Civil War Trivia, Portraits of Privates

What Makes It A Tragedy?

I have the best conversations with my husband. I really do. He’s also a history buff, but he prefers medieval history and sometimes he’ll throw out stuff about the War of the Roses or Agincourt and I’m lost. I guess it’s fair, because he gets that same blank look if I start rattling off about the three different battles around Winchester.

Anyway, I told him about a certain video I watched on Facebook where a historian was taking a tour to a certain remote battlefield location. I told him about this one part when the tour guide gets really emotional and dramatic about an aspect of the battle. I admit, I was poking fun at the tour guide, but in reality, I get carried away in a similar fashion. In the course of this conversation, my husband said something to the affect of, “Well, that battle wasn’t a tragedy. Not like Gettysburg or Antietam. It didn’t have enough casualties.”

It made me stop and think for a minute. Not just what would have driven my husband to say something slightly insensitive. I realized that I hadn’t really thought of what makes a Civil War battle (skirmish or major engagement) a real tragedy or a disaster. Is there a benchmark for something like that?

I came to the conclusion that there isn’t a benchmark. All deaths are tragedies. All casualties matter. When a soldier dies, even if he’s the only death in the battle, his death still creates ripples. His friends and messmates mourn him. His commander mourns him. The folks back home (family and community) will mourn him. But that doesn’t make a major engagement like Gettysburg, Antietam, Franklin, or Vicksburg any less tragic either. It’s terrible when it’s thousands upon thousands of dead littering the field. It’s just as sad to see one lone grave or a sea of headstones. A quick and decisive bullet to the head isn’t any more or less devastating than seeing a man being eaten away with disease. It’s just as compelling to see blood on a soldier’s uniform or on his last letter to his family, compared to blood running in rivers through the grass from a pile of dead.

Andersonville National Cemetery, Georgia

Something that Drew Gruber said at the Emerging Civil War Symposium in 2019 goes along with this. I’m paraphrasing, but the idea was that the entire Civil War was filled with “forgotten battles” (that was the theme of the symposium). He went on to explain that the man that was shot on the midnight picket and the man dying of dysentery both struggled in their own forgotten battles because they weren’t involved in a big engagement upon a battlefield. It’s them that we should remember, not just figures on a battle report. I’d venture to add that the war is also filled with forgotten tragedies. They’re forgotten because their name on the casualty roll became lost in the hundreds or thousands of other names. Even the names that don’t appear, the unknowns that are forever lost to history, their stories and their memories, they should be recognized and grieved for. Each death is tragic, no matter the circumstances. Another quote (forgotten where from) says that a graveyard doesn’t just house corpses, but the hopes and dreams for a tomorrow that never came. That, in itself, is a tragedy.

Okay, so I got a little dramatic with this post. But I wanted to share my thoughts and feelings on this subject.

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