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, the initials C. H. R., Owen. These 39 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. This was all rending, humbling, hallowed. The vast scope of our national cemeteries can drape anonymity over their invariably sweeping scenes, the individual lost in a sea of white stones. But this was not that. This was my processing all of the suffering, all of the futility, all of the patriotic sacrifice and frustration with war and the human instinct for war at a deeply personal level. This was not the indifferent tick-off of historical statistics. These here was living breathing souls, blood and bone. Individuals all, having sacrificed all. Each stone was a man with a name.
Ghost On The Hill: Manassas NMP / Brawner's Farm
Brawner’s Farm and the Stony Ridge, where the Battle of Second Manassas began.
Sample .

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, for real, 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 and alt-everything ’90s. But instead I will stick to the very real “sorting out life” that this hypothetical would prompt. An odd strange way to approach life sorting, for sure; but there it was. The deep dive prompted by that question would inform my coming of age, and later, my coming to grips with mortality.

In all, this time frame brackets about fifteen+ years: from 1989 – 1990 through to 2005. I came out of it a very different person. Having calmed temperamental reactionary instincts, I was more keen to our short stint on this Earth, more wise to making my time count. And one of the very first things I realized was this: being a grown up human male responsible for himself and others had little to do with assertive hyperbolic stands on things, and everything to do with what I did in the moment, how I did it, and more importantly: what and how I did under duress.

The naive certainties of my teens and early twenties had been blown away by the time I traipsed with a touch of trepidation into my thirties. By that point, I had experienced enough life reversal to see how very much lies beyond our control. It was a reckoning, a reconciliation with a harder real that I had been anticipating. Symbolic, watershed, I could finally see—full-frame—that unknowns were always on the march. But regardless of whether they served up seasons of good fortune or bad, the outcome could not halt the living of life.

The constant non-ending effort required to do a good job living this life, to understand that euphoria and suffering are parts of a whole, that be it free-and-easy or tough-going one had to keep moving. To realize, reconcile, and absorb the reverberating thrum of mini-setbacks and mini-defeats day on day on day, to keep moving regardless of what life throws at you—that this was what it meant to live sure and strong. To deploy denial, to deflect and repress the existence of heartache and regret, or worse: lean on the self-involved fragility of flattering myths, these were all the enemy, the spike-strips thrown in the way of living life well. I was finding my way through the thicket of fortunes we all wander through.

To ratchet up and carry on settled in as a mental toughness realized. It was a vital suit of armor, custom-fit. And in a moment of timely synchrony, this realization—this acceptance of, and desire to make the most of my mortal state—landed around the first time I found myself walking the grounds of Antietam. . . . Antietam tears down all façades. All the romance and glory and overcompensation, all the big talk bluster, the egos, 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 rolling 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 wretched 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 come to realize that any thought I had about what I would have done in 1861 mattered for not. It 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 that volunteered in 1861, found themselves advancing in lines-of-battle across farm fields on the outskirts of Sharpsburg, Maryland, on that September Wednesday in 1862, and somehow made it through that slaughterhouse 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 corn field 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 I would need was right there in front of me, all around me, under each step. Within all of what was swirling through my head on that tour that day dropping even a moment’s thought on the avalanche of published speculation and tactical critiques on outcomes long settled came to seem an empty 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 the process of getting at this war from the inside-out, from that point forward I pinned the whole industrial complex of Civil War history reimagined, from the intensely researched to the armchair hacks, as a waste of my 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, under each step. From that point forward, there was only what had happened, because that was watershed enough. . . . And this would pin a watershed pivot in my own life: more acceptance and moving through, less troubling over what might have been—the tone-less distracting white noise of if only. Antietam, I would find, 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 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 the end . . . and, I was okay with it. For the first time, I was consciously okay knowing of mortality, that death was out there, eventually. That this was a comforting thought was odd and strange. But there is was: odd, strange, comforting.

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 come upon a milestone, had worked out a similar mental process as 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 steer into it. 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 that was all, 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 state 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 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. 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 late-teens / early twenties had been less about certitude and more about glossing over insecurities, pushing off a reckoning with my own wobbly sense 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 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 to be an adult in the 1990s, would have any resemblance to me, c. 1861. And this, if only because I would not fully resemble anyone then versus now.

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), maybe just maybe the base alloys of then vs. 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 cannot ever comprehend that scenario, let alone answer the question. I could only ever guess. But after many hours spent with this very question, what I have discovered is that coming face-to-face with your own mortality—just realizing that it is a thing you must contend with—is an open door leading into a life lived well. Far from a dreary depressing march towards death it opens up a passageway instead: an acceptance that allows life to be lived honest and true, a realization denied when the young in any war meet their end.

Nothing in my life has come close to preparing me for such a dire direct reckoning with mortality as the average Civil War soldier was given to work with. My process was allowed to take time, as mentioned: 15 years, give or take. What a luxury, one that the youth of 1861 did not have. Their process was instantaneous by comparison to my own; that is, if they even had time to process such a process. Some were cut down in their first fight, some in their last one. Some made it through the whole damned thing. None of them came through unscathed.

No one comes through life unscathed. But this need not be a downer. A wound can be wisdom if put to use. But it cannot be ignored. It cannot be left to bleed out. . . . I cannot ever know the experience of the mostly young soldiers in that time-fogged war. But I have come to recognize that there is connective tissue between me and them that is innate across centuries. These were young men with names that came to recognize and, largely, accept their mortality. But these were also young men 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, the more they appear. Between the two, they seem to have been everywhere of consequence in the eastern theatre 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. Though the courage of convictions held by those their ranks was a whole other barbed-wire thicket that I would have to hack my way through, the decorated courage of these brigades in combat coupled with a lethal leeching of their ranks in battle amplified the mortality, at once fearless and fragile, of the mostly young men that signed up to fight 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 seem to appear in the toughest spots. They took it and dished it out. And though legend has often been wistfully and purposefully enlisted to replace much of the complicated history of this war (pumping gallantry and a mythic universally honorable service having been the preferred tale for more than a century) in the case of these units the term “legend,” in so far as it describes actual empirical experience, 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 mortality, 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 felt led there as by guide. The long-stilled voices of those who wrote it all down in the moment had lantern-lit a trail that, a century-and-a-half on, 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 earned every thread of the battle-names 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 (yet another thing I could never know in our so comfortable now)—this theme leaps from the letters and journals of soldiers with a common refrain unfamiliar to our modern preference, our working 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-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 put it together, adding only historical and military context taken from the Official Records. (The O.R. being 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 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 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 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: 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.