This year of course saw the 150th anniversary of the conclusion of the American Civil War. It was one of history’s seminal – not to mention most bloody and divisive – conflicts. One of the first major wars to be captured on camera, it portrayed in a way not seen before some of the hardships and sickening realities of battle.
Amidst the torment and the bloodshed, however, were moments of poignancy and humanity. Countless stills, diaries and letters survive to remind us that war is ultimately a story about simple men and women engaging in activities that, whilst common to our species, cannot be prepared for.
One of the most touching letters of the American Civil War was written by Major Sullivan Ballou of the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry a week before the First Battle of Bull Run:
My very dear Sarah:
The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days—perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.
Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure—and it may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine O God, be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.
But, my dear wife, when I know that with my own joys I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with cares and sorrows—when, after having eaten for long years the bitter fruit of orphanage myself, I must offer it as their only sustenance to my dear little children—is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country.
Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.
The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when God willing, we might still have lived and loved together and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me—perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar—that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.
Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.
But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the brightest day and in the darkest night—amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours—always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.
Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for me, for we shall meet again.
As for my little boys, they will grow as I have done, and never know a father’s love and care. Little Willie is too young to remember me long, and my blue-eyed Edgar will keep my frolics with him among the dimmest memories of his childhood. Sarah, I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care and your development of their characters. Tell my two mothers his and hers I call God’s blessing upon them. O Sarah, I wait for you there! Come to me, and lead thither my children.
Sullivan Ballou died at the Bull Run.
His sentiments are echoed in The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane’s 1895 masterpiece. Crane narrates the story of a young Private fleeing from battle, past the ‘methodical fools’ and machine-like idiots’ stupid enough to stand their ground. Only after he reaches the back of the ‘imbecile line’ does he realise that his Union comrades have held their position. ‘By heavens, they had won after all’, he exclaims, before slinking off into a body-strewn wood in humiliation. The Private ultimately returns to his regiment who believe his disappearance to have been the result of injury rather than desertion. He returns to battle where he fights gallantly and survives.
Like all of those conscripted into battle, the youthful Private is an amalgamation of conflicting human characteristics; excitement, anticipation, fear, cowardice, resilience and bravery. It is what makes the story so powerful. Any one emotion can win the day. We are not ‘machine-like idiots’. We are human beings. Under the greatest stress there is no predicting how one might act.
Today it feels as if we are engulfed by war, our media streams never free from the endless miseries of violent conflict that stain our earth. Most of these are, at heart, civil conflicts. From Syria to Afghanistan and Iraq, Somalia, Libya, South Sudan, Nigeria and Ukraine to name but a few, nation states are tearing themselves apart.
The violence has repercussions away from the battlefield; population displacement, refugee crises, economic devastation, famine, political anarchy. In this sense the American Civil War, as with most drawn-out conflicts, was no different.
People are engaged in a daily struggle that often defies description. But make no mistake; they are all fighting for something, as both Ballou and Crane’s Private were. For many it is simply survival, that most human trait of self-preservation. Others have ideological motives, some are driven by the prospect of monetary or political gain, a select few by the sadistic urge to inflict destruction on others.
The causes of war may be futile in nature but war itself is not futile; Ballou’s letter alone should be enough to make that clear. Everyone has their reasons for struggling on, for pinning on the red badge of courage, real or metaphorical.
The American Civil War has become synonymous with huge casualty figures and devastating fighting, the rapidly-advancing weaponry of the mid-19th century fast outstripping the archaic tactics of pitched battles.
A similar scenario is being played out today with our world increasingly weaponised and technology marching forward at a seemingly unstoppable pace. Drones patrol the skies ready to strike pinpoint targets at any moment, surface-to-air missiles, heavy artillery and armoured fighting vehicles are no longer the preserve of national armies. Much criticism has been laid at the door of the West for not ‘putting boots on the ground’ in the fight against ISIS but the era of the footsoldier is almost at an end. More worryingly, soon the West will no longer have unilateral control of the skies, so that even directing conventional forces will become increasingly challenging.
We are supposed to learn lessons from wars; perhaps we do in the way that they are fought. But what is good for the last war is invariably inadequate for the next. And war is a constant, a fact of life almost as certain as death itself.
With our ultra-connected world, in which people of diverse races, ethnicities, religions and beliefs are held together by fabricated borders and haphazard controls, this reality is set to persist.
Whether we will ever reach P.F. Sloan’s prophesised Eve of Destruction remains to be seen. But, just as many Americans probably felt just over 150 years ago, at the moment it does not feel as if we are far away.