I’ve just finished watching Beth Parnicza’s talk on Civil War veterans and their post-war battlefield excursions. The talk, which took place on February 7, 2015, is part of the Gettysburg National Military Park Winter Series. The whole collection is available to watch on the GNMP Youtube channel.
Considering that the primary focus of my research for the past decade or so has been Civil War veterans and what they had to say when they thought about and discussed the war later in life – and particularly what they said on the battlefields where they had once faced war’s grim certainties – I found this talk notably engaging. Ms. Parnicza does a magnificent job of discussing veterans’ vivid memories of battle: death, smell, and in particular, ghosts. She notes with well-studied and informed accuracy the emotions on display – and indeed how many veterans returning to the places of carnage seemed nearly overwhelmed with grief when acknowledging the sacrifices of their fallen comrades. Most importantly, as she points out, they used these opportunities to say goodbye to those with whom they had fought alongside – and, as it turns out…against.
Parnicza’s talk centers on the battlefields of the Wilderness region of Virginia and looks almost entirely at veterans’ gatherings of the mixed variety – meaning, she discusses “reunions” where representatives from both Union and Confederate armies commemorated the fields together. On these occasions, one in attendance would scarcely have heard mention of treason, tyranny, or accusatory statements concerning the perversions of the original intentions of the founding generation – and perhaps only the occasional nod to emancipation and progress. These gatherings were “love feasts” dedicated to reconciliation, where veterans made sure to reject bitterness and the divisive issues of war. Rather, they honored sacrifice, heroism, fortitude, and commitment.
At least for the veterans discussed in this lecture, Parnicza is right on target. Mixed gatherings rarely emphasized contention precisely because most thought it tawdry at best to verbally attack, criticize, or ridicule former enemies now that the questions of war had been settled by shot and shell – and especially since the former enemies in question were sitting in the speaker’s presence. After all, former Rebels were hosting Union men on Virginia soil – and doing so quite graciously. To reopen wounds of war would have been rude, so to speak, for either side. Still, I believe that a comparison with other veteran events would have served this talk well – and in fact helped to illustrate the point that such mixed meetings around the Wilderness were exceptional – and thus worthy of especial discussion.
For example, veterans attending gatherings throughout the rest of the nation – the ones other than the rare “Blue-Gray” type – were far less inclined to put aside contentious war issues. In fact, remembering what inspired them to fight in the first place was most often the very point of veterans coming together in commemoration. And as they aged, their voices grew even stronger. Forgetting the war’s causes and consequences – combative as they might be – was the farthest thing from veterans’ minds.
This aside, Parnicza’s talk offers much – in ways that I have discounted over the years – concerning the subtleties of reconciliation in terms of mutual sacrifice. Take the time to watch this excellent presentation – posted below – and then let’s talk.
PS – B.P., should you happen to read this post, thanks for the book shout out 🙂 You have included me in good company.