Spring and War

 

When spring arrives, bursting with life, I set off on an annual pilgrimage.  I intend to pay homage to nature’s renewal and reaffirm the sacrifices of generations past. It’s a sunny, brisk weekend day and I’m headed to a local Civil War battlefield.

Abandoning the car, my walk into 19th century America at Gettysburg begins. There’s a bracing bite in the air aided by the chilly gusts of a north wind.  The expectant hint of green in the old farm woodlots, the eye catching accent of red bud, it all points to the magical explosion of another fertile season ahead.  Wooden rail fences zig- zag through the fields. Rustic farm buildings, sturdy stone houses and bank barns, dot the landscape.  Granite and bronze Victorian monuments, placed solemnly on a killing ground by the Civil War’s survivors, line the park roads that trace old battle lines.

PP230A.002 Gettysburg Tapeworm Road (Western Maryland). Gettysburg [New Oxford?], Pennsylvania. West, looking northeast.  Boyd Family American Civil War Photograph Collection.  Box 1, Folder 1 8 in x 5 1/2 in.  Special Collections Department.

My favorite haunt is the south end of the Gettysburg Battlefield. It is a strange, spooky place with a jumble of huge boulders dropped on a distinctive set of hills, ridges and marshy ravines. During that long, hot late afternoon on July 2, 1863, local farmers, coaxing crops out of the stony land for generations, witnessed a cauldron of death and destruction. The Round Tops, Devil’s Den, Wheatfield and the Plum Run Valley of Death became national watchword s.

Americans swarm over this hallowed ground.  Autos line up, bus tours wind through the designated stops, strings of horses are saddled up and hardy pedestrians take on the slopes with park brochures in hand.  The love affair with our homegrown battlefields continues to grow.  It is about saving and enjoying places that remind us of a small town and family farm America that is all but lost. Where manicured cemeteries for the Civil War’s vast casualty count might suffice, there is an impressive constituency for saving every nook and cranny that saw the war‘s violent collisions. Well-intended as they are to honor a lost generation, the efforts are as much about creating new sylvan oases amidst the inexorable modern sprawl that is covering the country.

Photo courtesy the Maryland Historical Society.

With all the endless discussion of troop movements and the foibles of the war’s generals, these giant cemeteries demand contemplation. As the 150th anniversary unfolds, exhibits at the Maryland Historical Society have carved out distinct phases of civil war. The month of April, 1862, marked the beginning of what was the real war. After a year of marshalling forces and playing out rehearsals for what was coming, the north and south met at a rural church and Tennessee River boat landing. In just two days of fighting at Shiloh, the dead and wounded exceeded the battle casualties of every earlier American war. From then on, for three long years, the drumbeat of lost souls continued; twenty, thirty, even fifty thousand falling in each collision.

The message is clear. Our Civil War battlefields deserve a special place in the American memory. Enjoy spring’s renewal in the fields and forests from our past, but always remember how much these preserves cost in human lives and suffering.


Burt Kummerow, President 

 

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