The one book that can’t find an ending.

A Union and Confederate veteran, both survivors at Gettysburg, meet in 1913 on the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil War Battle. Photo: Library of Congress.
A Union and Confederate veteran, both survivors at Gettysburg, meet in 1913 on the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil War Battle. Photo: Library of Congress.

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 beside the quiet and peaceful landscape of Gettysburg. The sounds of war had long ago been taken away by the Pennsylvania winds.

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 not faded. Bitterness simmered hot. You could see it mirrored in their faces. And the nation surrounding them had not absolved anyone of their sins either.

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.

U. 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 forever be engraved in the memory and the conscience of America.

Bull Run.

Gettysburg,

Shiloh.

Vicksburg.

Chickamauga.

Appomattox.

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?

***

SecretsAudio-A Thriller

Please click the book cover image to read more about Caleb Pirtle III and his books. Secrets of the Dead is about a war that still invokes pain on those who remember it. The audiobook is narrated by Stephen Woodfin.

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    Life is still fiction and always will be.

  • jack43

    Please allow me to add one more “damn”: Damn carpetbaggers. They were arguably the worst. Worse still, they are still among us. We have two vying to be our next Representative in Congress. Let a seat open in the Senate and they scurry like cockroaches to fill it: Think Hillary Clinton representing New York. Carpetbaggers.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I probably should have used carpetbaggers instead of reconstructionists. Both did what they could to cripple the South when Lincoln had wanted to bind the country back together again, which is why I think it was northern sympathizers, not southern sympathizers, who had the President killed.

  • Heather Hambel Curley

    Excellent post! I’ve always thought the 1913 reunion had such a dark, underlying sadness to it. They had the capacity to forgive, but it must have been so difficult to walk those fields and not think about the friends/comrades you lost years ago. I don’t think a large percentage of Confederates went to the reunion, since the anger–the blame–was still too much. I participate in Civil War living histories and it amazes me the amount of people who still focus on Lost Cause/States Rights. A visitor who came to our camp at the 150th Gettysburg event was horrified that I reenacted Confederate, yet was born in the North.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      As in all wars, Heather, the soldiers were simply pawns, fighting because their government told them to fight. Before and after, they were simply Americans with bitter memories. I’m a Southerner, but I walk the fields of Gettysburg, Vicksburg, or Shiloh and I cry for north and south alike. Even during the war, as you know, soldiers in gray and blue gathered at night to talk and sing and pray and play cards and talk of home. The next day, the bullets would fly again. And I doubt seriously if many of the soldiers really understood why.

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