Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Deep South Pt 3: "How to Make Sense of the Staggering Death Toll?" Destruction, Death, Disability and the Civil War

[From Savannah, I travelled North along the antebellum (pre-Civil War) trail to Madison, Georgia. So far I had been staying in creepy motels so I allowed myself a small treat by staying on a ranch for two nights, and, although expensive, it was amazing. I tried horse riding and thought I was going to fall off mid-gallop, but like a pro (ahem) I held on and tried not to scream. Or do anything to scare my horse, which was lovingly named T-bone. I then headed straight to Atlanta for a rather mixed experience.]

“Friday 9th August – First thing I noticed about Atlanta? There are about 20 lanes on the freeway. Ok, that’s a slight exaggeration, but at least 6! It was so freaking busy to try to get to all the cool historic sites. After what felt like a year later, I parked and quite quickly got lost trying to find the Martin Luther King Historic Site. After walking through a slightly dodgy area I came across the visitor centre. It was small, but there was an interesting exhibition on the life of MLK and his decision to put all his energy and focus into the Civil Rights Movement. Opposite the visitors centre was the Ebenezer Baptist church, where MLK often preached. I am not religious, but his sermons (replayed on a tape recorder) reverberated powerfully around the small church. His voice still has the ability to stir your soul. Next to the church stands a Freedom Centre and the tomb of Dr King and his wife, Coretta. It was very moving to stand next to the grave of one of the most influential men in the world, someone who fought for justice and equality for all. The 'I have a dream' speech remains the most powerful speech of the c20th.

Deciding it was too unsafe to walk solo to my next destination, I drove a mile or so down the road to the Cyclorama Museum, perhaps one of the most random sites I have ever been to. It contains the largest oil painting in the world, depicting the Battle for Atlanta and General Sherman’s campaign in the South. Weighing in at 9 tons, it was absolutely huge. You sat in a small theatre that rotated 360 degrees, so you could see it from every possible angle. Very weird and wonderful.

From the Cyclorama, I drove a few miles to the Atlanta History Center. Unfortunately, I arrived around 3.30pm, so I only had two hours to see a beautiful country house and an enormous museum. For some that might be enough time but I think I set some kind of personal record for the amount of times I checked my watch. I wish I had known how good this site was going to be, as I would have spent the entire day there. So I had to prioritise: I missed out the farm house and headed straight for the country house. Built in the 1930s, it was palladian in style (based on Greek classical buildings, with a strong focus on symmetry). It was simply breathtaking. I pretty much had the place to myself, and got chatting to the guides who told me more about the history of the house and the history center itself. Perilously looking at my watch (only one hour to go!) I pegged it to the museum and made a beeline for the Civil War exhibit. Without exaggeration, I can say this is probably one of the best exhibits I have ever had the pleasure of going to, and by far the best for the Civil War. It raised a myriad of questions: when war broke out, what did it mean to be an American? A Northerner, A Southerner? Should the United States be defined by slavery, or should it spread west? Was it treason to fight against the Union? 

The exhibit cleverly set the scene: America was a “confused fledging democracy” and it was to “be shaken to its very core". I had always known how destructive the Civil War had been but never before had I realized what it meant for America as a whole. How was this new republic to survive? The exhibit explained why the War started, and briefly explained what happened and the outcome of every major battle. But what I liked about it was the emphasis on people. It had a section on the life of the soldier, Union and Confederate, as well as what life was like on the Home Front. How did families cope without their menfolk, particularly in the South? How did families mourn? There were so many times a single artefact stopped me in my tracks. The crutches of a wounded soldier. A bloodstained shirt from the Battle of Atlanta. This, more than anything, brought home the brutality of war. A bloodstained coat can tell us about the soldier, the grieving widow, his children, or the hardships and stark mortality of battle. That soldier lived, breathed, felt that coat on his skin. Did he have time to think before that bullet struck him? One soldier’s coat humanises the evil hand of war, reminds us that thousands of men and women fought, survived and died under the cruel hand of fate. 

I also came across a small sweetheart’s pin. A nurse in Albany, Georgia, was given a pin by a Confederate soldier in which he had inscribed the name ‘Lizzie.” The pin was made from the bone of his amputated leg, but the soldier died before he could tell the nurse who Lizzie was. The identity of Lizzie is still unknown. 

This is why I love history: it stirs my soul. And simultaneously breaks my heart.

At the end of the exhibition, one question surpassed all others: over 670,000 Americans died in the Civil War, more than any other war Americans have been involved in put together. The War left behind death, destruction and disability. How to make sense of the staggering death toll? 

“Such is the price we pay for human freedom?...There sleep our brothers and sons –the best we had to give; the costliest sacrifice we could offer on the altar of our country. “ Charles McKay, Northern civilian."

“Saturday 10th August – Long day travelling south from Atlanta. Arrived in Macon around 9.30, and the town was completely dead. Pretty, but dead. Walked around for an hour or so until the historic houses started to open, and headed for Hay House. This is probably the most elegant house I’ve been in so far, very beautiful and ornate. The house tour was good apart from the glaring omission of slavery. I asked about this, and was told that “we don’t know much about the servants.” Funny how a servant and a slave are interchangeable when they both mean different things. Next door I visited the Cannonball House (so-called because it was fired upon during the Civil War). Again, there was little mention of the “servants” but I did learn some fascinating little facts – African Americans wore white when mourning, and in nineteenth century photographs boys hair was parted to the sides and girls down the middle (just in case they looked similar).

From Macon I drove south to Andersonville, a former Prisoner of War site for Union soldiers. It was originally named Camp Sumter, and since its inception it has maintained a notorious reputation. A small museum traced the history of POWs through American history, which was interesting albeit a little disjointed as the narrative kept jumping back and forth from the Civil War to Vietnam, then to Korea and present day. (Roughly 347,000 men were held as POWs throughout the Civil War, more than World War Two.) The key to the prison was on display though, a powerfully blunt reminder of the entrance to a place with so much horror and death.

Camp Sumter was built in early 1864, as Confederate officials wanted a larger space to house thousands of federal prisoners from Virginia and Georgia. In its short life, the camp confined 45,000 soldiers. Over 13,000 died from starvation, disease, overcrowding and poor sanitation. Half of all Union prisoner deaths occurred at this horrific site. From February, 400 Union soldiers arrived every day and by the end of June, 26,000 men occupied a space that was originally designed for 10,000. The Confederate army could not supply adequate food or clothing, and soldiers were expected to make their own tents out of any material they could find – trousers, a small sheet or blanket which was meant to protect them through rain or shine. Unsurprisingly, it was a “hell on earth.” When Union General Sherman came close to marching in the area, the Confederates moved the soldiers to other prisons in Georgia. The camp commandant, Captain Henry Wirz was the only man to be executed for war crimes after the Civil War had ended. He was charged with conspiring with officials “to impair and injure the health and destroy the lives…of federal prisoners.” He was hanged on 10 November 1865. A monument to him still stands in the town of Andersonville, designed by the Daughters of the Confederacy.

After the museum, an auto tour was designed to take you around the main sites of the camp and past the memorials. It was incredibly powerful to walk on the same footpath that Union soldiers would have taken, through the gates and past the watch tower into the ‘gates of hell.’ I stood there for a while, trying to imagine the sights and smells those soldiers faced, and luckily, didn’t get very far. Nothing I could imagine would come close: people complained about the stench of the prison ten miles away. At its height, 130 prisoners died every single day, at such a high rate that coffins could not be built fast enough. Bodies were instead dumped in mass graves. I stood opposite an empty field, where the prison hospital stood. Many soldiers refused to go, knowing they would never come out.

A national cemetery was established at Andersonville on 26 July 1865. During the Camp's operation, prisoner Dorence Atwater was assigned the task of recording the soldiers who died for the Confederate officials, but unbeknownst to them, Atwater kept a second copy for himself. After the War, Atwater wanted to give them a proper burial, and when he was spurned by the government, he enlisted the help of Clara Barton. Another heroine of mine, Barton founded the American Red Cross and nursed thousands of men during the War. By 1868, 800 additional Union soldiers who had died in prison camps across Georgia were laid to rest here, which brought the total to over 13,800. There are over 500 unknown soldiers buried in the cemetery, something I have always thought of as a cruel twist of fate since visiting the battlefields of France. Today, Andersonville is still an active cemetery (active in the sense that soldiers can choose to be buried there) and the roll call presently stands at 18,000.

As I walked around the cemetery, I kept remembering John McCrae’s poem, “In Flanders Fields” (which was written in 1915 during World War One). I studied it at school and the words have always stuck with me:

“In Flanders Field, the poppies blow,
between the crosses row on row,
that mark our place; and in the sky,
the larks, still bravely singing fly,
scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead.
Short days ago, we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
loved and were loved,
and now we lie, in Flanders Field.

Take up our quarrel with the foe,
to you, from flailing hands we throw,
the torch, be yours to hold it high,
if ye break faith with us who die.

We shall not sleep,
though poppies grow,
In Flanders field.”

A cruel place. 

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