Reality strips away some of Civil War’s glory

01/14/2014

Cold_Harbor_burial_party

American Civil War aficionados marking the sesquicentennial of the conflict are gearing up to remember what was probably the bloodiest year of the 1861-65 struggle.

From Grant’s Overland Campaign and the Siege of Petersburg to the Red River Campaign, the Atlanta Campaign and year-end battles at Franklin and Nashville, 1864 was one long year of attrition in which a seemingly endless supply of Union forces ground down their Confederate counterparts.

By year-end, the war was within a few months of being over, though that fact was hardly evident at the time.

While the War Between the States was heavily covered by journalists – both US and foreign – by the spring of 1865 reporters were as eager as soldiers to return to their homes.

Given that Southern newspapers were in short supply due to war devastation and Northern papers were busy focusing on happenings in Washington DC following the end of the conflict, there was little actually being written about what life was like in the immediate aftermath in many of the battle-ravaged areas.

Boston writer John Townsend Trowbridge was dispatched south in the fall of 1865 with an interesting mission: Travel the scenes of the recent conflict and describe battlefields, the plight of the Southern people, the mood of the region and the condition of recently freed blacks.

First published in 1866 under the title A Picture of the Desolated States and the Work of Restoration, Trowbridge’s work has been reissued under different titles, including The Desolate South: 1865-1866, and, simply, The South.

Trowbridge’s book is notable for a number of reasons, but one of the most startling aspects of his effort is his ability to highlight the gory aftermath of Civil War battlefields. He not only describes repeatedly coming across such items as rusted bayonets and canteens and rotting knapsacks, but also finding unburied skeletons with relatively little effort.

The latter offers evidence of just how much the nation’s existing infrastructure was overwhelmed by the war’s magnitude.

Also somewhat disturbing is the seemingly cavalier attitude some of the population took toward the war dead in the immediate aftermath of the conflict.

Trowbridge described visiting the battlefield at Antietam, where he came across the bloody cornfield alongside the Hagerstown Turnpike, where the two sides had fought early on the morning of Sept. 17, 1862.

In a field beside the grove we saw a man ploughing with three horses abreast, and a young lad for escort. We noticed loose headboards, overturned by the plough and lying half imbedded in the furrows.

‘A power of ‘em in this yer field!’ said the ploughman as I questioned him. ‘I always skip a Union grave when I know it, but sometimes I don’t see ‘em, and I plough ‘em up. Eight or ten thousand lays on this farm, Rebels and Union together.’

I picked up a skull lying loose on the ground like a cobblestone. It was that of a young man; the teeth were all splendid and sound. How hideously they grinned at me! And the eye sockets were filled with dirt.

Torn rags strewed the ground. The old ploughman picked up a fragment. ‘This yer was a Union soldier. You may know by the blue cloth. But then that ain’t always a sign, for the Rebels got into our uniforms when they had a chance, and got killed in it, too.’

We found many more bones of Union soldiers rooted up and exposed as we ascended the ridge. …

In all, an estimated 750,000 men died in the war, though the precise count is still not known a century and a half later.

It was carnage on a scale unprecedented in US history, and the nation was unable to handle the demands such slaughter presented.

“As for the bodies, little was done,” according to a PBS article published on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. “Hundreds of thousands were left to rot where they fell. Wild hogs rooted through the remains. At Gettysburg, the stench of death from bodies never buried lingered months after the midsummer battle, forcing residents to cloak the odor with peppermint oil on their faces into the fall.”

Given such descriptions, it is not surprising that the final resting place of tens of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers will forever remain unknown.

(Top: Laborers working for the Federal government recover Civil War dead on the battlefield at Cold Harbor in April 1865, nearly a year after the battle.)

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11 Responses to “Reality strips away some of Civil War’s glory”


  1. This is a bit like your post about Towton. No-one wants to remember or drag up the difficult things when we have all moved on, ie to admit how brutal and uncivilised our wars were – and still are.


    • Yes, 150 years later we make it seem like it was all fun and games. I can’t imagine what the decades were like afterward for the survivors, who had no notion of PTSD or any real mental health treatment.

      I’ll never fall into the camp that says all wars are wrong, but I also don’t think that we need to whitewash the sufferings of the past.

  2. metan Says:

    Amazing to think of someone just ploughing up remains but when something like this is happening in your backyard, which is also your livelihood, what can you do?

    I imagine that if a similar battle was waged today people would suffer through the same kinds of horrors in the aftermath, I don’t think any society can be prepared to deal with that kind of thing.


    • As I understand it, it’s still pretty easy to find human remains in what used to be the western Soviet Union, all left from World War II. Talk about death on an unprecedented scale.

      You’re right; when it’s your land and it’s all you’ve got to feed your family with and earn a living, it takes on a different meaning. I still wouldn’t want to eat that corn, though.

  3. ksbeth Says:

    it sounds horrendous


  4. It’s a good counter to any remnants of the ‘dulce et decorum est’ mantra…


    • The people who spout that trope are usually those that haven’t studied war or humanity in any great detail, or have a great deal to gain from the sacrifice of others.


      • Thus the government poster campaign at the start of the Second World War roughly on the lines of YOUR strength, YOUR endurance, YOUR courage will win US the victory….
        Very revealing.


  5. […] tucked amid the above detritus was this gem, appended on to a post I had written about the gruesome reality of the American Civil War: “This takes into account the view of the Latin Church and medieval contemporaries such as Saint […]

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