The transforming effect of battle, and the bonds that grow

From John Hennessy:

Library of Congress

I have always been fascinated with our collective fascination with things military, and especially the Civil War. Though most Americans would proclaim ours to be a non-militaristic society, we spend as much or more time ruminating on our military past as any people on earth. There are surely many reasons for this, but one of them is hinted at by the two quotes that follow. 

Battle is a transformative event. And the shared experience of battle produces bonds that those who have not experienced cannot fully grasp. I saw this with my father. I could not and did not fully realize until I attended a reunion of USS Albert W. Grant, DD-649, that my father’s service on Grant was the central experience of his life, and the bonds he shared with his shipmates were exceeded only by those with his family.

The power of that shared experience is loudly proclaimed in innumerable accounts of the Civil War. But rarely have I seen its origins as clearly explained as they are in these two passages. The first, written by Frank Haskell of the 6th Wisconsin, reflects (three weeks after the fact) on his regiment’s first combat on the Brawner Farm at Second Manassas, on August 28, 1862.  

As the day light came on the next morning, none of us could look upon our thinned ranks, so full the night before, now so shattered, without tears. And the faces of these brave boys…no pen can describe. The men were cheerful, quiet, and orderly. The dust and blackness of battle were upon their clothes, and in their hair, and on their skin, but you saw none of these,–you saw only their eyes, and the shadows of the “light of battle,” and furrows plowed upon cheeks that were smooth the night before….I could not look upon them without tears, and I could have hugged the necks of them all. (Haskell of Gettysburg, page 45)

Abner Small was the adjutant of the 16th Maine, which saw its first combat at Fredericksburg. He wrote vividly of seeing his regiment after they’d come out of battle (Road to Richmond, page 69).

I went down the line of my regiment, fewer than half its men surviving, weary and dirty, their clothes torn and muddy, knapsacks rent, canteens battered, hands and faces daubed with muck and splotched with powder.  There were pale faces and faces flushed, anxious and expectant faces, many that I had scanned three days before; the same, yet changed.  There was something in the expression, the attitude of those men, that awed me.  An uprush of emotion blinded and choked me as I turned away.

The bonds forged between warriors are central to a soldier’s experience, and are often a life-long legacy of military service. I’d offer that one of the reasons so many are fascinated by the experience of men in battle is a quiet envy of those bonds. In a world of boundaryless suburbs and soul-less towns, sometimes the only place we can find a sense of community is by looking backwards. 

2 thoughts on “The transforming effect of battle, and the bonds that grow

  1. I think your conclusion that the source of the continuing fascination is grounded in a quiet envy is accurate and has probably always existed on some level. Shakespeare certainly was was thinking along those lines when he wrote Henry V in the late 16th century:

    “And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
    Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
    And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
    That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”

    • Thanks John. I do believe that is the first dose of Shakespearean culture on Mysteries and Conundrums. We thank you for that and your insight…. John H.

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