Yesterday was the 150th anniversary of the heaviest fighting at the battle of Spotsylvania in the Civil War. A century and a half ago, the Civil War was grinding on and on, with no end in sight. A presidential election was coming up in the fall, and the staggering losses were dimming Lincoln’s reelection chances. We know how it turned out now, but the spring of 1864 must have been a very tense and heartwrenching time for the Union side.
Although Lincoln himself is never too far away here in Chicago, the lack of a battlefield from that conflict can make the war seem remote sometimes. The Confederate mound is on the South side, and I’ve written about it here before, but it seems like a well-kept secret sometimes. And thousands of dead Confederates evidenced the war’s human toll for me, but they were also fighting to preserve a government that was built upon human bondage. It was hard to feel any love for them.
I wanted to take a moment to honor the fallen, not necessarily from Spotsyvania itself, but from the totality of the war that shaped this nation that my family calls home. So I drove to Rosehill cemetery, which I’ve also written about before, and stood among the rows of fallen Union soldiers.
There were hundreds of them in all, and they represented untold numbers of widows, parents, children, brothers and sisters, cousins and nephews who had to carry on with their lives after they fell. The lives that were lost were in evidence, but the lives that were forever altered as a result could only be surmised.
I read the names and the dates and the company designations, and wondered how many of these fallen soldiers had someone come to pay their respects. Two men named Stewart from separate companies in Vermont, for example, found their earthly rest a very long way from home. Perhaps they were biologically related, and perhaps they were not. But there they are, 150 years later, lying not too far from each other in a Chicago cemetery. And there I was, wondering about what their stories were, and paying my respects to them and all of their comrades in arms.
I wouldn’t know how to behave in the presence of a slave, or a person who considered himself worthy of owning another human as his property. I want to believe that I would comfort the slave and afflict the slaveholder in any way that I could, but the law would be on the slaveholder’s side, and not mine.
Whether the men who lie buried in Rosehill cemetery opposed slavery or not–and I have no illusions that all of them did oppose it–their sacrifice spared all of us from having to witness the debasing nature of slavery.
Confederates had their principles too, I suppose, but I cannot–and will not–honor their sacrifices. If Davis and Lee and the other Confederates had prevailed, the world today would be so ugly that I can hardly imagine it. It’s a great and glorious thing that what some consider the “lost cause” was, indeed, lost.
The surrender at Appomattox is the symbolic end of the Civil War, but in many ways the war still continues today. Those who had their families torn apart, or who spent the rest of their lives carrying the physical and mental scars from the fighting, have all left us now. Their sacrifices are often lost, amid the sacrifices made in more recent American wars. Those wounds are still fresh, after all. But appreciating the Civil War, with its permanent reordering of American society–both North and South–must also be done.
This piece was written with love and gratitude for the sacrifices they made.