Civil War Journal: The Human Element of War

Whenever we think about the American Civil War, perhaps we look back to the old, foggy black-and-white images and yellowed pages of history textbooks that we were forced to study in school, or even the idea of such that has been forced down our throats because history is generally seen as a boring subject, full of nothing but names, dates, and rote memorization. Maybe, when you look at the picture of a soldier who fought in the War Between the States, you see him as just another part of that boredom, because after all, he existed 150 years ago and is long gone—perhaps his distant relatives themselves do not even know where their ancestry crossed paths. But behind that way of thinking, there is something much, much deeper. That soldier, whose eyes you can stare into, if you so choose, was a living, breathing, thinking human being. He played as a child and worked as an adult, just like every single one of us. The major difference, aside from the times, is that he happened to get caught up in our nation’s greatest internal conflict, one that literally pitted brothers against brothers, and in some even rarer, more tragic instances, fathers against sons.

Beyond the brutality of war, though, were soldiers that did not enlist to kill, but rather show that they wanted to stand with a cause. Though politics differed drastically between the men on both sides, there generally was no hatred between the common soldiers, because when bullets began to rain on a battlefield, everyone was equal—it did not matter where you came from, the bullets knew no identity. There are hundreds, if not thousands of accounts of soldiers on both sides trading with each other in between battles, even if it is something so insignificant as swapping a swig of coffee or bourbon for a few drags of a pipe or cigar. There is even a legend of a rudimentary baseball game being played between enemies, right before the Battle of the Wilderness erupted in 1864. It is the stories like these, not the death and destruction, that bring the past alive and show the human element of war.

We now sit here, in the new year of 2012. Most of us probably had some sort of celebration on New Year’s Eve; hanging out with family and friends, eating appetizers, drinking champagne, and watching the ball drop, however, on New Year’s Eve of 1862, the atmosphere was much different for the soldiers camped near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, as a battle was very shortly about to rage on. With Confederate soldiers under the command of General Braxton Bragg poised near Stone’s River, which ran close to the town, Union soldiers led by William S. Rosecrans marched from Nashville to meet them. Each side, on the eve of the new year was matched up against one another on opposite sides of the river. Christmas had just passed, but there was no joy in the air, because war would not allow for it.

As midnight neared, which would have brought 1863 in with a hail of bullets, the soldiers on both sides, simultaneously refused to fight, perhaps not even knowing that the other side planned the same. This was not the directive of their officers, though, just the common foot soldier, who awaited his possible death the next day. With silence in the air falling over the beautiful river, which the moon’s reflection glowed on, all of a sudden, the quiet was broken. “Hey, Billy Yank, we’re gonna start firing now. Better keep your heads down if you don’t want to get hit!” was a line shouted across the river by a Confederate soldier. The orders to fight had to be obeyed, but not the orders to kill. The Confederate soldiers opened fire, not injuring or killing a man. Next, it was the Union’s turn to do the same thing. “We can still see some of you! Better do a better job of hiding!’ was yelled by different men in various forms. They too fired their rifles, and again, no casualties were to be had.

With their orders to fight obeyed, bands from each army came down by the banks of the river to play. “Dixie” came from the Confederate side while “Battle Hymn of the Republic” came from the Union. The two bands faced off against each other as the men sang along. The scourge of war was soon forgotten. The night came to a close when both bands, in unison, played “Just Before the Battle, Mother”, as many soldiers began to cry when thinking of the lyrics. For just one night, enemies were friends. For all they knew, the war was over. There was no death, just peace. For one night, they could picture themselves back home, reading or sitting by the light of a fire, surrounded by their loved ones. The next day, both sides blew each other off the face of the earth.

The war had to resume, despite the respite. All in all, more than 25,000 men would be killed or wounded in the next two days of fighting, which out of a total combined force of just over 75,000, was the largest casualty percentage for a single battle of the entire war. To this day, even after a year, I can envision the professor I had for my Civil War class telling this story, with his voice so calm, and his manor so serene. For every single person sitting in that classroom, there was not a dry eye to be found, but there was also peace; a feeling that one might feel hearing about something that occurred yesterday, not 149 years ago, the anniversary of which just passed. The past can and will come alive for you if you explore the human side of it, because that is where we are all equal and eternal—it is the only place where the dead and the living can come together once more, and not be forgotten.

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One Response to Civil War Journal: The Human Element of War

  1. Excellent post, Greg! This reminds me of another story I heard from the war. It was in late 1863, and both armies were on opposite sides of the Rappahannock River. One Sunday, Confederates were listening to a sermon, and one of the soldiers, moved by the Holy Spirit, wished to be baptized in the river. Although there was some concern that Union snipers across the river might cause problems, officers agreed to let the ceremony take place. The soldiers marched to the river, under the watchful eyes of Union soldiers across from them. As the soldier and the preacher went into the river for the baptism, the other Confederates began to sing a hymn entitled “There is a Fountain Filled With Blood.” Suddenly, Union troops on the other side came to the waters edge, and began to sing along with the Confederates. For that one moment, there was no blue or gray, no war. Just brothers in Christ seeing the old man die, and the new man born through the holy baptism.

    It is stories like these that really humanize the war, and show that these men, though a century and a half separated from us, were men not unlike us. Many shared similar beliefs, fears and dreams. These men were not any different from us, and these stories really help to connect us to the past in ways stodgy books can’t.

    God bless!

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