living a life or fighting a war—turns out to be not what we had imagined it would be.
Just being there 143 years later and walking the grounds, from the cornfield to the woods to the Dunker Church, “the lane” to the bridge, this was all watershed enough. But something else wove its way into and around that day in 2005. The trauma, the destruction, the suffering embedded in that place clung to the ground like a fog. All the answers were right there in front of me, all around me, under each step. Within all of what was swirling through my head on that tour dropping even a moment’s thought on the avalanche of published speculation and tactical critiques on outcomes long settled came to seem a pointless exercise. Never one for the alternate if / thens of history, it is all but unavoidable if one reads history. But if I had previously found all that as simply distracting, from that point forward I could only see the industrial complex of Civil War history reimagined as a waste of time. It provided no lift to the experience trying to imagine how things might have gone, only static that interfered with the real signal, the larger truths in plain view all around me and under each step. From that point forward, there was “what had happened.” That was more than enough.
It was a watershed pivot in my life: more honest acceptance and moving through, less troubling over “what might have been,” the distracting life-sucking white noise of “if only.” For Antietam, I found, had a way of reorienting everything. There was what had happened. That was more than enough. . . . Was this the cold hand of fatalism? Perhaps. Though it seemed more the fragility of life having been laid bare, knowing what occurred out on those rolling fields and knowing more closely as a result of every human’s eventual reckoning with mortality . . . and, that I was okay with it. I was okay knowing that death was out there, eventually. That this was a comforting thought was odd and strange, but for the fact that it made one thing crystal clear: Death was out there, somewhere, so I had better get to it. There was not a second to lose.
Death is everywhere at Antietam. Even after all this time, death still feels prevalent at Antietam. And yet there I stood on that cool overcast October day in 2005, living. In my own micro-way it seemed I had wandered past a milestone, a mental process familiar to the soldiers who had fought and died here. We are all going to die. It might be today, or 50 years from now. But it will occur. Wrestle with that if you must, but do so. Confront it. Do it now. Do not wait. I took from those now peaceful fields what was there to be had in thoughts and rumination, and nothing more. There was no more guessing what I would have done, how I would have acted or reacted. I was not there. I could never know the emotional headspace of any of what had occurred on September 17, 1862.
He finally concluded that the only way to prove himself was to go into the blaze, and then figuratively to watch his legs discover their merits and faults.
Stephen Crane — The Red Badge of Courage
The seed of another line of thinking also sank roots on that day. I could not know that era or its battles as these individuals had known them. But I was young once, too. The brash wave-away assurance I had offered myself as a young man coming of age was similar to that which had driven these young men to go off and fight that war. Acknowledging circumstances that had kids growing up faster in the nineteenth-century (limited educational opportunities beyond elementary, family farms in need of young muscles, marrying in their teens), many were still kids, full of the empty, if enviable, confidence of youth. There is a reason young people are brought in to fight wars: life hasn’t yet had a chance to scar their minds with caution.
Case-in-point, by the time of that 2005 visit to Antietam I was 35 and it was plain that my own automatic reactive responses to “could I have done this?” tossed out during my late-teens / early twenties had been less about certitude and more about glossing over insecurities—to push far from sight any reckoning with my own wobbly sense of self-esteem, of general life-worthiness. There is no way for me to know how “me, circa 1861” would have spun it. I can only know that I would have been a vastly different person, if only due to environment. All of my mannerisms, even the way I spoke would be unrecognizable. How and what I thought, what I worried about, my entire thought process would be unrecognizable, a lot of it embarrassingly crude, if not just cruel and racist. Nothing about me, a child of the 1970s – 80s, having come into my own in the 1990s, would have any resemblance to me, c. 1861. And this, if only because I would not fully resemble anyone
Yet strip away all of the obvious differences in mannerism and outlook and thought, all the environmental factors that are primitive to now, and how different was I, really? A twenty-one year old male—as I was in 1991—was just as naive, cocksure, and green as in 1861. Some things just do not change. Each man who rushed to join “the big show” in ’61 was, like me in ’91, a man coming of age with a name and a life to be lived; and from the vast pool of letters home and the journals kept in real time, we know that the young soldiers that fought that war thought long and hard about all of this. They wanted to do their manly duty without dishonor (“to never flinch”), but in the same beat wanted to be done with the war, get home to families and girls or wives and live their lives. I have often thought that if I could control for differences in attitude and outlook, manner and speech, the wild divergence in general empirical knowledge (as improbable as all of that seems), that maybe just maybe the base alloys of then v. now might synch more than I would expect—or at least enough for me to draw a bead on questions that seem patently impossible to answer, like: “How did they do it? Could I have done it?”
James McPherson dropped that same question in at the core of For Cause & Comrades: “What made these men do it? What motivated them to advance into a wall of fire?” I could not ever comprehend such a scenario, let alone answer the question. I could only ever guess. But after many hours spent with this question, what I discovered was that coming face-to-face with your own mortality, just realizing it is a thing you must contend with, is an open door leading to a life lived full. Far from a dreary depressing drudge-march towards death, knowing this opens up a passageway instead. An acceptance of the most human thing we have to contend with allows life to be lived true, something denied when the young in any war meet their end.
Nothing in my life has come close to preparing me for such a dire reckoning with my own death as the average Civil War soldier had to work with. I was allowed time: 15 years, give or take, a luxurious kick-back amount of time—one that the youth of 1861 did not have. Their process was instantaneous by comparison; that is, if they even had time to process such a thing. Some were cut down in their first fight, some in their last. Some made it through the whole damned thing, though none came through unscathed.
No one comes through life unscathed, I would find. But this need not be a mope-about downer. The wounds you sustain are wisdom waiting to be put to use. They cannot be ignored. They cannot be left to bleed out. . . . I cannot ever know the experience of mostly young men in that long ago time-fogged war. But I did come around to recognizing that there is connective tissue between myself and them that is innate across the centuries. These were young men that came to recognize and, largely, accept their mortality. But these were also individuals with names that wanted to live their lives. This, I could work with.
There was something else I had to work with, two brigades: one Union, one Confederate. Long lauded as symbols of courage under fire in the American Civil War, the more you read up on the eastern theatre, the more they appear. These two brigades seem to have been everywhere of blood-stained consequence throughout the first two years of the war. And as this theme came into focus, and these brigades made their presence felt, I zeroed in on their stories. The more I did, the more they converged. Though the fighting convictions among those in the ranks was a whole other barbed-wire thicket that I would have to hack my way through, all my reading led to a clearing and this trailhead: the decorated courage of these units in combat coupled with the lethal leeching of their ranks amplified the mortality—at once resolute and fragile—of the mostly young men that signed up for this war.
The tide of histories written about the U.S. Army of the Potomac’s “Iron Brigade” and the C.S. Army of Northern Virginia’s “Stonewall Brigade” pools up around their respective heroics under fire. Both appear in the toughest spots, repeatedly. They took it and they dished it out. And though legend has often been wistfully and strategically enlisted to replace much of the complicated history of this war (a romanced gallantry and a mythic universally honorable service having been the preferred tale for more than a century) in the case of these brigades the term “legend” in so far as it describes actual empirical evidence is for real. Still, the term on its own fails to sketch a complete rendering. For a deep dive beyond the legend reveals living breathing humanity in plain sight: the actual blood and bone.
As I dove deeper, it was in the fraught space between the poles of a tensile-strong bravery in combat and the death that comes with it, that I found myself drawn. I was led there as by guide. The long-stilled voices of those who wrote it all down in their moment lantern-lit a trail that, a century-and-a-half later, led me down into the thick of it. Mortality was something these men thought about and wrote about far more than heroics or gallantry. And though they could be overtly and covetously proud, their frequent brushes with and reckonings with death and their own mortal state stirred unromantic grounded observations: Heroes get their heads blown off. Honors come with the expectation that you go in first when the big guns begin to roar.
In general, mortality and the prospect of death itself were closer and more present to the average human in the nineteenth-century. If only out of familiarity and the harder reality of their present (yet another thing I could never fully grasp, what with our long-life expectancies, our so comfortable now), the theme of mortality leaps from the letters and journals of soldiers with a common refrain unfamiliar to our modern preference. And how could it not? Still, its inclusion notably inverts the general drift in our moment, which is to work overtime to push human frailty of any sort far from sight. Writer Kimberly Coburn wrote of our times: “Death, we like to think, is something that happens to things that are not us.” Not so with the youth of the 1860s. Death was much closer to their day-to-day living. It was what they had to work with.
In 2019, Christine Hauser wrote of a family who had discovered a cache of letters written home by a World War II airman who went missing during the war, his body never recovered. The tenor of these letters was relatable across eras, highlighting core traits that define the human condition. Already deep into this piece, the article urged me on, Hauser writing: “the [letters] are a reminder of how war is constructed on the lives of civilians to whom the small things count the most.” True of homeward bound correspondence during any war, this impulse may have been strongest to the Civil War generation: letter writing as common as it would ever be, a group more literate than those in their past. . . .
A stand-out collection of journal entries and letters home written during the war titled: Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers—or the way better modern-print title: A Full Blown Yankee of the Iron Brigade—set the tone as I zeroed in. To his immense credit, Rufus Dawes, a line officer, eventual commander of the 6th, and rare western state abolitionist in uniform did not layer on the nostalgic gauze of edited memory that dilutes so many war-time memoirs. He claimed not to have altered a word as he pieced it together, adding only historical and military context taken from the Official Records (the O.R. being a massive 100+ volume collection of official military documents, U.S. and C.S., that was painstakingly collected and published after the war, and has long served as the foundation for operational histories of the war). And though quick takes in the moment often get it wrong, a thing Dawes may have perceived in relying on the O.R., the few instances where this does seem the case does not take anything away from his words. The text unfolds as authentic and personable, ranging beyond documentation of the physical acts endured, witnessed, and committed, to include the symbolic and transcendent. He does not shy away from unfurling the colors of spirit and soul alongside those of strength and will. And whether intended or accidental (though I have a hard time believing the latter), it all adds up to highlight—equally—the valorous and grotesque humanity and inhumanity of the moment in which he found himself.
All of this built up to a more universal and relatable tone. And as I made my way down along the trail Dawes had lit, I found his words vaulting beyond the usual time capsule frame to land in my own time as still relevant. This I could most definitely work with. More over, A Full Blown Yankee proved to be a catalyst with Dawes reinforcing my sense, page after page, that in the space between those mentioned poles I would find what I was after. Case in point: in the gap between the following quotes from letters to his fiancé (and eventual wife), Mary—the first penned during the adrenaline laced days prior to Gettysburg, the second in its immediate horrific wake—beats the heart of this theme . . .
June 4, 1863 — The artillery bugles sound beautifully in the morning air. May be in a day or two we will hear the familiar roar of the big guns.
July 6, 1863 — The experience of the past few days seem more like a horrible dream than the reality. May God save me and my men from any more such trials.