Battlefields

I am not particularly interested in military history. Some of you may remember my feelings towards Vicksburg. But I know the Civil War had a huge impact on this country and that lots of people love battlefields. So I wanted to give it another try. Actually, I gave it two more tries: Manassas and Gettysburg.

Statue TopThere were two battles at Manassas, also known as the Battles of Bull Run because of the nearby creek of the same name. I arrived at the Manassas Visitor’s Center first thing in the morning to watch the introductory film. The First Battle of Bull Run was the first major land battle of the war, and some of the facts from the film were vaguely familiar. I remembered the story from my history class about picnickers from Washington D.C. making the trip over to watch the battle from a nearby hill. Many Northerners thought the war would end that very day.

In another room of the Visitor’s Center there was a large, round map full of tiny lights. Any visitor could push the start button and an audio recording would begin to play. The recording recited the timeline of the battle while the lights on the map directed your eye to the appropriate locations. It was actually pretty cool. Of course, I always think maps are cool.

Unfortunately I couldn’t muster the same excitement about the battle. “War is Dumb.” Those are the exact words I wrote at the beginning of my notes for the day. War is dumb. I just don’t understand it. I don’t get how individual men think to themselves, “Yes, I’m going to stand directly in front of a fatal shot because I’m sure the politicians did all they could to resolve this without requiring my death.” I understand fervor and passion, but at the end of the day, when you’re guarding your own wounded enemy, doesn’t it all seem a little foolish?

Stone HouseNear the center of the memorial park is an old stone house that was used as a Union field hospital during both battles. I drove over to it and took a look at the refurbished inside. I did my best to picture wounded men running through the doors in the heart of battle. It was no use. There was nothing for me here. I resolved to stick it through to Gettysburg. If I wasn’t interested there, I couldn’t see how I would be interested anywhere.

The Visitor’s Center at Gettysburg was packed when I arrived, and overflowing by the time I left. There were various attractions and ticket levels available to the interested public, including guided tours of the park. I didn’t have time for a 2-3 hour bus tour, and I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy it anyway. I opted for a ticket to the film, entrance to the cyclorama, and the optional museum visit.

Gettysburg National Military Park is very proud to have Morgan Freeman narrating their documentary film. Really proud. His name is on everything. The film itself is great and gives a nice history of the events before and after the battle. But the real fun starts when the show is over, and the doors open to lead you into the Cyclorama.

CycloramaAt the top of a flight of stairs you walk out onto a platform and into a large, round, windowless room. It’s a bit like a planetarium, but rather than stars above you, there is battle around you. Seamlessly lining the room is a single, solid, gigantic painting of the Battle of Gettysburg, based on actual events that happened that day. A recording plays and timed lights cause certain sections to glow, a bit like the map at Manassas. In one area you see men charging across the field, in another there are wounded soldiers lying on the ground. In one dark corner is the figure of the original artist himself, who couldn’t resist giving himself a cameo. After the recording is over you’re free to walk along the platform, looking at the individual features. It’s like staring at an old Where’s Waldo book. The more you look the more tiny dramas you find.

PosterI don’t think I would have found the Gettysburg Cyclorama nearly as interesting if I didn’t know it was over 120 years old. It was first created in 1883 by French painter Paul Philippoteaux, and versions of it were exhibited in various parts of the country for many years. It’s so large and connects to itself so cleanly, it’s a wonder how they managed to transport it in the late 1880s without completely destroying the work. I’m sure the piece at Gettysburg has been thoroughly restored, but moving such a painting would be a Herculean task for even the most careless of curators.

There’s a self-guided audio tour of the park available to visitors, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to last through the whole thing. Instead I drove up to the cemetery to see the spot from which Abraham Lincoln gave his famous address.

White TombstonesThe cemetery itself is lovely and quiet, with iron fences and pristine white tombstones. I went to the memorial marking the Gettysburg Address, which was delivered by Abraham Lincoln on November 19, 1863. The main speaker for the day had been orator Edward Everett, who talked about the battle and its remembrance for two full hours. Afterwards Lincoln stood up to give a few “Dedicatory Remarks.” By Everett’s own admission, Lincoln managed to say in ten sentences what Everett struggled to say in two hours. If nothing else, Gettysburg is a reminder of the importance of brevity.

Silence and RespectAnd with that, I left the region of the United States where we preserve blank, grassy mounds as the important battlefields of the past. The Civil War Military Parks are, in a sense, empty memorials. We fill them full of artifacts and statues, but the true nature of each one is the vacant lot where men once died. We make diagrams and journals to help us recreate what happened, so we can look out on a field and imagine how it once was. And we have light-up maps and cycloramas to help us decipher the plans and the blunders. We work so to understand military history and military strategy. I can’t help but think that pouring so much effort into trying to re-create the past is a guarantee that we’ll keep finding reasons to repeat it. We say that repetition of the past is the destiny of those who cannot remember it. I wonder if those who are obsessed with it suffer the same fate.

Vicksburg, Also Known As the Key

Memorial Leans ForwardI like to think that I made a solid effort to be interested in Vicksburg National Military Park.

The town of Vicksburg is located on the Mississippi River, and was one of the last Confederate towns to fall in the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln called it “the key,” or so I gathered from the eight or so times I read or heard the same Lincoln quote about Vicksburg being the key while I was on the park grounds. After an initial, unsuccessful attack, General Grant laid siege to Vicksburg until the Confederate troops were forced to surrender. The park covers a huge section of land surrounding the town, and is apparently one of the best marked battlefields in the country, with several hundred (or was it thousand?) markers and memorials.

I arrived right as the park was opening at 8AM. I watched the introductory film, looked at the visitor’s center exhibits, and began my 16-mile drive around the park. Normally I’m a big fan of war memorials, because they tend to involve a lot of interesting symbolism. But there can be a deadening effect if you see too many at once, especially because most of the Vicksburg memorials are for individual units. All they say is the name of the unit, when they existed, and occasionally the names of those who died. The memorials are on stone plaques and pillars, decorative enough to lose their austere simplicity but not fancy enough to inspire awe. The memorials were added over the course of many years as people recovered from the war, and include one large remembrance for each state that lost soldiers at Vicksburg (which is pretty much every state that existed at the time). There are explanatory signs as well, but they quickly began to all sound the same to me. “On (date) the (numbered regiment) under the command of (officer name), charged up this hill, dug a trench, and/or fired canons at (numbered regiment) of the (opposing force). (Outcome).”

IllinoisI don’t mean to speak ill of the dead or belittle their sacrifice, but a monument to a siege really hammers home the deep seeded stupidity of war. Like at the World War I museum, I look at the old canons and ironclad ships and artillery shells and I don’t feel that weird sense of nostalgia you get when looking at an old-timey bicycle or printing press. I just see a bunch of young guys dying of infection in ditches because a bunch of old guys were arguing in congress. I understand the reasoning that some problems (like slavery) are so huge that they must be solved by war. I understand it. But I’m not sure I believe it.

There are thousands of identical stone squares lined up in the Vicksburg National Cemetery. Many don’t have names, only numbers. Some are so old even the arbitrary numbers have worn off. And other than the same tired line from Abraham Lincoln about Vicksburg being “the key,” I couldn’t find anything in the park that really told me why so many men were made to sit in hot, muddy trenches waiting to be done in by dysentery. Abraham Lincoln also said that the civil war was the time we tested whether or not the great experiment of democracy could survive. Perhaps we passed the test, or maybe we just won the war.

GravesIt is fitting that my favorite internet purveyors of history, CrashCourse, recently released a video in which John Green rattles off every major battle of the Civil War in less than eight minutes. It gets boring and monotonous fast, which is the whole point. While it’s nice to talk about great battles like Vicksburg and Yorktown and Verdun, there’s only so much to be said about them. On (date) a battle was fought at (location). The victorious side was (winner), who went on to fight more battles and more wars because it seems we never learn.