carolbuckles (carolbuckles) wrote,

New Newport News News: Battlefields edition

Lately, the Man and I have driven quite a bit, and, this being Virginia, everywhere we go, there are battlefields. Lately, we have been visiting the sites of battles of the war the Southerners call “The War of Northern Aggression” or “The Late Unpleasantness.” AKA, The American Civil War. [Quick history lesson—Southerners deny the term “civil war” since that implies that there is no right of states to secede. Recently, many states have loudly trumpeted “states’ rights” as they struggle to make the Federal gov’t do its job in re: the border. These are not the southern states which tried secession and were utterly devastated by the Federal response.] Yes, I was raised in Virginia, with her particular viewpoint. This is NOT pro-slavery, which most believe would have collapsed under its own immorality, but the historical power of the local state, more responsive to the will of her people, versus the Federal government, justly feared by the Founding Fathers.
There are 2 wars that literally make my stomach hurt—WWI and The War of 1861-65. I literally cannot fathom why these wars were fought. I can read the history books and absorb all the “reasons” but I cannot get inside the head of Abraham Lincoln to understand why he used such extreme and horrific means to preserve a nation, shredding the Constitution in the process. What union, without the Constitution it was founded under? [If you have insight into this, PLEASE tell me.]
Here, in historical order, not in the order we visited, are the sites and my thoughts about them. Photos are available at
Quebec--Plains of Abraham
This Biblical-sounding battlefield was actually translated from the French; literally, it meant Abraham’s Farm. Situated on the St. Laurence River, the British used the lowest part of the cliff to attack the French fort at Quebec. Time—the French and Indian War, called the 7 Years War in Europe.
The fort had been holding out defiantly under General Wolfe, but the British were able to get reinforcements up the river by way of their superior navy. The cliffs along this stretch of the St. Laurence are formidable, but the British General Montgomery sent 4000 kilted Scots up the lowest part of the cliff to attack the fort from the landward, less defended side. The French, calling these soldiers “The Ladies from Hell,” were drawn out of the fort to engage and were defeated on Abraham’s Farm. Both Generals lost their lives in the battle and were commemorated by a joint monument.
The result of this battle was paradigm-shifting. The French lost their holdings in Canada, and, most vitally, control of the St. Laurence. Look at a map to see the strategic importance of this river; using it and the Great Lakes, merchants and armies can make their way to the Mississippi River and to the Gulf of Mexico. [One of the reasons Napoleon was willing to sell the Louisiana Territory to the US in 1803 was the chokehold Britain had on this waterway system.]
The French settlers of the region were forcibly moved to then-French Louisiana [read Longfellow’s “Evangeline”] where the then-called “Acadians” gradually turned into “Cajuns.” Maine, named after the province of that name in France became part of the British colonies, and eventually, part of the US.
The remaining French Canadians were promised by the British that they would have autonomy if they did not side with the rebellious colonies in 1776. They took the loyalty pledge, but never received the autonomy and there they remain to this day, bitter about it. But that is why French is one of the official languages of Canada and why Quebec province wants to secede.
Quebec City remains to this day the home of the most delicious confection known to humans, maple pie.
54’40” or fight
James K. Polk campaigned for president on this slogan, referring to the parallel of latitude that was the southern border of Russian Alaska. In dispute was the northern border of the US, including the Oregon Territories. The threatened war was with Great Britain/Canada.
And I think we should have gone to war to win this part of North America. But we didn’t; this is one of numerous occasions when the US could have been imperial and wasn’t. [ I also think we should have taken Cuba in the Spanish-American War.] Our most recent example is our refusal to follow up on our victory in Iraq to secure a permanent base there.
The 49th parallel was ultimately agreed upon by treaty. But, all along the US-Canada border are areas of dispute. Forts were built on either side, and in one case, the US built a fort on the Canada side through a surveying error; a treaty established a blip in the border to correct the mistake, rather than the fort changing hands. Do you find this a bit bizarre?
Manassas VA
This is perhaps the most heart-breaking battlefield I have ever visited. Two battles took place here and each decided nothing, changed nothing, except for thousands of dead men and boys. July of 1861 was the first battle at the railroad terminal of Manassas VA and is considered the first battle of the War Between the States. We visited the battlefield in July 2010 and the heat and the humidity were formidable. This is the famous battle, called Bull Run by the Union, that the people of Washington DC came out to watch, with picnic baskets and spyglasses. They thought they would see the first and last battle to defeat the Confederate States. They were wrong.
Like all battles, this one was a confusion of smoke, blood, death, screaming, and exhaustion. The Confederates held Signal Hill and could tell General Beauregard that the Union forces were coming. General Thomas Jackson, a professor at Virginia Military Institute [VMI], was able to unlimber his field artillery on the high ground, which ultimately turned the tide of battle. Union General Pope had declared victory in a telegram to Lincoln, but a Confederate rout was prevented by Jackson’s firm position.
“There stands Jackson like a stone wall! Rally round the Virginian!” was the cry.
After a long miserable day, the Union forces turned and fled, carrying the picnickers back with them to DC. The Confederates could not follow up their victory due to ill training and heat exhaustion.
A little more than a year later, another battle took place here for control of the railroad and the route to Richmond, capitol of the Confederacy. In this battle, the troopers were no longer untrained and stood in ranks shooting each other. They said that the dead were in straight lines, falling out of ranks as they died. The battle was a victory for the Confederates, who followed up by going into Maryland. The battle of Antietam was also a bloodbath and a Confederate victory.
Of note though were the comments of a Union officer, a prisoner of war after the second battle, who asked the Confederate soldiers what they thought the war was about. They answered him that they thought the Union cause was “something about the Negroes” but that they were fighting to protect their homes.
Chancellorsville VA
Another miserable battle, with senseless loss of life, the battle rampaged across the farm fields of George Chancellor in May 1863. In the heat and confusion of the battle, Stonewall Jackson was shot by friendly fire. As he lay dying at Guinea Station, his wife and small daughter were brought to him to say good-bye.
Gettysburg PA
General Lee had taken the war to the north in a strategic attempt to follow up his victory at Chancellorsville and end the war by putting pressure on the Union politicians; at the same time, he hoped to relieve the devastation of Virginia. The battle took place from June to July 1863, so it really wasn’t the end of the Confederacy, but the cost in men and materiel was devastating. The incredible loss of life on both sides is beyond imagining. Between 46,000 and 51,000 Americans were casualties, mostly within 3 days. The Confederates were outnumbered by about 20,000 men, but ironically, the losses were about the same on each side.
The farm fields are now preserved as a national park; the battlefield is quite a large area, with the combatant lines marked by cannon and monuments. It is probably the most depressing 9.4 square miles of real estate anywhere. It took us hours to tour in our car. Perhaps the closest analogy is the battlefield of Culloden, Scotland, which marked the end of Scotland as a sovereign nation.
In November 1863, President Lincoln delivered The Gettysburg Address to dedicate the cemetery. I had to memorize it in school. It is simple—most people who heard it thought it was insulting in its brevity—but it still gives me no clue as to why he thought slaughter was the answer to secession. So, to quote from Wikipedia:
Abraham Lincoln's carefully crafted address, secondary to other presentations that day, came to be regarded as one of the greatest speeches in American history. In just over two minutes, Lincoln invoked the principles of human equality espoused by the Declaration of Independence and redefined the Civil War as a struggle not merely for the Union, but as "a new birth of freedom" that would bring true equality to all of its citizens, and that would also create a unified nation in which states' rights were no longer dominant. []

You may ask why, since they are so very depressing, do Ron and I visit battlefields. We always go out of our way to do so, but until Manassas, we hadn’t put it into words. We feel that we owe it to the dead, as an act of homage, to be there, to make ourselves aware of the stories of the battle, and to mourn. Many times, it is with a feeling of gratitude to the fallen; sometimes a gut-wrenching acknowledgement of the futility and the waste. But always trying to understand the extreme mindset that permits men to be willing to die for an ideal, for their homes, for what they perceive as right.
May God have mercy on us all.

N4 32 Battlefields
[2010] for photos, visit

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