Why doesn’t this book ever end?

Two Civil War veterans relive the great conflict on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. Photo: Library of Congress.
Two Civil War veterans relive the great conflict on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. 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, looking out across 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.

They saw their friends die.

They waited to die.

When the wind swept away the smell of burnt gunpowder, they were still on their feet.

And now they had returned.

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.

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.

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?

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    It was a horrible conflict. It took a heavy toll. And the prejudices that fired the Civil War remain and torment us all. I don’t know why. It is the one war that has no end in sight.

  • I live not far from Gettysburg and have visited many times.Standing on Little Round Top, it’s hard not to be moved by the tragedy of the Civil War.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Forget North and Forget South, Mae. When I stand on a Civil War battlefield, I grieve for all who fought and died there.

  • It will end when the color of humans’ skin has nothing to do with their success in a democratic society. If we can still manage that.

    If we don’t educate our children better, I don’t see how it can be achieved. And by ‘better’ I don’t mean that they can pass standardized tests given every Tuesday with higher grades.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      It will only end, Alicia, when skin color no longer matters.

  • jack43

    The sin of slavery could not be washed away except in blood. The lingering effects may not be washed away until more is shed. It is a horrible sin exacting a horrible price. And, no, it’s not ended, not yet

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