“Too fond of it”?


Today, 150 years have passed since the First Battle of Bull Run.(1)  Just about at this hour of the day of the battle, a rout and confusion reigned. Lots of big talk, skirmishes and small battles had defined the War until July 21, 1861; First Manassas changed it all—this war was convulsing into a blood and guts battle for shifting objectives: Larger battles, greater casualties would follow–at first to save the right to hold slaves or to save the Union; but by the end when “the tables had turned” and the hot summer battles were virtually unending and the casualties were free-flowing, the cause had morphed to free the slaves or save the Confederacy. Bull Run changed it all: No longer a fantasized chivalric day dream, a war now presaged by Manassas would cost more in death, disrupted lives and resources than President Lincoln could have ever dreamed in his darkest, loneliest nightmares.

At a later Virginia battle, when the “Secesh” were crushing the “Yanks,” Robert E. Lee reportedly said something to the effect of, “It is well that war is so terrible – otherwise we would grow too fond of it.”(2) I can’t imagine he would have spoken or even remembered such words in the not-too-far-in-the-future moment when the promise, beauty and pageantry of so-called Picket’s Charge faded into ashes, and the South’s greatest general greeted his surviving and demoralized men as they finished their return parade across the open farmers’ fields with words of his own personal culpability.

And when we talk about the costs of war—the “terrible” Lee allegedly referenced, it never does rest on some set of broad, impersonal, big-brotherish governmental shoulders or even on the shoulders of generals and presidents–shoulders to cushion all pain and suffering and loss, it falls in the end only on individuals, each in his or her own time and way and who is left, often without needed support, to deal with it in his or her own way. An article by staff writer Michael E. Ruane appeared today in the Washington Post recalls one example of the terrible: a now famous letter given to Ken Burns during his production of The Civil War. The letter from Sullivan Ballou was written just days before his death at Manassas to his wife Sarah, and was made a memorable part of the final documentary that aired on PBS. Ruane notes that the letter comes from “the ‘if I do not return’ genre, often written by soldiers on the eve of battle” and quotes “Andrew Carroll, editor of ‘Behind the Lines,’ a compilation of war letters” as saying, “’It’s the hardest letter . . . for any service member to write. . . . They’re putting all of their heart and emotion into what they know will be their final words. It’s especially poignant when there are children involved . . . because that letter will become sort of the touchstone to their lives, and how they remember their father.’”

Bull Run and the Civil War, for all the positive changes they have brought, also brought “terrible” things to the lives of many. While I’m remembering the battle fought at Manassas and all that came after it (including Iraq and Afghanistan), I’ll be thinking of all the lives sacrificed and the lives changed forever because willing men and women chose to do what they thought was right in spite of the cost to them and their families. And I’ll be remembering Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

(1) For two descriptions of the battle, see today’s New York Times where Gary Gallagher, a professor of history at the University of Virginia and Civil-War-books author, outlines the battle, and the July/August issue of The Smithsonian Magazine, viewable at the Institution’s web site, where Ernest B. Furgurson, journalist and also author of several Civil War, gives us a little more detailed description of July 21, 1861 in Northern Virginia where they battled for a nation.

(2) See Kevin Levin’s 2008 blog at Civil War Memory on origin of the quote.

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