Gettysburg: The Aftermath of a Battle
In aftermaths of life even the best ideas on paper can leave a trail of human misery or a path to new life. Many times aftermaths are a mixture of both.
In A STRANGE AND BLIGHTED LAND Gettysburg: The Aftermath of a Battle we travel more on the first path of misery. It didn’t surprise me when halfway through this book its author, Gregory A. Coco, mentioned that he was an atheist. Coco was a Vietnam combat veteran himself. This had a profound effect on how he viewed battle (and possibly God). As a Gettysburg guide he became frustrated and saddened by visitors who arrived with stars in their eyes and romanticized notions about glorious causes and heroic charges.
This is not to say that there weren’t heroic men — those who fought, suffered and died (or raced to the next battle) and those who raced toward the suffering to help as best they could in what became a twenty-five square mile “sea of misery.”
The numbers, no matter how often I see them, are so difficult to comprehend:
“Nearly one-third of the total forces engaged at Gettysburg became casualties. George Gordon Meade’s Army of the Potomac lost 28 percent of the men involved; Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia suffered over 37 percent.
Of these casualties, 7,058 were fatalities (3,155 Union, 3,903 Confederate). Another 33,264 had been wounded (14,529 Union, 18,735 Confederate) and 10,790 were missing (5,365 Union, 5,425 Confederate).” HISTORYNET.COM
Forty thousand people (just the dead and severely wounded) would look something like this:
My next book(s) are going to be fictionalized stories about my ancestors, some of them having served on the Union side in the war. A few did not come home and they haunt me — especially since I’ve discovered their pictures and letters.
While Gregory Coco describes in gruesome and troubling detail the suffering left in Gettysburg’s wake, he only briefly discusses the reasons men and boys went to fight. For whatever reasons, there are people who cling to the idea of a glorious Southern cause. And there are other people who cling to the idea that most Northern soldiers fought for every other reason but the abolition of slavery.
Losers often romanticize the past to, in some way, make peace with the loss of so many young men. But what bothers me is the segment of modern society bent on burying, along with my young relatives physical forms, the reasons they fought.
I think part of this may come from a prejudice among intellectuals who can’t imagine that nineteenth century farm boys from Upstate New York could understand and fight for equal rights under God for all people. It’s gratifying and upsetting when I discover a letter or book written in the 1860’s proving this point yet knowing that now these men and their compassion for the victims of slavery don’t receive proper honor for their sacrifices.
Judge a person by the content of their character not the color of their skin …
We do such a great injustice when we paint entire races of people as villains to our children. When we say, “Oh,yes, those young white men died but they were still very racist,” we miss the point that most freed slaves got. Read about how freed slaves stayed in Charleston to set up a cemetery for the white (and black) union soldiers who fought their cause:
“While the city may have been deserted by most of the white folks, there were over 10,000 freed slaves who gathered to greet the Union Army. The story goes that these freedmen and women dug up a mass grave containing the bodies of 257 dead Union soldiers, only to rebury them on May 1, 1865 in a cleaned up and landscaped burial ground.
They built an archway with a placard that said “Martyrs of the Race-Course,” and buried the bodies with a ritualized remembrance celebration, attended by thousands of people, white and black. The ceremony was covered by the New York Tribune and other national newspapers of that day.” FREED SLAVES OBSERVE 1st MEMORIAL DAY
Take a look at those stadiums again. 18,000 or so Union soldiers died or were severely wounded (many dying later) and another 5,000 or so missing. Just think of the missing ones. Those dying under bushes near streams that flooded and drowned them. Others waiting days on wet ground for treatment that never arrived because their bones were only found months and years later. Missing sometimes meant that these boys were buried in mass graves before dog tags were common.
Dead men at least were immune to the barbarity of Gettysburg’s aftermath.
In Coco’s book we read of maimed Southern soldiers crowded into unsanitary barns only to have to endure watching the “operators” saw limbs from friends in the middle of the room. Imagine knowing that it was your turn next.
Imagine the baby-faced soldiers (like one of my cousins who enlisted at 16) asking the doctors if he’d make it and being told no.
The Declaration of Independence as Mission Statement:
The founding fathers wrestled with the issue of slavery not because they were prejudiced (of course all people have their terrible prejudices) but because they feared what would happen to a very young nation that hardly considered itself as such. Yes, they were as flawed as we all are — we ALL are — their decision to put off dealing with slavery haunted every political, economic and social debate for years until finally it came to a head in war.
Wouldn’t it have been great to have settled things peacefully? But that didn’t happen. I refuse to make light of the sacrifices of those in my family line. They seriously didn’t have to enlist in the first few months after Fort Sumter. But they did. They fought the good fight in a war that none of us can truly imagine. Many lived with horrible wounds for years. Many lost wives who could not stand the sight of their husbands with disfigured faces. Many families lost children in their prime.
The more I read about the brutality of war the more I abhor it. Yet it boggles my mind that some men — men I am coming to know in personal ways — put their lives in danger battle after horrifying battle.
This country wasn’t built on racism exactly. Conquest by brute force and tribalism was the way of the entire world — no WWII soldiers giving out Hershey bars for the most part. Countries aren’t built on only one thing. That’s too damned simplistic. The country was built on a flawed set of people with one very unique mission statement:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
Mission statements suggest that we are also works in progress and that we have not yet fully attained the noble sentiments we hold dear. Some farmer boys enlisted, were injured and re-enlisted only to die. They’re in my gene pool. Reading letters and books from the period leave little room for modern revisionism. They were proud of the part they were playing to make the mission statement a reality. I’m proud of them too.
Gregory Coco’s book is divided into five sections:
The Battlefield in the Aftermath “No tongue can depict the carnage”
The Burial of the Dead “A long black shadow”
The Care of the Wounded “A great rushing river of agony”
Prisoners of War, Stragglers, and Deserters “The woods are full of them”
From Battlefield to Hallowed Ground “The sacred sod”
Each section highlights a profoundly moving element of the battle’s aftermath. We tend to remember battles and their dates, maybe even enjoy perusing books on strategy and famous generals. It’s hard to linger in the shadow of suffering and loss. It may even be healthier not to linger too long, but for the people who fought and didn’t die the battle was there forever. In amputations by the thousands, in disfigurement of body and soul (even if outwardly healed).
A battlefield is sacred, Coco points out, not for the later generations but for the families of the men who died — so many of them buried as unknown but known to mother and father deeply — and the ones who escaped death but lived with a lifetime of pain. For those people wondering if it was their son’s bones being unearthed by plows and curiosity seekers the battlefield was something so much more than we can truly understand. Thank God.
Adrienne Morris is the author of