My Rush to War: Civil War Trails Beckon
edited: Thursday, January 16, 2003
By Helga Ross
Posted: Sunday, February 24, 2002
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Tony Horwitz' CONFEDERATES IN THE ATTIC kick-starts me...
For such a pacifist - I can't bear to see any living thing suffer - what is it about war that draws me?
Journal: Helga's Heartlines
Saturday, September 18, 1999
Up early to greet the sun, I sit outside this morning, with a mug of Timothy's Breakfast Blend, my pets sprawled beside me on the warmed stone walkway. I'm filled with angst and inspiration. The air is fresh and bracing and the light so bright it dazzles. Cool wind, warm sun, cloud-less azure sky - impossible to improve upon.
In a contemplative mood, I can't help but find the season beautiful yet bittersweet. I watch a flock of Canada Geese fly overhead and eventually disappear into the horizon - harbinger of autumn. Happy on one level, still, a part of me is restless and at loose ends.... I stayed up late last night to finish the book I've been reading - correction - couldn't put down. It's one that is probably familiar to most Civil War afficionados. For benefit of the rest of you - it's the most entertaining, fascinating work of non-fiction, a new slant on my Civil War fetish, Confederates in the Attic, by Tony Horwitz.
I've been sharing the experience along with the author these many days. I'm not ready for it to be over. He has lived a dream of mine, allowing me to live it vicariously. He's had the means and opportunity to do what I want to do. He took time out from his normal life - an entire year - to travel the Southern United States and explore the region from a Civil War perspective.
He shares this odyssey with the reader, relating hilarious and frightening incidents, unanticipated adventures, and interesting interviews with the locals, including one with august CW author, Shelby Foote. I'm particularly envious of that last undertaking. Having witnessed several, already, I loved getting the inside dope on those exciting and thoroughly enjoyable - for the observer - okay, Tony - Civil War Re-enactments.
You, I suspect, wonder why I'm so enthralled with this subject. Well - so do I. If the author questions his tremendous fascination and grants that it is not entirely explicable, having no direct ties to the conflict, what should I say? At least, he's an American. Born in America. A man. He started early - shall we say 'cut his teeth' on it. I think he can probably own it if he wants to. I am a Canadian of European birth. A woman. I have no connection, either, that I know of, or can conceive of. I got hooked relatively recently, having barely pursued the last Century with so much going on in this one. But now that I have, I don't think I'll ever be finished with it. In some sense I feel like I'm caught in a time warp but I love being there. Good thing there's thousands of books on the subject.
That tumultuous war, that turbulent era, I soon discovered, is endlessly fascinating to delve into. Every Civil War buff knows this. All that's called for is an interest in military matters - which I have, God knows why - and pardon me for saying what is commonly disclaimed, a sense of the romantic. This particular war has all the high drama you could ever want, and the heroes, and the brave deeds, and there is enough ennobling about it on all sides to allow identification.
At least 50,000 Canadians from this Land of the True North enlisted with the Union Army and several thousand served with the Army of the Confederate States of America. Other foreigners also volunteered. Thousands more, recruited from the wave of new immigrants flooding in, fought willingly for their adopted country, though scarcely understanding the issues or the language.
It is a war fought for ideals at a time when such things still mattered. Passions were inflamed. In effect, the Union fought to preserve the fragile new nation and live up to the principles embodied in Its' Constitution. In effect, the South, right or wrong, fought for the Right it believed it had, to secede - for its' interpretation of States Rights - and its' honor. Add to this mix the commendable Cause of ending slavery, that 'peculiar institution', in America. It simply had to go, but there was no simple way to do that.
Whatever the inherent evils, they were nothing to the abominations perpetrated in this Century - ethnic hatred, genocide, mass exterminations, power grabs for continental and world domination. I guess I'm saying there are wars and there are wars. Sometimes war is necessary. Hitler had to be stopped. Unfortunately, the War Between the States had to happen. The issues were not going to go away or solve themselves.
The Civil War is a tale of tremendous struggle, determination, and courage, of both its' Northern and Southern protagonists. With mind and heart, for several years now, I have religiously followed the annals of both sides in the conflict. I have been there through the various advances and retreats of the Union and Confederate Armies, through many a pitched battle, through brilliant maneuvers and lost opportunities, through ground gained and lost, through acts of bravery, fortitude, and utter folly. I have followed the fortunes of individual units from inception to the eventual mustering out of survivors - the Iron Brigade, Stonewall Brigade, Kershaw Brigade, the 20th Maine, the First Minnesota, First Kentucky....
It is personal and poignant to get to know these men and see their ranks steadily thinned, sometimes decimated. One grows attached. At the same time one is proud of their achievements and their incredible bravery. They inspire awe. The 'fighting' Irish are a prime example - they won respect in America thanks largely to their contribution in the Civil War. The 54th Massachusetts Regiment and others like it helped to accomplish the same thing for Blacks.
The experience is cathartic. It can even be a little schizophrenic if you feel for all the combatants or at least have a little sympathy or admiration for the Other Side, as do I. I'm convinced that the more one knows, understands, and feels, through this medium of studying War - pick your favorite - the less likely one will want or need to fight another one. Really get into it. Indulge as deeply and as passionately as you want; it's all happening in the abstract but it feels real. Peaceful reality will be recognized as the relief and blessing that it is. Steven Spielberg demonstrates it best with his film, Saving Private Ryan, a different war but the same idea. He draws the audience right into the line of fire. Movie? No. An EXPERIENCE. Horrific, disturbing, gut-wrenching, real.
I believe that's what's behind the burgeoning wave of Civil War re-enactments; there's an added dimension to lets pretend this is life and death, let's pretend the past is real, to lets see which guy gets the ball over the goal post. Need I say it? We do want to stop short of the Roman concept of lets throw the Christians to the Lions. Right, Rob Hodge?
For such a pacifist - I can't bear to see any living thing suffer - what is it about war that draws me? It must be my animus acting up. In psychological terms, it's supposedly an outlet for my aggression; my pent-up, unexpressed, unrecognized, negative feelings and emotions; my subconscious fears. Or is it my hormone level - too much or too little testosterone? Perhaps it's the masculine part of me, my inner partner that compels me in this direction. I do know that I am turned on by bravery, heroism, daring-do, standing up for something when it's called for. Traits admired and I'm not sure possessed by me. The hero is my archetype. Where are the heroes today? It seems to me it's been a long time since there has been any such role models for us in real life. We human beings - me, for certain - apparently need them.
So I look back. This war is full of heroes and heroic acts. I have my heroes of that war - there were many such - but my personal favorites, at this point, Major General John Buford, Federal, and Brigadier General John B. Gordon of the Rebels. I'm a little bit in love with both of them, or would have been, had I known them. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Robert Gould Shaw - two of the most gentle, thoughtful, philosophical, and principled of men - both were amazingly gutsy warriors. Those men of the Victorian era - the look, the style, the manner of them - I find myself not infrequently doing a double-take when I see them in the flesh as Reenactors....
This is why, aside from reading, I want to see the battlefields and towns, and trace the routes the great armies marched. I've had the dream to see everything, eventually, but I'd planned to do Virginia first - all of it - since so much of the war happened there.
Tony Horwitz, with his notable bestseller, has shaken me up, as enjoyable as it is. I can't afford to wait too long to follow this dream. There is a sense of urgency now. As he describes it, these historic settings I've been looking forward to seeing at my leisure are fast disappearing, being lost to development while I tarry. I know what these places look(ed) like from the old photographs and from the mental pictures I have formulated. I want to see them for real. There is something deeply affecting about being where momentous events have happened. In Confederates in the Attic, the feeling is referred to as a 'period rush'.
Perhaps it's not yet too late to get down to Virginia this fall, I'm thinking - I still have some vacation left this year - at least see something of it. Yes...that's what I'm going to do. Let's see what we can engineer. Maybe one of my good buddies will want to go.... I feel better already. Energized. Motivated. I bestir myself. Come on, beasties, let's get going. I've got things to do, places to go, people to see.