Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

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Battle of Fredericksburg’s lessons reverberate today

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IT’S A LONG WAY from front-line duty. But the awesome re-creation of the Battle of Fredericksburg last weekend gave me a fleeting sense of what war in our streets must have been like.

There’s something about lifeless bodies sprawled all over Caroline Street that brings the war home.

Thanks to a neighbor’s hospitality, I had a front-row seat to the fierce battling between Union and Confederate forces along Rocky Lane at the City Dock.

I could hear a rebel shout “go back to Pennsylvania,” as the armies exchanged round after round at point-blank range. Visions of those Virginia sightseers at the Battle of Manassas (or Bull Run) in 1861 came to mind. That’s when some thought the war would be a short-lived skirmish.

By the time the Union forces marched across the pontoon bridges and into Fredericksburg in December 1862, the “skirmish” had become a full-blown catastrophe for the nation.

Maybe that’s why this thought kept going through my mind Saturday: How could it ever have come to this?

The moral issue of emancipation from slavery, at the heart of the conflict, was certainly worth fighting for. But it’s not clear how many of those street-fighting soldiers were motivated by that cause. Scholars argue that issues such as preserving the union and defending the homeland were paramount for many of those who fought.

So how could all those windy constitutional debates about states’ rights in the halls of Congress degenerate into the killing of soldiers on the streets of Fredericksburg?

After the war, as the veterans of that conflict became elderly survivors, their Civil War reunions often featured handshakes between members of the armies that once fought each other to the death. No doubt, Yankee/Confederate friendships grew out of those reunions.

That makes it even harder to understand how America could have let its fratricidal battles become a graveyard for hundreds of thousands of men.

The possibility of political, economic and moral disagreements turning into catastrophic violence is even more pertinent today, when the battles are not on the main streets of our cities but in places far removed from our everyday lives.

The casualties are apt to come from unmanned aircraft, not the man-to-man struggles of 150 years ago.

That’s why last weekend was so important to learning the invaluable lessons Fredericksburg continues to offer the nation.

This is a city that has witnessed what happens when people allow divisions, however fundamental they may be, to become reasons for mass violence.

The carcasses on Caroline Street were a reminder of how brutal and senseless war can be.

Ed Jones: 540/374-5401