From Hennessy: On this, the day after the anniversary of the the burials on the Bloody Plain at Fredericksburg, we give you the last of six stops on the Remembrance Walk. If you wish to read the entire series, you can start here. I presented these words on one of the lower terraces, not far from the entrance to the cemetery.
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We have walked from the Bloody Plain to this place, this hill, unattainable to Union soldiers in December 1862, but later the resting place of hundreds of them.
The brutality and harshness of what took place on the bloody plain is vividly demonstrated here: Of the nearly 1,000 bodies of Union soldiers recovered from the Bloody Plain after the war and reburied here, only TWO could be identified and re-interred in a marked grave. Only two. At Fredericksburg, the soldier’s nightmare of being buried and unknown on a plot of land far away was far too often a reality.
This National Cemetery, with its tidy rows, terraces, and beautiful landscape, is the nation’s attempt to remedy the horror and chaos of the battlefield and instead to accord dignity to those who fell. It’s a reflection of a nation’s effort to soothe its battered, even disbelieving soul in the aftermath of a carnage few would have imagined years before.
The orderliness of the place allows us to contemplate those who fell as people, not casualties.
Of all our public spaces, none is more personal than a cemetery. In 1892, the sister of Major William C. Morgan, killed at North Anna, traveled from Maine to visit her brother’s grave here (grave #3615, on the right, seven rows beyond the Humphreys Monument). She wrote to her sister that night.
…. my heart beat so I could hardly speak at the thought that I was so near the spot where the remains of my darling brother was buried… ….. I wish my dear sister, that you could see it, it is one of the most beautiful spots I ever saw, at the head of the grave there is a beautiful Japonica tree which shades it, I was pretty well overcome, and the tears dropped fast I felt and know that he was beside me, I knelt down on the grave and sobbed.
Because of the distances involved and the expense of travelling in the decades after the Civil War, most families could not visit–and indeed most graves here have likely never been visited by family, or indeed anyone. That fact adds significance to your presence today. You are doing what so many mothers and wives and sisters and sons and daughters could not do. You have come here to remember. The soldiers buried here asked nothing more than to be remembered.
But this place is more than simply the collection of individual stories; it is more than the sum total of our personal musings over the tragic fates of fathers, sons, husbands, and families (every one of them was a tragedy).
This place is a testimony to the immensity of this war of ours. And it inevitably begs the question, why? Why were these men willing to give their lives to seize or defend a ridge top or river crossing? For what cause did they pay this immense cost—to suffer in what was unquestionably America’s most costly human tragedy?
I have spent most of my life reading the letters and diaries of these men and men like them. I cannot escape the conclusion: the soldiers of this war had a deep understanding of the evolving nature and purpose of the war. They understood well why they fought. And most of them committed to the effort with their whole being. As evidence: Charles Engle of the 137th New York.
In June 1863 Charles Engle received a letter from his wife Charlotte. She mentioned the children were sick, and then asked her husband quit the army and come home. Her husband wrote back, gently but firmly.
I would like to be home as bad as you want me to be but I want to see this war settled [sic] first…. I know it is a hard task for you and hard enough for me but let us try to fight our way through. This war cant always last. You will see [us] march in Binghamton one of those days with peace on our bayonets. This is the way I want to come home. It will be…honor to any man…. Have good courage dear Charlotte.
While we love the immediacy of the past—try to get as close to it as we can sometimes—it’s also true that sometimes we need time to pass before we can fully understand. The distance of time has shown us what Charles Engle and the men who lie in this cemetery fought for. History has shown us that the Civil War was many things:
The Civil War confirmed the American Union as we know it—the preservation of our nation against the only active existential threat we have known.
The Civil War was the greatest demonstration of both the failure and durability of democracy.
It was the foundation from which our nation emerged onto the world stage as a world power.
It was the bloodiest emancipation in the history of the World. It brought freedom to millions, including half of the population in and around Fredericksburg.
It was a milestone moment—an immense stride forward–along America’s meandering journey toward freedom, justice, and equality.
It is perhaps the most vivid reflection of our nation’s virtues and foibles, successes and failures, all intertwined.
These are all things that have shaped the nation and touched the life of every American for the last 155 years.
As we leave this place today, I offer you this.
Those who lie here did not sacrifice so we can mourn; they sacrificed so we might live in peace, in happiness, in a land of goodness. They sacrificed so we could continue their quest for a more perfect Union, a more secure nation–a nation of hope. They offered themselves so that we might celebrate life as Americans.
And so, as you leave today, celebrate our nation and the wondrous lives we live.
But, at the same time, as we stand in this place, remember. Remember those who came before us and the storms they endured, for they have shaped nation and lives have we enjoy. Remember. They asked nothing more.