Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Battle Anniversary 9: "In Natura Tranquillitatis Est"

There is something about the tranquillity of the Battlefield in the darkening of an evening. There are few places around any more that show as many stars, and viewed from the Wheatfield, a full moon rising over Little Round Top is superior to any thunderous dawn of Kipling’s. In the summer, after the visitors go, the park’s non-human inhabitants come out – deer anywhere around the park, fox kits playing at the intersection of Hancock and Pleasanton Avenues, bobcats screaming up and down both Round Tops. In natura tranquillitatis est.
No one can prepare you for the first time you drive up Hancock Avenue on a mid-July evening, and as you pass the copse of trees, if you look to your left, you see them: thousands of gun flashes in the fields over which Pickett’s, Pettigrew’s and Trimble’s men strode in their crouching walk into the face of death. You know, finally that they are only fireflies, but for a moment…

On those very quiet nights, when only the insects sing, you can sometimes park in the Visitor’s Center lot and roll down your windows, and catch something extra in the air. You listen to the cycle of the cicadas, and once in a while they synchronize and you hear him, “…come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this… poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated…”

In a gushing storm you can hear the crash of the artillery with every thunderclap, and the roar of the muskets in the teeming rain, and as the wind swirls faster, you hear the rising moan of the wounded.

And in the shimmering light of a full moon you see the men standing silent guard in their line of battle – monuments not men, but monuments erected by the men who fought here and survived. There was something very, very special about these fields, and hills. It was so special, the men were drawn back to these grounds, and they came, every five years for almost a century until none were left. They were no longer enemies, but brothers who had experienced Hell and came away from the maelstrom with their lives.

When they returned they chased out the gamblers, the prostitutes, the trolley line, and the commercial ventures, and they did so out of their own pockets, buying up small parcels of ground, some not much bigger than a 12 foot square, as that was all they could afford. In such measures they bought the land on which the trolley ran, and then evicted it…not without a court fight, but the government took that up with the trolley operators. It was the second time they paid for this land. In their minds, and in their hearts, they already owned it, not for themselves, but for this nation, under God.

These men, who’s lives were measured by fate on those three days in July, these men came back, and as long as they could they made sure proper respect was paid to the ground that had soaked up so much blood, theirs, their messmates, their friends, brothers, cousins, and tens of thousands of men they never knew, never saw, nor would they ever meet.

It was these men who crafted the permanent memorial that is this park, this Battlefield. First with their sweat and blood, and later with whatever dollars they could spare, and sometimes with dollars they could not spare. And every five years they’d come back, and erect another monument and pair of flank markers, and some of them would speak, and men who were never here would speak bold and inspiring words, and there would be that sad feeling that every time they came back there were fewer still. But it was an inner drive, a duty to perform as long as one of them survived, to keep coming back here to honor and pay tribute to all who fought here, that this nation might live.

Those of us who were never there, and that is all of us, every single person on the face of this planet, and all to come, have no recourse but to stand and try to imagine -- a fruitless exercise, but to try to imagine the enormity of it all. It cannot be honestly done for we have nothing in our experience, any of us, to compare with what they experienced here. Movies and reenactments can give us a sense of it, but no one can possibly know what it was like. D-Day in 1944 where the Allies had 150,000 men engaged, lost about 10,000. At Gettysburg, the Confederates had approximately 65-75,000 men and had over 28,000 casualties, while the Army of the Potomac with somewhere around 90,000 men lost over 23,000.

From 8 AM on July 1st, to approximately 8 PM on July 3rd, a period of 60 hours, the combined average loss rate was 850 men every hour, 14 men every minute -- every single hour. That is a man down every four seconds.

Numbers like that are incomprehensible, not only in total, but in trying to get a grasp in one’s mind, to understand the enormity of it by trying to break it into little pieces, as the men themselves broke this Battle into smaller pieces. The Seminary, Barlow’s Knoll, The Wheatfield (where the fighting was probably as bad as, and perhaps more dreadfully efficient than the fighting during Pickett’s Charge), The Peach Orchard, Devil’s Den, Little Round Top, Seminary Ridge, Culp’s Hill, East Cemetery Hill, Cemetery Ridge, Benner’s Hill, Powers Hill, and the farms, Rose, Weikert, Sherfy, McPherson, Culp, Benner, Codori and Trostle. All those names, each in their own nook on the Battlefield. Names that will live in American history as places where a nation was re-forged, where its course was corrected, and a wrong was righted.

Where once the sound was so immense and terrifying, and sights presented before the eyes that the mind could not swallow, now it is a somber, and reverent field, a field that drains a million tears in a small brook called Plum Run – a field on which those men gave the last full measure of devotion.

In natura tranquillitatis est – in nature there is tranquillity.

Novus Livy

“Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history.” – Abraham Lincoln

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1 comment:

gjnks said...

It is interesting that sites where such terrible things have occurred can be so peaceful. I'm not sure if you've ever heard of Martin's Cove in Wyoming but it was the site of one of the greatest tragedies of the westward movement. Two groups of Mormon pioneers using handcarts began their travel westward to Utah late in the season because they wished to join the main body of the LDS church as soon as they could. Beforehand, one of these groups, the Willie handcart company, had decided to hold a meeting to decide whether they would risk leaving so late.

Many in the group were anxious to leave at once, but a man by the name of Levi Savage advised them to wait. He had traveled the trail before and, knowing the dangers, felt it would be wise to postpone until the following season. But despite this, the group decided to risk it. Upon hearing this, Savage said, "...what I have said I know to be true; but, seeing you are to go forward, I will go with you, will help you all I can, will work with you, will rest with you, will suffer with you, and if necessary I will die with you. May God in his mercy bless and preserve us."

The other company was the Martin Handcart Company after which the cove is named. It was the onslaught of an early winter storm that ground these two companies progress to a halt. The Martin Company, finding themselves greatly exposed to the storm's fury sought refuge in the cove where they waited for aid. While there, some 56 people died of starvation and exposure to the cold. The ground was too frozen to bury the dead, so rocks were piled up over them. But once the bodies were left, wolves would come from the nearby hills and carry the bodies away. It was a time of terrible sorrow which could have caused them to lose their faith in God. But it only strengthened it. Many years later Francis Webster, one of the survivors said, "We suffered beyond anything you can imagine and many died of exposure and starvation, but did you ever hear a survivor of that company utter a word of criticism? Every one of us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives for we became acquainted with Him in our extremities!"

Now you may wonder what this has to do with the article about which I am commenting on and why I am giving such details. Well, one year ago I visited Martin's Cove. I saw the place where their tents had once been, I saw the hills from where the wolves would have come, but it was not what I saw but what I felt that left an impression upon me. It was a feeling of peace, a sorrowful peace knowing the tragedy of what had happened there but peace in that those who had died had entered into their rest, free from their sorrows and trials. And I feel that it was the great faith and devotion of those pioneers that truly sanctified that spot. Just as the courageous men who fought at Gettysburg fully willing to die for a cause greater than themselves sanctified that battlefield. As President Lincoln said during the Gettysburg Address, "...in a larger sense, we can not dedicate-we can not consecrate-we can not hallow-this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract." I feel that much the same can be said for those of that handcart company.