The Gettysburg anniversary this year was a blur to me. To be honest, I didn’t spend much time reading or thinking about the battle. Maybe it was a coping mechanism. Maybe it was some sort of subconscious distancing since I had spent days in the earlier spring watching COVID-19 death numbers meet and then surpass the numbers of Gettysburg casualties.
In fact, according to the calendar and history books, we’re still in the anniversary days of the Gettysburg retreat and aftermath period. By July 16, the armies had departed from the small Pennsylvania community, and Lee had slipped back across the Potomac River. On July 16, 1863, Confederate cavalry skirmished at Shepherdstown, blocking part of the Federal pursuit. Meanwhile, back in Gettysburg, wounded still crowded homes, barns, public buildings, and tented hospitals, and it would be nearly a week until Camp Letterman opened. But, I digress…
There was one tiny story that stuck in my mind during the battle anniversary days this month. I couldn’t forget it, and I spent a little time tracking through my research notes and books to find it again.
It’s a little reference tucked in the section about St. James Lutheran Church in Gregory A. Coco’s study on Gettysburg field hospitals. “The pews, floors, windowsills and walls were covered with the blood of both Union and Confederate soldiers. Even the hymn books and record books showed evidence of soldiers’ scribbling – messages, old familiar names, etc. The word “mother” was written in one book almost twenty times in succession.” (A Vast Sea of Misery, Page 15).
I remember the first time I read that. It’s one of the rare times I put down a history book and sobbed. Why open up and share this and quote this sad historical account now? Because it has been part of an anchoring thought in my mind these last few weeks. It reminds me of the human experience during the Civil War.
There is something subtly bittersweet about the scrawled messages left in the church books. For many soldiers, it must have been one final way to leave their thoughts as they suffered through their last hours. They created a record of listed names, perhaps with little clear meaning at first glance, but those lists of names and last little messages are a powerful reminder of human remembrance and need.
It reminds me that at the end of the battle, in a fight for their lives on the floorboards and pews of a small church, these men were not pondering monuments to be built or removed, the causes which drove them to the battlefield, the differences of opinions that put some in blue and others in gray. They were thinking of their loved ones who they might never see again.
I think it can be dangerous to use a common soldier and his individual views to justify or represent an entire cause; causes are complex and may or may not reflect everyone involved or in the ranks. Yes, it is important to understand the greater context, the cause, the historical thought processes, but I know that as I have been working through those historical details, it has been easy to create faceless armies and reduce war to “good guys vs. bad guys” and lines on a map. In simplifying, do we lose their humanity? In simplifying, do we lose our humanity and risk moving from a role of thinking learner to role of judge?
I believe it is important to come to grips with the reality—and always remember—that these soldiers were human. Just like us. Flawed. Excitable. Fearful. Determined.
Some went to war with fully formed ideologies. Some went because they thought it would be fun. Others were conscripted into causes against their will. Whatever brought them into the military ranks, kept them in line of battle, and motivated their patriotic thoughts probably faded as they lay in that church turned field hospital. It’s not Davis, Lincoln, freedom, slavery, states rights or union that was written nearly twenty times…instead, it was the name “Mother.”
A single name that meant so much. And those scribbled names, likely recorded through hazes of pain and fear of the next unknown moments, tell another part of the history which reminds us of the complexities of life, loves, wars, and death.