Taking Champagne to the Battle
Today is the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, and by pure coincidence, Michael and I have been watching Ken and Ric Burns’ The Civil War documentary… which makes me an expert.
I am an expert because I, like many others who have revisited the Civil War in their adulthood, have discovered lost historical memory.
When war first broke out in 1861, it was incomprehensible that the conflict would last longer than 90 days. The few people who had higher estimates (both about the time it would take and the civilian death toll) were written off as absurd and untrustworthy prophets. But years later the highest estimates would seem tiny.
The First Battle of Bull Run (or, First Battle of Manassas) was the first major land battle of the Civil War and occurred in July of 1861 not far from where I live. The day had a certain excitement – similar, I can only imagine, to the first modern Olympics or when Lady Gaga comes to town. It can’t be compared to D-Day or any other major US military action, because back then we were more naive (stupid); plus we were shooting our brothers and friends in the face, not some nameless enemy abroad.
By stupid I don’t mean the soldiers only: we were all stupid, and especially us DCers, who crossed over the Potomac and/or down from our plantations in Arlington with servants and baskets full of food. Women and men alike – even Congressmen – brought breads and champagne and dressed up for the event, all eager to see the brilliant battle. The soldiers sang little ditties and everyone was excited to attend their first real war.
It didn’t turn out to be quite what they’d expected.
When the battle was over and hundreds of boys killed, everyone suddenly realized this was going to be a much longer, much bloodier war than anyone had dared believe.
The soldiers who marched so bravely and naively into conflict became old wise men in a day. While they might have arrived singing songs and writing letters home about how thrilling it all was, the war took its toll fast. Said one soldier, “I’ve had enough of fighting to last me a lifetime.” After one battle. One day in what would become four years of death.
Today America revisits the start of that first very long conflict, when Confederate troops attacked Fort Sumter, and I hope that somewhere in the midst of revisiting our past we can look at how our collective historical memory can and should inform us today.
Did we ever learn to view war with proper horror? Or did the wise men die with the last of the Civil War soldiers? A generation that saw blood fall on their own soil might know more than me, might care more than me about my country’s wars, or the atrocities in Ivory Coast, or simply the day-to-day warring I cause in my relationships and consumer choices.
The commemorating begins with nine days of events at Ft. Sumter. For the next four years, each battleground will have a chance to mark the Sesquicentennial in their own way. But today is special because it is the first day. It is the day when we could have looked back but didn’t. It has received minimal media coverage, and no national politicians have spoken of it or expressed plans to attend any related events.
I have trouble sometimes concentrating on stupid YouTube animal videos, so how much more I struggle to reflect on war – on its causes and madness, and most importantly, on its abolition and what peace would require. Like the naive families of 1861 I enter life excited for the champagne and then blindsided by the suffering.
If something similar to the Civil War broke out today, I hope I would know better what to do than we did 150 years ago. I don’t think we would presume that battle is fun. Too many of us have fought in war lately to believe that. But perhaps we are just as unknowing. Not overly cheery, but also not overly wise.
(Maybe we could at least avoid picnicking in the middle of a battle. Really, that would have been a smart move in 1861. What were they thinking?)
We do not hear about the wars of our ancestors enough. We have butchered our historical memory. We have lost, or never had, the quiet contemplation and somber reflection that allows us to search meaningfully for alternatives and create real and lasting peace – in our homes, in our workplaces, on our battlefields. We choose death, time and time again.
I am scared sometimes that my country and I are too caught up in today to remember the wisdom of the past. I am scared that I might be one of those idiot women who took champagne to the battle, never fully understanding how tragic tragedy is – but worse, because I could have learned from their story and chosen better for myself.