If John Sedgwick were alive today, he’d say, “See? I told you they couldn’t hit elephant at that distance!”
He’d also probably say, “Gosh, I’m really old.” So old, in fact, that he’d barely have the strength to speak, so we would have to lean close to hear the parchment whisper of his voice. He would be 201.
I don’t mean to sound disrespectful. I have always thought of “Uncle John” as a good-humored guy, beloved by his men for being a soldier’s soldier, amiable and personally brave.
I stopped by the Spotsylvania battlefield last week, on May 9, to pay my respects to Uncle John. It was the 151st anniversary of his death.
I stopped by the battlefield on May 10, too. Every year, Dan Davis and I try to walk in Emory Upton’s footsteps on the anniversary of his breakthrough against the Confederate Mule Shoe. We follow the original road trace from a bend in Grant Drive through the forest and up to the old Confederate rifle pits that sit just inside the treeline. We pull out a pair of cigars and light them up, then look at the Federal alignment arrayed on the back of the Upton monument that sits on the edge of the field. Then we strike out across the field, slower than Upton’s men went but still saying, “Forward, forward, forward!”
On May 12, I strolled around the Bloody Angle and up to the Mule Shoe’s tip. I can walk around there a hundred times a season and it always remains beautiful and poignant. I know the horrible story hidden beneath the pastoral landscape; it makes me feel like the keeper of a terrible secret.
I don’t visit the battlefield every day of the anniversary, which lasts from May 8-20. But on the 18th, I like to walk the trail to the site of the Harrison house, sometimes parking at the end of Anderson Drive and walking along Confederate line; sometimes parking near the McCoull house and following in the approach of the Federal attack.
People usually forget that the May 18 assault was every bit as large as the one on May 12, yet it is almost totally forgotten. The park does almost nothing to interpret it–which is exactly why I make a point to remember it.
Save for a small parcel protected by the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust, most of the Harris Farm action from May 19 is gone. I drive by the old Harris Farm site every day on my way to Stevenson Ridge. This spring, someone has been clearing more land, presumably for more houses. The original farmhouse, Bloomsbury, was unexpectedly torn down last fall.
Not everything can be saved; everything gets remembered.
But I have my own little habits, my own little rituals, my own cigars. I know a hundred different Civil War historians and buffs who have rituals of their own to commemorate their own special places and events. How we remember and respect the dead doesn’t really matter; what matters is that we take the time to do it.
One hundred and fifty one years ago tonight, the armies were beginning to pull out of Spotsylvania on routes of march that would take them to the North Anna River. I’ve pulled out of Spotsylvania and have headed north to Rochester, New York, for my daughter’s college graduation. We’re all headed toward new stories, even as we remember the old.