A Look Back
"War is all Hell," said General William T. Sherman. Robert E. Lee said in observing the dead and dying bodies of some eight thousand Union soldiers below Marye's Heights in Fredericksburg, Virginia, "It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it." Anniversaries are usually a time for celebration. So you may ask, why we as a country are about to commemorate a war that killed and maimed more than a million men and perpetually scarred three or more entire generations of Americans? The Civil War was a time in American history like no other. The carnage that lasted for fifty months changed the way we lived and the way we continue to live in the present and for many centuries to come.
For the next four years or so, I will be writing about the events which led our state and the states of the South to secede from the Union. So many people ask, "What if the South won the war?" Many historians debate the true causes of the war or just why the South lost or why the North won. The debate has raged for the last sixteen decades and it will not end any time soon.
It has been said that not counting books on religion, the most written about subject is the Civil War. Generally the right to write the history of a war goes to the victors, but such is not the case with this war. Even the names for the war are still debated. While generally named "The Civil War," Southerners of old always referred to the conflict as "The War Between the States," which is actually a better description since wars are never civil and the root cause of the war was the division of opinion on the rights of states to determine their own destiny in matters ranging from economics to slavery. Northern historians often dubbed it "The War of the Rebellion," while their southern counterparts wrote of it as "The War for Southern Independence." Other whimsical names attached to the war include my personal favorite, "The Great Unpleasantness."
Indeed the armies bore different names. The soldiers of the United States of America were called, "the Union, the North, Blue Boys, Blue Bellies, Billy Yanks, Yanks, Yankees and even Damn Yankees. Southern soldiers were known as "the Confederacy, the South, Confederates, Rebels, Rebs. Johnny Rebs, and Grays/Greys." Gen. Robert E. Lee often refused to call his enemies by any derogatory name, opting instead to refer to his opponents as "General Meade's or General Grant's people," or simply and kindly as "our friends across the river."
The differences in names for the war and the armies themselves was carried on in naming the actual battles, especially in the early years of the war. When the killing culminated on the 17th of September 1862 and especially on the first three days of the following July, it mattered not at all that the Southern armies named the battles after the nearest town or land mass while Northern military leaders named the battles for the nearest bodies of water. That practice originated with the first major engagement of the war, dubbed "Bull Run" by the North and "Manassas" by the victorious Southerners. On September 17, 1862, the Army of Northern Virginia slammed into the Army of the Potomac, just outside of Sharpsburg, Marlyand. General Robert E. Lee forces referred to the blood bath as the "Battle of Sharpsburg," while the Union army, under the command of General George B. McLellan named the conflict for nearby Antietam Creek. Regardless of the name of the battle, it was a day when twenty three-thousand American men were killed, wounded, or captured in the bloodiest single day of battle in American history. Among the last battles to bear dual names occurred east of Vicksburg, Mississippi in May 1863. In an effort to block the Union Army as it advanced on the vital river port city of Vicksburg. Confederate General John C. Pemberton sent some of his men east to meet Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's army as they were tightening their choke hold in the beleaguered city. In a short day of fighting, there were more than 10,000 casualties, many of them suffered by local companies of the 57th Georgia Infantry in a battle the North called Baker's Creek and the South dubbed "The Battle of Champion's Hill."
Slightly more than three million soldiers and sailors took part in the war. Of that number, at least 200,000 thousand were killed in action, slightly more from the North. More than 420,000 died from their wounds or infectious diseases, with the North leading that category by more than 100,000 men. In the incalculable category of the number of wounded, the North, with 275,000, was outscored by the better marksman of the South, which suffered about 140,000 wounded men. More than a million, a full one third of the participants, were killed, wounded, died of disease or were taken as prisoners.
The resulting deaths and wounds resulted in changing the course of the history of the country, and the world for that matter, for the rest of time. For me, the war is responsible for me being here to write these words. My great great-grandmother, Elmina Smith Brantley Braswell, lost her first husband, Pvt. Benjamin Brantley, during the Battle of Sharpsburg. Another great great- grandmother, Nancy Key Douglas Woods, lost her first husband, Pvt. David Douglas, at Gettysburg. I won't even mention the changes in lives and relationships of our ancestors which led to us being born a century or so later.
Although, the Civil War or the War Between the States, would not officially begin until April of 1861 following the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, the first major step came in Montgomery, Alabama one hundred and fifty years ago this week. Delegates from Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida and Louisiana gathered in the first Confederate capital to form a Constitution for the Confederate States of America. Alexander Hamilton Stephens, a former United States congressman who represented Laurens County in Congress, and the first and only vice-president of the Confederacy joined Eugenius A. Nisbet, of Macon, as Georgia's representatives on the Committee of Twelve, which organized the six original states into a new government in five days. Two weeks later, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, was elected as the president of the new country.
Other southern states, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Texas, Kentucky and Arkansas ratified the new constitution and seceded from the United States. Interestingly, one of the Alabama delegates signing the Confederate constitution was John G. Shorter, nephew of former Dublin attorney, Eli Shorter.
Make no mistake, it is not my intention to celebrate the events of that horrible war. I will salute the gallantry of its participants, who fought and died for what they thought was right. I will address the nobilities, as well as the horrors. But, I will not, under any circumstances, celebrate death and dying, and I will not champion any cause for the war.
But, in summation of how I personally feel about my people in those dark days, I will leave you with a statement made by a very distant kinsman, Pvt. David L. Thompson of the 9th New York Volunteers, who said while looking at hundreds of Confederate dead at the Battle of Sharpsburg, "Before the sunlight faded, I walked over the narrow field. All around lay the Confederate dead...clad in `butternut'...As I looked down on the poor pinched faces...all enmity died out. There was no `secession' in those rigid forms nor in those fixed eyes staring at the sky. Clearly it was not their war."