On a recent trip to the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania I was again struck by the beauty of the battlefields. Today, not a shadow of the violence, pain, and intensity remains on the fields where so many fell almost 150 years ago. This is often recognized by visitors, who will react in different ways. Some comment on the irony that places of death and horror now appear as tranquil field and woods. Some do not reflect on the changes and simply enjoy the environment battlefields and historic parks now offer. Some seem disapproving, or almost disappointed, that that fields will never reflect the true nature of their story. We will never truly understand or appreciate the history of a battlefield, they say, because we will never see it as it was during the hours which gained it its fame.
I have heard all of these sentiments from visitors and have felt each of them myself at different times. But standing there at the Angle on a warm May day, I thought of something else. The day was beautiful: sunny with a warm breeze. I was alone on the field with only the sound of the wind through the grass and my thoughts to accompany me. It had been a stressful morning—I had just spent three hours getting my brakes and rotors fixed—but as I walked along I felt all that melt away. The Bloody Angle, once the site of twenty-two hours of close, hand-to-hand fighting, had turned into a place of peace and solitude, a place of rejuvenation. It is not the first time I have experienced this. On slow days at the Wilderness I walk to the edge of Saunders Field and contemplate the shadows of the past that flit through that field. At Gettysburg my favorite spots are Little Round Top and the Union line on Cemetery Ridge where one can take in the scope of the landscape.
But should battlefields be a place of peace? Should fields which once soaked up the blood of countless men become beautiful, or does such a transformation detract from telling the story of their sacrifice and suffering? We have preserved the battlefields and other historic sites because they are important to the story of our nation, and because we want to respect the memory of those who have created and shaped the country we live in today. Over the years veterans and others have placed countless monuments to commemorate the deeds of men, regiments, and armies. But in truth the whole ground is the true monument to these men. What better way to remember the hell these men went through than to create places of harmony? These men lived and died as soldiers, but they longed for peace. At a basic level, no matter what higher principles caused men to enlist in the army and continue fighting through the long months and years of war, soldiers longed for the day they could put their guns to rest and go home. While both Federals and Confederates were willing to fight to the end for their causes, they all wished the end could be achieved sooner rather than later. Each new campaign brought the hope that the contest would be settled and the war laid to rest. For those who survived, spring 1865 finally brought the end of war; for those whose lives were claimed on the fields and in the hospitals, peace never came.
When we enjoy the peace and beauty of the battlefields we enjoy the very thing these soldiers gave us: peace. For five bloody years men fought and killed in order to settle a dispute that tore our country apart; with the resolution of that conflict, our country has moved forward. The United States has not faced a national tragedy of such magnitude since the Civil War ended. We are the beneficiaries of their struggle, and we owe these men a great deal. When we enjoy the battlefields we also enjoy the thing these soldiers wanted most. Silence has stolen over the battlefields because these soldiers settled the question of secession and ensured that there would be no more war between Americans. Mirroring the past 150 years of reconciliation Mother Nature has reclaimed her land, healing the scars that crisscross the landscape like time has healed the tensions and divisions between North and South. The bloodsoaked fields have faded away and been replaced with natural beauty, a fitting memorial to those who fought to decide our country’s fate.
Kathleen Logothetis graduated in May 2012 with an M.A. in History from West Virginia University. Her thesis, “A Question of Life or Death: Suicide and Survival in the Union Army,” examines wartime suicide among Union soldiers, its causes, and the reasons that army saw a relatively low suicide rate. After a third summer at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, she will be continuing at West Virginia University in pursuit of a Ph.D. in History. Her research interests include the Civil War and American Revolution, military history/soldier experience, and commemoration/memory/monuments. ©