Yesterday’s sorrows are today’s abstractions

July 6, 2013

In 2008, Drew Gilpin Faust, now the president of Harvard University, published the fascinating historical study, “This Republic of Suffering,” which looked at how Americans came to terms with the immense amounts of carnage unleashed by the Civil War.

To put the degree of suffering in perspective, 620,000 fatalities were recorded in the North and South in the four years of the conflict. That would be the equivalent of 6 million people today.

From our vantage point, 150 years to the week after the battle of Gettysburg marked the war’s turning point, the depth of sorrow that engulfed our ancestors can seem little more than an abstraction. No one living now was around a century-and-a-half ago, and there are very few people alive now who ever met a Civil War veteran. The Civil War is now the purview of historians like Faust, or the province of storytellers for the screen or page.

We were struck this past week by just how far removed we’ve become from the Civil War’s agonies when we stumbled across a poster for a Civil War re-enactment scheduled in the region later this summer. While we’re sure it will be informative and, perhaps, entertaining, the tagline on the poster stood out. It read, if we recall correctly, “Don’t Miss Out on the Fun!”

There’s probably no way a Union or Confederate fighter 150 years ago could have ever imagined that one day the fright they felt on the battlefield – some were said to have soiled themselves as their opponents advanced – would be touted as “fun” summertime amusement. We’ve all been told that war is hell, and many understand this from firsthand experience. But the more distant it is, the less hellish it apparently seems.

There are already a small number of Vietnam War re-enactors restaging jungle battles in the swamps of Middle America, even though a considerable number of the war’s veterans still walk among us. Will there one day be re-enactments of John F. Kennedy’s assassination? Or 9/11? To us, it seems tasteless. But those standing many generations removed will feel nary a twinge of anguish over these two days of infamy.

“He had, of course, dreamed of battles all his life – of vague and bloody conflicts that had thrilled him with their sweep and fire,” the narrator of the Stephen Crane Civil War classic, “The Red Badge of Courage,” tells us about the novel’s protagonist, Henry Fleming, the young private who runs from the battlefield. “But ... he had regarded battles as crimson blotches on the pages of the past.”

For better or worse, we end up doing so as well.



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