“Some of us visited the Wilderness battleground and saw there the same sad scenes. The commingled bones of horse and rider, all the possessions of the soldiers, from the envelope with its faint address in a woman’s hand, to the broken gun, lie scattered over the ground. “Knapsacks, placed together by companies before they made a charge, and for which the owners never returned, remain in decaying heaps. ‘Tis a gloomy sepulchre, where the trees, in tenderly covering with leaves the remains of the patriots, alone perform the last sad offices. “The wind moans through the pines, tears fall at home for them, but they sleep on, unconscious of a weeping nation.” Union officer, from “On Many A Bloody Field” by Alan Gaff
This week marked the 150th anniversary of one of the bloodiest battles to ever take place in this country. Vermonters were at the forefront of that battle, as Jack Deming’s front page article reminds us. We have no doubt that there were soldiers who fought and died in that awful campaign who were distant ancestors of residents of the valley. We hope their memories are honored in family lore and history, just as the soldiers and battles as a whole are remembered by historians such as Gaff and Howard Coffin. We also have no doubt that many readers will find the quote above a little unsettling. That one small paragraph has some powerful imagery in it. Those words conjure up in one’s mind a vision of carnage that is ghastly and horrible. But isn’t that the point? To recall a battle isn’t necessarily to recall the glory of victory. Certainly, that is a component of war. But the best war historians also can channel the imagery of vicious fighting, the sacrifice, and the individual lives lost. Those are also components of war, and ones we should all be conscious of. Even though the Battle of the Wilderness took place a century and a half ago, and even though our Civil War has in many ways been reduced to memorable speeches and popular books and movies, there is so much more to the history of those massive battles between the Union and Confederate armies. There are so many family stories, including many from right here in Vermont, that can still touch lives today. It’s important to continue telling those tales, and that why writers like Coffin are critical to the social fabric of our state and country. There are also lessons from our Civil War that we can use to guide us through the conflicts around the world today. While the fighting is no doubt different, there are civil wars taking place throughout the world: Syria, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Afghanistan. Perhaps even Ukraine is headed in that direction. While the reasons are different for each of these wars than the American Civil War, there is no doubt that the human toll is not so very different. Men and women will die, families will be torn apart, and generations will be lost. We find it unsettling that today, with all the advances in information, education, and media, that men and women will still take up arms against their neighbors. Be it land, religion, ethnicity or whatever, that fact that there are leaders who will lead a country in order to save it should be a lesson to us all. We need to be vigilant in every corner of the world, to offer help and mediation to avoid civil war where possible, and denounce those who would thrust it on their own country. It may seem, when viewed from this small corner of the world we call Vermont, that we have very little opportunity to impact a civil war halfway around the world. But perhaps the best thing we can do is share our own tragedy, our own Civil War history. If the awful reality of a battle like the Wilderness can be avoided in any corner of the globe, the world will be a better place. If the horror of our own Civil War can stop even one fight somewhere in the world, then we have won.