Mortality › The Blood and Bone of Iron and Stone
Intro .
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 39 names comprise Row 10403 of Union graves in Section K, a subtle arc of headstones among the 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 had to take a moment. It was rending, humbling, hallowed. The vast scope of our national cemeteries can drape a sense of anonymity over their invariably sweeping scenes, the individual lost in a sea of white stones. But this was not that. This was processing all of the suffering and futility, the patriotic sacrifice and frustration with war and humanity’s instinct for war at a deeply personal level. This was not the indifferent recitation of historical statistics. This here was living breathing blood and bone. Individuals all, having sacrificed all. Each stone a man with a name.
Ghost On The Hill: Manassas NMP / Brawner's Farm
Sample .
Over the years, one question 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 volunteered in Union blue following Fort Sumter and would have done my duty and fought with courage, even in the face of all the carnage. But that certainty grew less tenable as years passed and such sure thing proclamations fell into the dead letter bin of young male assertiveness, of my trying to sound the part of being a man. The concept, of course, has nothing to do with words or shows of assertiveness and everything to do with what you do and how you do it; and I would add what and how you do under duress.

The naive certainties of my teens and 20s had been blown away by the time I traipsed into my mid-30s. By that point, I had experienced enough life reversal to know how very much lies beyond our control. It was a reckoning; a reconciliation, really. Symbolic, watershed, I could finally see, full-frame, that the unknown was always on the approach; but regardless if it brought good or bad it could not interfere with the living of life. You had to keep plugging away.

The routine of “carrying on” shaped up into a nice piece of mental toughness, as if fitting into a vital piece of armor. And in a moment of timely synchrony, this was also the first time I found myself walking the grounds of Antietam. . . .

Antietam tears down all façades, all the romance and glory and tough-guy overcompensation, all the bluster and cocksure certitude, all of that died here in and amongst angry swarms of bone-splintering bullets and the gore-clot gusts of double-shotted canister. On Antietam’s 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 single bloodiest day of combat death in American history. And by the time of my first tour of the Antietam National Battlefield in October 2005, I had long realized that any thought I had about what I would have done in 1861 was irrelevant and meaningless in the same way that any initial thoughts about the war—and an individual’s coming glory in it—had been rendered irrelevant and meaningless to most Civil War soldiers who did volunteer in 1861, found themselves advancing in lines-of-battle outside Sharpsburg, Maryland, on a late-summer Wednesday in 1862, and somehow made it through that day. Thoughts evolve to counter the threats we face, especially when what we thought we were getting into—be it living or war—turns out to be not what we had imagined, not by a long shot.

Just being there 143 years later and walking the grounds, from the corn field to the woods to the church, the lane to the bridge, this was all watershed enough. But something else stood out as signal and lasting around that day in 2005. That was the point I stopped any and all attempts to “if / then” anything about Civil War history. Within all of what was swirling through my head on that tour, speculation on outcomes long rendered had come to seem an empty intellectual exercise. It provided no lift to the experience, only a tone-less static that interfered with the larger truths in plain view. From then on, there was only what had happened and what it meant, because that was watershed enough. And I would come to see this shading a watershed pivot in my own life: accepting and moving on, less troubling over what might have been, the tone-less interfering of “if onlys.” Antietam has a way of reorienting everything. There was what HAD happened. And that was more than enough.

Was this the cold hand of fatalism? Perhaps. Though I could see it more as the fragility of life having been laid bare, knowing what occurred on those rolling fields and knowing better as a result of every human’s eventual reckoning with mortality. . . . And, I was okay with it. For the first time that I can recall, I was consciously okay with knowing that death was out there, eventually. But the odd thing was that it proved a comforting thought. Death was everywhere at Antietam. Even after all this time, death still feels prevalent at Antietam. And yet there I stood, living. In my own micro way it seemed I had worked through a similar mental process as the soldiers who had fought and died here. We’re all going to die. It might be today, or 50 years from now; but it will occur. Wrestle with that if you must, but confront it. Do it now. Do not wait. I took from those rolling fields what was there to be had in thoughts and rumination, and that was all, nothing more. There was no guessing at what I would have done, how I would have reacted. I could never fully know the emotional state of any of what had occurred on September 17, 1862.

Still, the seed of a different line of thinking did sink roots 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 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 in this war. They were still young, full of fire and 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 bodies and 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 early twenties had been less about certitude and more about glossing over youthful insecurities, my own questions of confidence and 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 my environment. All of my mannerisms, even the way I would have spoken would be unrecognizable. How and what I thought and worried about and stressed over—my entire thought process—would be unrecognizable (and a lot of it probably embarrassingly crude). Nothing about me, a child of the ’70s-80s having come into “adultness” in the 1990s, would have any resemblance to me, c. 1861. And this, if only because I would not fully resemble any guy then versus now.

Yet strip away all of the obvious differences in mannerism and outlook and thought process, all the environmental factors that can seem and in many ways are primitive to now, and how different am I, really? A twenty-one year old male—as I was in 1991—was just as naive, cocksure and green as in 1861. 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 they thought long and hard about all of this. They wanted to do their duty without dishonor (to “never flinch”), be done with this war, get home to families and girls or wives and live their lives. I would often think that if I controlled for the differences in attitude and outlook, manner and speech, that the base alloys of then versus now might synch more than I might expect; or at least enough to draw a bead on questions that seem patently impossible to answer: “How did they do it? Could I have done it?”

James McPherson put it directly in For Cause & Comrades: “What made these men do it? What motivated them to advance into a wall of fire?” I cannot ever fully comprehend that scenario, let alone answer the question. But what I have discovered due to many hours spent with this very question, is that coming face-to-face with your own mortality—just realizing that it is even a thing—is the open door into adulthood. It is a passageway, an acceptance that allows life to be lived honest and true, a realization sadly denied when a young life ends prematurely.

Nothing in my life has come close to preparing me for such a dire and direct reckoning with mortality as what the average Civil War soldier had to work with. My process took time, 15 or so years. They did not have that luxury. Their process had to seem almost instantaneous. I could not know the experience of the mostly young soldiers in this war. But I have come to recognize that there is connective tissue between me and them that seems innate across the centuries. These were young men with names that came to recognize and accept their mortality; but these were also young men that wanted to live their lives. This, I could work with.

There was something else for me to work with: two brigades—one Union, one Confederate—that have come to symbolize courage under fire in the American Civil War. The more you read, the more they appear. Between the two, they seem to have been everywhere of consequence in the east throughout the first two years of the war. And as this theme came into focus, and they continued to make their presence felt, I zeroed in on their stories. The more I did, the more they converged. The decorated courage of these brigades coupled with the lethal leeching of their ranks in battle amplified the mortality, at once fearless 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 and honors. Both are legendary. And though legend has often been wistfully and purposefully enlisted to replace much of the complicated history of this war with an easier to get behind gallantry, in the case of these units the term “legend” 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. . . .

And 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 felt led there as by guide. The long-stilled voices of those who wrote it all down in the moment having 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 (having hard-earned every thread of the names of battles stitched into war-torn banners), if anything their frequent brushes with and reckonings with mortality stirred the opposite: heroes get their heads blown off; honors come with the expectation that you go in first the next time the big guns begin to roar … In general, mortality and the prospect of death itself was closer and more present to the average human in the nineteenth-century. And so, if only out of familiarity—the hard-set reality of their present—the theme leaps from the letters and journals of soldiers with a commonality unfamiliar to our modern preference, which works overtime to push mortality and human frailty of any sort far from sight.

A stand-out collection of journal entries and letters home written during the war titled: Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers—or the better modern-printing 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 put it together, adding only historical and military context taken from the Official Records (the O.R. a massive 100+ volume collection of military documents, U.S. and C.S., that was painstakingly collected and published after the war and has long been the foundation for operational histories of the war). And though quick takes in the moment often get it wrong, a thing Dawes may have been cognizant of 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 tenor. 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 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 space between these two 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.