Sunday, May 29, 2016

The First Shot In Anger

150 years ago

At 4:30am on Friday, April 12, 1861 Brigadier General Beauregard ordered the secessionist troops manning the artillery batteries of Charleston, South Carolina to open fire on Fort Sumter housing 127 federal troops of which 13 were musicians. Two hours lapse before the Yankee commander allowed Captain Abner Doubleday, the inventor of baseball, to return a salvo of solid ball. No rebel or union soldiers died during the 34 hours of bombardment, although one rebel was mortally wounded after the misfiring of a cannon and two union troops gave up their lives on the 47th shot of a 100-shot salute after the surrender of the beleaguered fort.

The nearly-bloodless fight ill-prepared the divided nation for the four years of slaughter to come. I asked everyone at work of today's importance. None of the employees at the diamond exchange had an answer. A good percentage of them are foreign-born. None of the native-born were aware of the date's significance. The New York Times, the Daily News, and New York Post wrote articles about the battle, but 2 weeks ago is ancient history in the city that never sleeps.

My father's side of the family fought in the Civil War. Hannibal Hamlin had been vice president under Lincoln. The first time I googled his name the first article to appear said that the Maine politician was reputed to be a negro, but then most white people at that time had negro blood in their veins after 200 years of slavery. They even paid painters to change their pigmentation in portraits to heighten their whiteness, but then the War Between the States was not about freeing the slaves, the casus bellum was 'states rights' according the the southerners of today and certainly more folks south of the Mason-Dixon Line recall the events of today than in the North.

To the victors go the glory of ignorance.

But in the Great State of Maine granite statues dot town squares. Immortal soldiers from the 10th Maine regiment, the 27th Maine, and Joshua Chamberlain's heroic 20th Maine face in one direction and that direction is South. My family is from Westbrook, Maine. The attic of my grandmother's house was a memorial to past wars. As a boy my older brother and I wore the uniforms of WWI and WWII. In my mind I remembered pulling on a blue coat of a Yankee. It was small. Almost the size of a young boy like myself. I telephoned my aunt to ask her, if she recollected a uniform dating back to the Civil War.

"You have such a special memory," she laughed from her living room in Marblehead. Her husband agreed with her recollection, but men at any age agree with a woman if they know what's good for them.

My older brother was my next call. His memory mirrored that of our aunt.

"What about seeing the last Union soldiers at a town parade on Memorial Day? About 1960?"

"Not a chance. The last surviving veteran was Albert Henry Woolson. He died in 1956."

"How do you know that?"

"Because my son told me that today."

His son was smart. He was graduating from U Penn. His field of studies was pre-med.

"And he also asked me to name the 9 battles in which over 20,000 troops died in the Civil War."

"That's easy; the 2nd Battle of Bull Run, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, Gettysburg, Fredricksburg, Shiloh, Antietam, Stone River, Spotsylvania, and Chickamauga." I had read Bruce Catton's Civil War histories several times as a youth and adult.

I was right, although his wife thought that I read these names from a computer. She was wrong. The Civil War is in my blood. Last month I had driven south of the Potomac to visit Ms. Carolina. She was seriously ill. I wanted to see her before the turns of her travails worsened with the shortening of time. Her house was out on the Northern Neck of the Potomac. I drove down I-95 to route 3 and turned east. Fredricksburg was en route. I was drawn to St. Marye's Heights. The Union Army had been broken on this ground. The 20th Maine had huddled behind the dead. Spring was another few weeks away, but I stood next to the old cannons and mourned the dead.

Theirs and ours.

150 years is a long time. We are still enemies, yet still the same for the Union survived those four dreadful years and this country will be challenged by the present division sundering our connections, for at the end we are all Americans and nobody says it better than Maine's Joshua Chamberlain, who was present during the Surrender at Appomattox. He met with General Gordon of the CSA.

"I am from General Gordon. General Lee desires a cessation of hostilities until he can hear from General Grant as to the proposed surrender."

Chamberlain recounted the ceremony in his memoir and the moment when he ordered the 20th Maine to "carry arms" as a show of respect.

"Gordon, at the head of the marching column, outdoes us in courtesy. He was riding with downcast eyes and more than pensive look; but at this clatter of arms he raises his eyes and instantly catching the significance, wheels his horse with that superb grace of which he is master, drops the point of his sword to his stirrup, gives a command, at which the great Confederate ensign following him is dipped and his decimated brigades, as they reach our right, respond to the 'carry.' All the while on our part not a sound of trumpet or drum, not a cheer, nor a word nor motion of man, but awful stillness as if it were the passing of the dead."

Johnny, it's always good to put that gun down.

We are one nation.

150 years ago as much as today.

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