(Hilton Head, S.C.) As the United States moves through the second of its four years of commemorating the sesquicentennial of its’ Civil War (1861-1865) it is instructive to reflect on the interplay of History and national memory.
For those wishing to visit historic sites or observe various commemorations, South Carolina – the first state to secede from the Union – can be a useful base of operations.
Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor gives excellent vantage for meditating on the critical importance of the events leading up to and flowing from its fall in early 1861.
“The Past is Like a Foreign Country. They do Things Differently There.”
-L.P.Hartley, The Go-Between
A short journey by car or boat to Savannah, Georgia, introduces the visitor to one of the most charming cities in America and also the historically significant terminus of William Tecumseh Sherman’s famous (infamous in the South) “March to the Sea” following the burning of Atlanta- an event so memorably captured in the classic 1939 film “Gone With the Wind”.
Sherman gave to the English language the memorable phrase “War is Hell” and the unforgiving swath he cut across Georgia in late 1864 amply validated his point.
Following resupply by Union ships in Savannah in early 1865 Sherman headed North into the Carolinas his advance slowed but not stopped by small forces of increasingly desperate and depleted Confederates- mostly old men and boys. His object was to link up in Virginia with Ulysses Grant and finally bring to bay the redoubtable Robert E. Lee who through a long Winter of bitter brutal combat- notably Cold Harbor and The Wilderness- had frustrated the designs of the Union’s supreme commander.
Seeing the “Handwriting on the Wall” and ever mindful of the terrible suffering of his soldiers and his people Lee instead chose to offer his sword in surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House in April 9, 1965.
Winston Churchill in the final volume of his masterful History of the English Speaking Peoples called the Civil War the “grandest narrative and the most powerful drama in all of American history between the Founding and modern times. For the world it defined who Americans were and gave portent of what their great country would become.”
It has often been remarked that the embers of historic memory endure longer in the hearts of the vanquished than those of the victors. The latter more quickly move on while the former- in the words of the southern writer William Faulkner- “are inclined to linger in the embrace of unbearable pain.”
It has also been noted that the South-much more than the North-pays close attention to the rituals and remembrances of what many yet regard as a Lost but still heroic Cause.
This is in part understandable since men defending their homeland against what they viewed as “Northern Aggression” fought all the great battles of the war- Gettysburg excepted- on Southern soil.
More men died in the Civil War than in all other American conflicts combined. Theodore Roosevelt called it the “most idealistic of American wars” and the letters of ordinary soldiers on both sides bear him out.
One hundred fifty years ago this month (April 1862) at a place called Shiloh occurred the bloodiest battle ever fought on the North American continent. The historians Shelby Foote and recently Victor Davis Hanson have written the most riveting accounts of an encounter that swayed back and forth with two armies locked in mortal combat marked by point blank cannonading, repeated bayonet charges, and desperate hand to hand clashes by day and night. In just two days more men perished than have been lost in Iraq and Afghanistan in ten years.
The battle is lesser known because the result was indecisive but signaled clearly to both North and South that there would be no sudden victory and quick ending. The war would be long and terrible.
Reflecting on the battle Abraham Lincoln said, “No words can calculate or measure such sacrifices. Yet we must repay these men with enduring honor and ceaseless perseverance.”
On a beautiful South Carolina morning I follow a less traveled road drawn by its name: Union Cemetery. I am reminded that in almost all of history’s wars it is only the living who go home. The dead find repose at or near the places they fell.
The small grave markers where decipherable reveal but fragments of information known at the time of interment- a name (Johnson), a place (Vermont), or a date (1865).
A small group of local citizens- mostly older women- is busy repairing the ravages of winter. In conversation I learn that they are the same people who lovingly tend a small nearby cemetery of Confederate “Unknowns”.
A sprightly white haired lady demurs when I offer a compliment for her dedicated service. “Oh No” she said. “I just think that somehow what they did then, is part of who we are now”. She smiled, thanked me for my interest, and resumed her work. I departed while thinking of Lincoln’s phrase: “Enduring Honor”.
William Moloney is a Centennial Institute Fellow and former Colorado Commissioner of Education. His columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, Philadelphia Inquirer, Washington Times, Denver Post, and Human Events.