The Civil War began April 12, 1861.The surrender of Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S. Grant took place 150 years ago at Appomattox Court House in Virginia on April 9, 1865, but without Facebook, texting, tweeting, email, and smartphones for fast announcements, deadly battles raged on until mid May. It remains the deadliest war in American history, with 625,000 perishing in the line of duty.
President Abraham Lincoln dedicated the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Pennsylvania on November 19, 1863. Although he considered his two-minute Gettysburg Address a failure, it lives…“Four score and seven years ago….government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth…”Many changes came via the Civil War. Ironclad warships fought for the first time in history on March 9, 1862. The battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia was a draw, but it marked the end of using wooden battleships and changed forever the course of naval warfare around the globe. More deadly firsts were the rifled cannon, machine gun, land mine and attack submarine.
Women came to the forefront as teachers, clerks, secretaries, factory workers and seamstresses. Women kept the home fires burning—or more likely—put them out. They tended the farms and dealt with sickness without medicines, and death without a helpmate. The men were off fighting the “Uncivil War.”
Some women were involved in notorious situations. Confederate spy Laura Ratcliffe helped Col. John Mosby of Mosby’s Raiders (“Grey Ghost,” 1950s TV series). Union spy Mary Bowser was a maid in the home of the Confederate president. As a servant, she was ignored, but passed along important information she gleaned from dinner conversations.
Bursts of Terror
Famous sayings live on. Gen. William T. Sherman’s comment on war, “Its glory is all moonshine…only those neighbors who did not fire a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded…cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.” Robert E. Lee agreed, “It is well that war is so terrible or we should grow too fond of it.”
Men raced to answer the call to arms, afraid it would be over before they could be a part of it, but spent their free time writing letters, playing games, drinking, making music or praying. A soldier wrote to his wife, “Soldiering is 99% boredom and 1% sheer terror.” Has that changed?
Those who did not experience it, romanticized it, but the Civil War was one of disease, diarrhea and contaminated food. Sickness claimed more lives than the enemy. Miracles were performed, but mainly the miracle was that the wounded lived at all. Blood-soaked, infected bandages were sometimes removed from the dead and used on the next wounded soldier. Amputation was the standard treatment for fractured bones.
Troops went for months without bathing or washing clothes. Flies, lice and fleas were lively companions. “Johnny Rebs” and “Billy Yanks” slogged hundreds of miserable miles in an endless “shoot, shovel and march.” They trudged along with little protection from the elements and almost always with a gnawing hunger in their bellies. They experienced great homesickness, surely not limited to the Civil War.
There is always humor and perhaps one could not get through the rigors of war without it. Ulysses Grant was a heavy whiskey drinker and even though he was victorious at Shiloh, his superior complained to President Lincoln that Grant had broken every rule in the book. Lincoln’s reply: “What brand does he drink? I’d like to send barrels of it to the other generals.” Does that speak of frustration?
Many famous names came to us via the Civil War. James Butler was a Union spy; you might know him as Wild Bill Hickock. Poet Walt Whitman, a volunteer nurse, tended the wounded along with author Louisa Mae Alcott. Clara Barton, a teacher, collected desperately needed nursing supplies and used them caring for the wounded behind battle lines. In later years she founded the American Red Cross and once said, “I may sometimes be willing to teach for nothing, but if paid at all, I shall never do a man’s work for less than a man’s pay.” Hmmm. What would she think of women’s equal pay progress by 2015!
Union Gen. Daniel Butterfield was inspired to write the bugle call we recognize as “Taps.” A paroled Confederate who went home to be with his sweetheart gained fame a hundred years later via the Kingston Trio’s “The Ballad of Tom Dooley.”
At Cold Harbor, Union soldiers, realizing the odds against surviving the battle ahead, wrote their names on paper and pinned them to their uniforms. Within thirty minutes, 7,000 were dead, wearing the first “dog tags.”
If not for the photography that for the first time recorded military action, we could not today remember the faces of those so young, so sad, so hungry, so hurt, or so weary. That hasn’t changed either.
Friendships weathered strange storms. On April 26, 1865, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston surrendered 89,270 Confederate soldiers—the largest troop surrender of the war—to Gen. William T. Sherman near Durham, North Carolina, 17 days after Appomattox. Twenty-six years later, Johnston stood bareheaded in the rain at a good friend’s funeral, contracted pneumonia and died shortly thereafter. The friend was William T. Sherman.
Few of us “love thy enemy” as Confederate Richard Kirkland did. Unable to stand the groans and cries of Union soldiers as they lay wounded and dying at Fredericksburg, he scaled the battlefield wall and offered his fellow man the comfort of water.
John Brown was hanged for leading the bloody raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in October 1859, considered the first Abolitionist invasion of the South. A militiamen who watched the hanging was young John Wilkes Booth.
Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, when asked how he became known as the war’s greatest cavalry leader, answered honestly, “I gits thar fustest with the mostest.” In the process, 29 horses were shot out from under him.
On various trips to Civil War sites, I wandered the Bloody Angle and walked along the Sunken Road. My last trek was to the top of Marye’s Heights. The steep hill was carved into green terraces offering a panormatic view of Fredericksburg. The sunset was as red as the blood that once flowed there. It is the final resting place for 16,000 Union soldiers; 15 per cent of them are known, others sleep quietly under numbered markers.
They fought for this Confederate-held hill. They lost the battle, but won the right to be buried there. The dead from the winning side are buried in a Confederate cemetery in the midst of the plains where the Union positions were held.
And there were ironies. Wilmer McLean owned a house on the battlefield of First Manassas in July 1861. He moved to escape the path of war. In April 1865, a farmhouse was the scene of Lee’s surrender to Grant and the end of the Civil War. The Appomattox farm house was the home of Wilmer McLean.
The cannons of Grant’s last line still stand at a place called Shiloh. Twenty-four thousand died in this battle that ended in a draw. “Shiloh” means peace.
And still we have wars—God Bless.
Sharlene Minshall’s first novel, winter in the Wilderness, and the fourth edition of her RVing Alaska and Canada are available through Amazon.com. Sharlene’s weekly on-line blog can be found at rvlife.com under The Silver Gypsy.