Is this the one story that won’t end?


Two old warhorses, one Confederate, one Union, meet in peace on a battlefield where both fought to survive.
Two old warhorses, one Confederate, one Union, meet in peace on a battlefield where both fought to survive.

IT BEGAN the final chapter of a long war.

Or did it?

There they sat, two old men, two old warhorses, one dressed in gray, the other wearing blue, shaking hands on the quiet and peaceful landscape of Gettysburg.

On a field where so many had died, they had lived, and they never knew why the bullets had spared them.

War has a strange way of taking those it wants and leaving others untouched, unscathed, and alone, feeling relieved and feeling guilty.

Their reunion in 1913 on the fiftieth anniversary of the battle could just as easily have been the final chapter of a long book, an epic with a cast of thousands.

But it wasn’t.

Their personal conflict had faded.

The bitterness was gone.

The nation surrounding them had not absolved anyone of their sins.

Like all great novels, the war began with a hook: Would men be willing to fight and die so that other men might be free?

It was a noble cause, and within its plot, there beat a noble heart.

The main characters were many.

But only a few would have names long remembered:

Abraham Lincoln.

Ulysses S. Grant

William Tecumseh Sherman.

Robert E. Lee

Stonewall Jackson

Jefferson Davis.

Its plot was set in a location that stretched from north to south, from Canada to Mexico, from east to west, from the Atlantic to the bloody prairies of Kansas. The names of so many of those locations would never be engraved in the memory and the conscience of America.

Bull Run.






The war had its mad men.

John Brown, the abolitionist who believed that armed insurrection was the only way to end the institution of slavery.

John Wilkes Booth, the Southern sympathizer who dared to assassinate a good man, a righteous man, a President.

It had its villains.

William T. Sherman marched south to the sea and burned everything in his path, homes, farms, towns, hopes, and dreams.

William Quantrill and his Confederate guerrilla fighters were nothing more than outlaws and murderers who left the land around them stained the color of blood.

It had men who wore bright red badges of courage.

George E. Pickett who led the charge at Gettysburg, an assault that was doomed from the start, and left most of his men dead and dying on the battlefield.

Joshua Chamberlain, a college professor from Maine who defended Little Round Top against all odds at Gettysburg and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Historians have called it the Civil War.

It was anything but civil.

And the book did not end when the war did.

There was too much anger.

Too much animosity.

States had been split.

Families were split.

Husbands were gone.

Sons had died.

Farms were in ruin.

Land was lost.

Land had been stolen.

Damn the Republicans.

Damn the Democrats.

Damn the reconstructionists.

Some would not forgive.

None would ever forget.

A nation remained at grief, and still it grieves.

It is a story whose final chapter remains open, its last page still unwritten.

But all books need to end.

Why not this one?

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  • Caleb, you continue to amaze me with your insights and your wonderful writing. Have you ever read “The Caning” by Stephen Puleo? It’s the true story of Senator Preston Brooks of South Carolina and the beating he gave to Senator Charles Sumner with his cane. Sumner was an eloquent speaker and avid anti-slave advocate and Brooks hated him because of it and the effect Sumner’s speeches were having on the abolitionists. I have the book if you haven’t read it.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Pat, thanks for you kind comments. I have not read the book, but I do know the story about the feud and the beating administered by Senator Brooks. It’s told quite often by historians in South Carolina, and I spent a lot of time in South Carolina while working with Southern Living.

  • Don Newbury

    Wow! Again! An important history lesson that warrants revisiting often. Thank you, Caleb. Reading this a great way to begin Easter Sunday!

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Those who fought the war ended the war. Those who keep fighting it have their own personal and political agendas. I think we should let the war, as the dead, rest in peace.

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