Greetings Cosmic Americans!
A while back, I got a question from Robby, one of my former University of Virginia students - actually...one of my very best former University of Virginia students. He wanted to know when the war became "real" for me - when I got it...when it clicked. I have been reading about the war since I was a kid - but that did not necessarily mean that I "got it," for lack of a better phrase. In fact, I am not sure that I do now. But I feel as though I am closer.
Civil War memory - a topic close to my heart - is a lived experience. It was so for the generation who lived through the war and its aftermath, and it is for us today. At least this much I understand - while I may not entirely get the war from the perspective of a participant (none of us ever really will) - I have made my personal connections beyond the books. Keep in mind, I don't generally write about myself (much) - my work has a purpose beyond hipsteresque narcissism and hyper-inflated self importance so typical of the blogosphere broadly defined. But I will from time to time divulge a few autobiographical lines, especially when asked. I believe my personal experiences will sound familiar to many of you - and that in this instance they are worthy of note.
Strangely, while I have been reading about the war most of my life, I did not live the memory of it until recently - 1999 to be exact. I was born in Birmingham Alabama, a steel town that was not founded until 1871 - so not much in the way of Civil War action there. I grew up in Southern California - even fewer Civil War attractions there. But in the summer of 1999 I got it together to take my first Civil War vacation, so to speak, in the deep South. Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina - and I even made a trek to Western Tennessee and Kentucky...all the way to Perryville. The war became real, I suppose, on the Shiloh battlefield. There I walked in the footsteps of my ancestor, Andrew Jackson Holbert, who fought alongside the men of his Alabama regiment. I stood at or near the spot where he was shot - a chest wound that he miraculously survived.
I was fortunate that it was August, the middle of the week, extremely humid and around 98 degrees. Suffice to say, I had the battlefield to myself. So I got a chance to think about what it must have looked like in 1862 sans twentieth-century distractions (I didn't even have a cell phone yet). Perhaps I have a particularly vivid imagination - it is very difficult to describe with words....but I felt the war all around me. Not an isolated incident, I had the same experience two years later (by then I had a cell phone...but rarely used it) - while on a trip with my UCLA undergraduate comrades to Gettysburg. I woke up before sunrise on a June morning and headed out to explore the Union positions of July 1, 1863. I was quickly reminded that thinking while all alone in such an evocative place clarifies a great deal about the war. As you might guess, this scene has repeated itself over and over during the last several years - my time in Virginia...and the subsequent trips east since I left.
If anything, my experiences....surely like those of many, validate the cause for battlefield preservation - not only as places of study, but of contemplation. One can understand so much about the war at the places where the issues of the day were decided by arms. Do battlefields resonate with the voices of those long past? I dare not answer definitively...for fear of treading the ground of the theologian - hardly my area of expertise. I will say, however, that for the contemplative among us, the war lives and breathes at these sites of memory. On an experiential level, one can indeed sense - maybe even obliquely grasp - the war in all its realness.