The sesquicentennial of the battle of Gettysburg is coming up soon. Let’s not romanticize it; Tony Horwitz has written a great antidote.
On July 1st, 1863, Alfred Iverson ordered his brigade of North Carolinians across an open field. The soldiers marched in tight formation until Union riflemen suddenly rose from behind a stone wall and opened fire. Five hundred rebels fell dead or wounded "on a line as straight as a dress parade," Iverson reported. "They nobly fought and died without a man running to the rear. No greater gallantry and heroism has been displayed during this war."
That’s the officer’s view. The men in that tight formation had a different perspective.
Soldiers told a different story: of being "sprayed by the brains" of men shot in front of them, or hugging the ground and waving white kerchiefs. One survivor informed the mother of a comrade that her son was "shot between the Eye and ear" while huddled in a muddy swale. Of others in their ruined unit he wrote: "left arm was cut off, I think he will die… his left thigh hit and it was cut off." An artilleryman described one row of 79 North Carolinians executed by a single volley, their dead feet perfectly aligned. "Great God! When will this horrid war stop?" he wrote. The living rolled the dead into shallow trenches–hence the name "Iverson’s Pits," now a grassy expanse more visited by ghost-hunters than battlefield tourists.
The Civil War was not a romantic struggle between the forces of good and evil (both North and South were rather horribly racist), and it was a totally unnecessary war — it was a botched surgery to excise the ugly tumor of hypocrisy established at the founding of this country, and it didn’t do a very good job of that. We still have yahoos celebrating the Confederate flag and so-called Southern values that too often include ignorance and racism. The war may have ended outright slavery, but it didn’t end oppression and discrimination.
And we all lost. Three quarters of a million dead, a legacy of division, widespread racism, and the same battle lines are still drawn in our political parties. What a waste.
My father’s family was involved in that war, too. They were farmers in Iowa, and my several-times great grandfather served with Grant in the campaign that marched down the Mississippi and ended in the capture of New Orleans, where my ancestor was mustered out with an unidentified chronic illness (most likely malaria). And a few years later he lost his farm, and then began several generations of desultory familial peregrinations as migrant farm workers until they washed up on the shores of the Puget Sound, and could go no further. We were all wrecked by that stupid evil war.