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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Our Civil War Dead: They Risked Their Future To Be Here

MORE: Read more news from Fredericksburg

MORE: See our special section on the Chancellorsville 150th Anniversary

A wise man once said that prosperity is not enough to hold a nation together.  History shows that nations are built on service and often costly service.  Service is a term we use for having been part of the awful violence of war.  “Thank you for your service,” people say rather easily, but we need to remember that the cost of service is measured not only in lives lost, but in lives significantly changed among those who survive.

A woman leans against a tree, listening closely, as Erik Nelson, flanked by park Superintendent Lucy Lawliss and the Rev. Tom Hughes, gives the Memorial Day keynote address in Fredericksburg National Cemetery. The 23rd Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops, and Confederate re-enactors stand at attention at the right, with the colors. (CLINT SCHEMMER / THE FREE LANCE-STAR)

During World War II, the U.S. Army studied men at war and found that under the strain of combat a soldier’s effectiveness would diminish over time.  A new soldier certainly becomes more efficient with experience, but the study group found that there was not only a breaking point, but that it could even be predicted with a certain level of precision.  We humans do not have an infinite capacity for the strain of war, a fact too often ignored.

Traumatic stress is not new to modern warfare, but evident in literature dating back to Homer.  Post traumatic stress is also not limited to the experience of killing, but can result from other experiences, such as decisions made in the heat of a stressful moment.  An instantaneous reaction under extreme duress, if not the right reaction, can haunt a man for the rest of his life.  Places like this cemetery, gardens of stone if you will, are places where some try to reflect on past experiences and maybe even connect with those who have passed on.

This now-quiet hilltop was the scene of frantic hand-to-hand combat just over 150 years ago.  On the morning of May 3, 1863, men from Maine, Wisconsin, New York, and Pennsylvania charged across the open ground visible from these heights against men from Mississippi, Virginia, and Louisiana.  The Union men attacked with weapons loaded, but not capped.  What that means is that they would not stop to fire, but rather rely on the momentum of a press of soldiers to close in on the defenders before being destroyed by rifle and cannon fire.  If enough of them could reach Sunken Road and cross bayonets with the Mississippi soldiers waiting there, they might prevail.  They would trade lives for distance.

It worked, but only just, with soldiers calling to one another to press on when their comrades appeared to be faltering under the withering fire.  Running men with 18-inch bayonets at the end of their weapons were engaged in a basic tactic that would have been recognized by the Roman Legions or by Greek hoplites.  And when the onrushing men broke over the stone wall, the frenzied close combat was as primal as war gets.  In a few moments of sheer savagery, men were run through with cold steel and knocked down with clubbed rifles.  Many Confederates surrendered, but in the frenetic mix of screaming soldiery surrender did not always guarantee survival.  With only the briefest of pauses, the Federals then swarmed up a draw and spread out to take this Confederate position.  It was not until then that they capped their weapons and began to fire.

This position was held by Parker’s Virginia Battery and the Washington Artillery, from Louisiana.  As the Federals raced toward them, the artillerymen realized they were being trapped because Federals were also coming in behind them.  The troops emerging on the back side of the hill were Vermont men.  They had begun their attack on the other side of Hazel Run, but had crossed that creek during their advance, gained the shelter of a railway embankment, and then found that they could reach these heights on a road that is still visible today.

Some of the Confederates fled for their lives, but others remained at their posts.  Several gunners yanked on lanyards to fire their last rounds as the Federal attackers closed in and they certainly knew they would not be allowed to surrender once they had done so.  After the fight, a disgusted Federal found the diary of a dead Confederate artilleryman and took it upon himself to add a final entry.  He wrote that they had shouted for the man to surrender, but he had fired his cannon anyway, so they shot him down for his willfulness.

After the fact, we say these men “gave their all.”  We say “they made the ultimate sacrifice.”  But we should remember that the men who fought on this very hilltop, and across the ground visible if we walk to the edge of the slope, did not somehow just “fall” in battle.  They had their lives taken from them, violently.  They had risked their future to be here, which is astonishingly selfless, but they died in the random chaos of combat.  And they died in huge numbers.

One hundred and fifty years ago, the Battle of Chancellorsville cost in excess of 30,000 casualties, killed, wounded and missing.  Many would recover from wounds and many of the missing were prisoners, but so many more would not be going home.  Two months later, the armies would meet again at Gettysburg, where another 50,000 men would become casualties.  By the Fourth of July of 1863, total casualties incurred that spring and summer during just these two battles had exceeded 80,000 lives.  And even then, the end of the war was not in sight.

In hindsight, we know how things progressed, but the soldiers living those events certainly did not, as they prepared and waited for the next bloody confrontation.  The basic soldiering of drills, picket, reconnaissance, working parties, and simply enduring a mind-numbing boredom is also service.  While the civilian world went on without them, they remained on duty, serving with an abiding faith in a cause, perhaps, but also in each other.  The year 1863 would grind forward.  There would be engagements upriver, at Rappahannock Station and Kelly’s Ford, Lincoln would speak at Gettysburg, and an inconclusive campaign would occur near Mine Run.  But the war would not end that year and new campaigns became inevitable in the spring.

The winter months would be spent preparing for yet more fighting, but the Federal army also stood to lose thousands of its veterans whose enlistments would expire in the middle of the coming campaigns.  The government desperately needed these experienced soldiers, but the veterans who had already done so much could legitimately go home and be done with it.

We all know that the army made a concerted effort to induce men to reenlist and while many thousands chose to depart, and thus survive the war, many thousands more decided they needed to stay and see the task at hand through to its end.  They again put their future on the line, challenging the law of averages beyond reason, but apparently willing to do so for something that was bigger than themselves.  And many of those thousands are here, on this ground, killed in 1864 and buried here, where the blood of comrades soaked the ground in 1863.

The National Park Service tells us that 100,000 men fell in and around Fredericksburg.  Over 15,000 of them are here in this National Cemetery.  Another 3,500 lie in the Confederate Cemetery, just a few blocks from here.  Fifty two are under a parking lot in town, only recently remembered with a marker.  Others surely lie unclaimed across this landscape.

The human tragedy of armed conflict can be overwhelming.  These places characterized by rows of stones are the setting for burials and for ceremonies, but they are also places where survivors came, the veterans with their memories that could not to be shared with others and the families whose existence had been irreversibly altered when a son, a brother, a husband, or a friend disappeared from their lives.

The Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. attracts countless visitors, but the survivors of that war often come at night, or in the early morning, when they can be alone with their thoughts and perhaps with their ghosts.  Places such as Section 60, at Arlington Cemetery, draw another generation of survivors, those among us who have a need to communicate with comrades and loved ones who are casualties of war.

This cemetery was no different. One of those visitors from a northern state provided money to a local family asking that they place flowers on their loved one’s grave since they did not live here to do it themselves.  There are flowers on that grave today, as there has been every year since that request was made.

Some connections fade when living memory dies, but sometimes connections are reestablished, as is the case with revived attention to the United States Colored Troops among these stones.  Enslaved individuals who became soldiers for a government that had only just recognized them as men is a powerful story, rescued from obscurity and celebrated today.

So, in a way, we see a role reversal.  Survivors came here to remember and speak to the dead, but that living memory is gone, as it will be one day at the Vietnam Memorial and Section 60 at Arlington.  Now it is the dead who speak to us, reminding us of their stories, if we will take the time to hear them.

When my son was just a young guy, I would bring him here on Memorial Day, well before these public ceremonies.  I would bring him here and let him walk and talk among these men who had been taken from their families and the many who had lost the opportunity to have families of their own.  I thought they might like to see and hear a young boy in their midst, on a bright spring day.  That may seem stupid, perhaps, but who is to say it wasn’t appreciated?

Erik Nelson delivered this keynote address at noon Monday, May 27, 2013, during the Memorial Day observances in Fredericksburg National Cemetery, part of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. Nelson, a U.S. military veteran, is the senior planner for the City of Fredericksburg and editor of Fredericksburg History and Biography, the journal of the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust.