May 31, 2020
We did chores the day the death count hit 100,000. Everyone knew it was coming. Meanwhile Lowe’s and Home Depot have been packed every day. The crowds, like us, are forcing life forward, finding meaning in those everyday things that used to get pushed off.
We felt the solemnity and sadness, and then anger evoked by that dark milestone, reached two days after Memorial Day, which is solemn like no other. That morning we quit the chores to visit the Manassas National Battlefield, a spectacular but quiet place of 5,000 acres that summons the somber meaning of the day. The place honors all Americans who died at Manassas, near Bull Run, at the start of America’s greatest agony. Manassas recognizes a tragedy that, like the nation’s current nightmares, was avoidable.
We walked the field slowly. The First Battle took place on July 21, 1861. July 21 also is Sandy’s birthday. I said I doubted her parents, in Deep South Tennessee, noticed that when they welcomed her into the world, although the historical consensus is that the battle was a rebel victory. So was the second battle in the same vicinity about a year later.
You sense, walking among the historical markers, the staged artillery and caissons, that the theme of the place is pitched to the Confederate forces, their leaders, and tactics. The battlefield is dominated by the giant statue of Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, whose Virginia Brigade of the Army of the Shenandoah held high ground against Union artillery fire and infantry charges. Gen. Bernard Bee is credited with shouting “Look at Jackson standing like a stone wall—rally behind the Virginians!”
A few hundred yards from Jackson’s huge image is a stone structure honoring Col. Francis Bartow, commander of the 21st Oglethorpe Light Infantry of the Georgia Militia, the first Confederate officer killed in the Civil War. The monument was erected by Bartow’s men weeks later. Still further along is a marker noting the spot where Col. Wade Hampton of South Carolina, commander of “Hampton’s Legion,” was wounded. He survived four more wounds during the war and rose to lieutenant general. After the war he became a leader of the Redeemers, a white supremacist movement that fought Reconstruction. Hampton was elected governor of South Carolina in 1876 after a bloody campaign. Many streets, schools, and parks in the state are named after him.
Around noon on July 21 as blue and gray artillery dueled, a Union officer directed fire on Henry Hill House, believing it concealed rebel snipers. The shells fatally wounded the homeowner, 84-year-old Judith Henry. She is buried nearby. Eight weeks after Lee surrendered to Grant in April 1865, Union soldiers erected a 20-foot-tall monument to “patriots of ’61” next to the house.
Eventually, Union troops retreated towards Washington in a disorganized mass over roads clogged by civilians who came to watch, expecting an easy Union victory. Casualties were light at First Manassas, fewer than 2,000 dead and wounded for each side—compared to the butchery yet ahead.
Estimates of Civil War dead for both sides range from around 620,000 to 800,000, far more than any other conflict in which the U.S. has engaged. Many wounded men died because of primitive battlefield medical care, others from disease or abuse as prisoners at the Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Ga., and the Union prisons at Camp Douglas, Ill., and Elmira, N.Y.
Some 155 years later, we’re still numbed by the Civil War horror. We’ve learned to recite the causes: slavery as an economic institution and the mantra of states’ rights that animated affluent landowners, and the rigid downhome loyalties that transfixed common people who never owned slaves. A month after Lincoln’s election in November 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union, followed in February 1861 by the six Deep South states that established the Confederacy. Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Arkansas followed.
On April 12, 1861, rebels fired on Fort Sumter. The war began. Faithful only to states’ rights, Southern leaders pushed for war. Robert E. Lee, Jackson, Beauregard, Longstreet, Stuart, Pickett, and others abandoned their oaths of loyalty to the United States to fight with the Confederacy. Lee had served as superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy from 1852 to 1855.
Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Va., April 9,1865, ending hostilities. The day began at dawn with the rebels still fighting near Petersburg. When Lee recognized that his army was cut off, he said, “There is nothing for me to do but go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.”
Grant accepted Lee’s surrender, allowing his men to keep their horses and mules and the officers their sidearms. He provided food to Lee’s starving troops and promised, in writing, that they “would not be disturbed so long as they observed their parole and the laws of the place where they reside.” When Lee rode away, Union soldiers cheered, celebrating, but Grant stopped it, saying “The Confederates are now our countrymen.” Grant’s adjutant, Ely Parker, a Native American, speaking to Lee, said, “We are all Americans.”
That moment of nobility didn’t last. Shortly after Lincoln’s assassination, Southerners jealous of their perquisites, like Hampton, attacked Reconstruction and emancipation, abetted by segregationist President Andrew Johnson. For some Southerners, that war never ended.
We’re counting the casualties of today’s very different war. They are the elderly, the immune-suppressed, the victims of respiratory illnesses who have been going first, followed by the fit and healthy, medical personnel infected in hospitals, lacking enough masks, gowns, and ventilators. It’s the states’ problem, Trump said. In February Trump shrugged it off at his nightly vaudeville act-briefings. On March 13: “I don’t take any responsibility at all.”
No one today doesn’t know the story of the 100,000. The fight today is about wearing masks, reopening bars, barbershops, and beaches, carefully or recklessly. Today’s war isn’t about slavery, states’ rights, and treason. It is about those who acknowledged the responsibility of leadership, who recognized the onrushing pandemic, who faced the enemy—and others, who ran from the field.