Another fine day for a walk, another Civil War battlefield. We took our annual New Year’s Day walk/hike on the west and north ends of the Spotsylvania Courthouse battlefield. Sunny and fifty-five degrees is my kind of New Year’s day.
My goal was the Mule Shoe salient and the Bloody Angle. Deceased soldiers of both sides were found there as many as five-deep after US Grant’s Overland Campaign disengaged and moved south and east to find more carnage at North Anna and Cold Harbor, almost 153 years ago. This series of battles, beginning at The Wilderness and ending nearly a year later at Appomattox Courthouse were, along with Sherman’s contemporaneous drive south through Atlanta and his further march to the sea, the final bloody chapters of the US Civil War.
The Angle, at the concrete marker in the foreground of the photo at top-right, worn smooth by years of rain, marks a bend in the Confederate line and the epicenter of a continuous 22-hours of hand-to-hand combat fought in the mist and driving rain of May, 1864.
The lines, such as they were, stood no further apart than the woman walking on the other side of the berm and the trench on this side of it in the photo at bottom-left. The trench is all that remains of a long rifle pit, the berm heaped before it for bullet-proofing. I was standing rear-echelon as I took the photo – the combat was that compact.
The action at Spotsy Courthouse remains the bloodiest single continuous engagement in US history. Twenty-two hours, 17,000 casualties.
Sadly, the contrast in these images doesn’t do justice to the dug-in earthworks prepared in great haste, yet fully visible over a century and a half later. The Park Service did not restore them. They exist, much as the redans at he Battle of New Bern battleground, as they were left when action ended. Echoes.
As at Gettysburg and Antietam, these places are worth a long pause, some deep, searching thought, and a few tears shed for my fellow countrymen. They’re places where men of strong, if faulty conviction strived, shed blood and ultimately died in horror for the country and way of life they held dear. Pause long enough, read well enough and you will feel their presence. I feel this, yet I am not one for frivolous sentiment.
Poignant fact: the stump visible beyond the Angle marker at top-right is the remains of what was a twenty-two inch circumference oak tree cut down by hours of long-arms fire from all sides. A large shard of what remained is housed at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. Imagine cutting down a 22-inch oak with nothing but repetitive fire from a rifle, and a mediocre one at that.
Kelly and I enjoyed a walking talk about our country and the next four years of its political and cultural future on our way back to the car. It seems we’re almost at the cusp of something now, given the wave of desperate populism that overcame the electorate last November. We, the two of us, live in the dead center of America’s Civil War eastern theater. It’s not lost on me what happened at these places, and why, and how our current politics resembles that of 156 years ago.
I don’t see a civil war coming to America. Kelly wonders otherwise. I do see us divided, county by county, issue by issue. I see the rise of a populist narcissist, promising to fix all of our problems without one shred of credibility. And I’ve learned how this ended for others, seventy-five or so years ago.
We need to think, Think, THINK on what we want for America and how best to get there. The answer we came up with in November is going to teach us all something, maybe not what so many expect. May it not end as it did here, in Spotsylvania Courthouse, Virginia.
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