Reality strips away some of Civil War’s glory
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.)