Yesterday marked the 159th anniversary of the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas)—the first major engagement of the American Civil War. For the soldiers and civilians who fought or witnessed the battle, it was the moment everything changed.
I have seen what Romancers call glorious war. I have seen it in all its phases. I have heard the booming on cannon, and the more deadly rattle of musketry at a distance—I have heard it all near by and have been under its destructive showers. I have seen men and horses fall thick and flat around me. I have seen our own men bloody and frightened flying before the enemy. I have seen them bravely charge the enemy’s lines and heard the shout of triumph as they carried the position, I have heard the agonizing shrieks of the wounded and dying—I have passed over the battle field and seen the mangled forms of men and horses in frightful abundance. Men without heads, without arms, and others without legs. All this I have witnessed and more, till my heart sickens; and war is not glorious as novelists would have us believe. It is only when we are in the heat and flush of battle that it is fascinating and interesting. . . . I feared not death in any forms; but when the battle was won and I visited the field a change came over me, I see the horrors of war….Lieutenant John Pelham (Perfect Lion, by Jerry Maxwell, University of Alabama Press, page 61)
I’ve been giving this some thought this week. This is just one letter after that first battle. There are many others. Does every generation or movement face a moment where innocence is lost? It doesn’t necessarily follow that the ultimate outcome of that moment is wrong or tragic. Or that the outcome is achieved through the moment of “lost innocence.” Rather it’s the moment when the gloves come off (proverbially), the idealism transforms into a different type of inspiration.
The Civil War did not end after the first battle. But I think it was the moment where both sides lost the glossy dream of the fight. Even for the soldiers who came later or the civilians at home, the collective dream transformed on July 21. Certainly, there were individuals who had their own personal moments of realization, but I think Bull Run was one of those turning point moments for the nation as a whole.
Don’t fear the moment with the dream transforms. It’s a grounding of determination with an understanding of reality. I think that’s my “take-away” from the Bull Run anniversary this year. I watch the news, and I know we are living in historic times. We don’t know the outcome of all the swirling discussions yet. I’m not even sure which event I would name as the particular moment of “lost innocence” – there is so much happening and I feel like different movements may have different moments. Fifty years from now maybe we will be able to look back with hindsight and known outcomes to write about the defining moment.
We can look back on the Civil War with the advantage of hindsight. Many of the men and boys who became battle veterans on July 21, 1861, stayed in the war, but they left the plains of Manassas with an different view of what would be needed to accomplish a struggle for what they believed.
Lieutenant Pelham—writer of the letter excerpt—stayed in the Confederate Army, organized the Stuart Horse Artillery, and spent the final months of his life in a storm of shot, shell, leadership, and “gallantry.” He left that first battlefield with the glory dreams broken, but he had learned to fight. And while the novelist’s picture of war evaporated, he changed his quest for glory into new channels and chased those new, darker dreams for the next twenty months.
Just because there is a moment of realization, a dream transforming, does not mean the story ends there. The fight goes on. It will just be approached differently.
Just some wandered thoughts…