Friday, July 20, 2012

Reflections on Virginia #1

We had the opportunity to visit the Petersburg National Battlefield south of Richmond last week -- site of the last large siege and series of battles before the Confederate defense of Richmond became impossible and the Civil War ended in April 1865.  Among other episodes of conflict, Petersburg was the site of the Battle of the Crater in July 1864, when Union forces who had been miners in Pennsylvania's coal country burrowed under a Confederate emplacement and planted four tons of explosive powder that blew the Confederates sky-high, created an enormous crater -- and ultimately backfired upon the ill-prepared Union soldiers who stood gaping at the destruction or falling by the dozens into the hell-hole they had created.

Today, evidence of various batteries remains spread over miles of the landscape near Petersburg.  The entrance to the mine tunnel and a big depression in the land remain, as well, and are littered with granite obelisks dedicated to the Pennsylvania soldiers or the Confederate victims.  Preservation of this landscape is a gift to our generation in terms of how well it illustrates the range and scope of this single series of battles.  If one arena of the conflict was this enormous, the full scale of the Civil War's hostilities are almost incomprehensibly vast -- and so, by extension, must be the range and scale of most armed conflicts.  Petersburg is one among many useful reminders of how much effort and destruction went into this war.  One would hope it serves as both memorial and caution.

And yet: the battlefields were also among the most peaceful and pastoral landscapes we encountered on our journey.  We saw bald eagles and wild turkeys, and enjoyed (amidst the oppressive eastern humidity -- three cheers for Oregon's climate) leafy green landscapes and vast fields that guarantee the need for a tremendous lawn-mowing budget on the part of the National Parks Service.  It was nearly impossible, gazing upon these beautiful expanses, to imagine the death and destruction that once littered them.  It all seemed rather... romantic, to use the incredibly inappropriate term that so often characterizes the realm of "Lost Cause" lore.

The Crater

Fort Stedman (Union)

Grass covers a multitude of human sins.  This is a good thing in many ways; it is a useful reminder of human impermanence and a testament to the world's endurance even we throw at it the worst of our human inventions.  I wonder, however, whether part of our fascination with the Civil War has something to do with these elysian green fields.  It wasn't romantic; it wasn't green and pretty.  It was hell on earth.  We need to face that and remember that lest we transmute the quiet beauty into a vision of the past that elides the horrors of war.

1 comment:

jacob Parker said...

Landscape Designer VA
Maybe it would help me if I colored my gardens.