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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Four Score and Seven Years Ago We Were At War With Ourselves

The news media did a pretty fair job of recognizing the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg last week, but the only attention to the other 150th that I saw was a small line in the syndicated “Today in History.”

The other 150th anniversary was the fall of Vicksburg. It’s one of the ironies of history that both of these major Civil War events were on July 4th, the day we celebrate our declaration that we would be free from English rule, even if it meant war. But as Lincoln said at Gettysburg, “four score and seven years ago” (87 years later), we were at war with ourselves.

Although not as long as the Revolution, the Civil War was far more bloody – and remains so, even after our involvement in two world wars. The official death statistics for the Union are 364,511; the estimate for Confederates – surely much too low -- is 133,821. Together, that means at least 498,332 men dead, or almost a half-million, among the military alone. And that is in a population of some 31 million, compared with more than 300 million today. Think about that.

* * *

After three days of battle, on July 4, 1863, at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Confederate forces gave up on their only invasion of Union territory. Robert E. Lee led his defeated troops back to Maryland (ostensibly neutral) and then to Virginia (the Confederate capital), never again to attempt a strategy other than defense. The cost for these three days was extremely high: some 23,000 Union casualties, and 28,000 for the losing South.

Meanwhile and hundreds of miles further west, also on July 4, 1863, Confederate forces at Vicksburg, Mississippi, surrendered to Union General U.S. Grant. With gunboats on the Mississippi River and land troops encircling the city from the rear, Vicksburg had been under siege since May 22. After seven weeks of shelling, citizens were devastated to the point that they were living in caves along river bluffs and making meals of rats and tree bark. Secessionists gave up, and some 29,000 Rebel troops became prisoners of war. The Mississippi flowed free for the first time since the war began in 1861.

Although there had been some fighting around Memphis, the port there and at St. Louis never were blocked: Missouri and Tennessee were among the border states that did not secede – yet, caught in the middle, these states suffered the most. New Orleans, the source for all upriver imports, was where anti-federal government feeling was strongest, but that city surrendered almost without a fight already in April 1862.

After Vicksburg’s fall, the great waterway fully opened and Union ships – with many women aboard as nurses – could securely take their injured (and their prisoners) to the giant (but temporary) hospitals near Cairo, Illinois, where the Mississippi and Ohio rivers meet. Women, of course, also nursed at Gettysburg. As in dozens of other towns during the four years of the war, every building became a hospital.

Over the objections of her Philadelphia family, Cornelia Hancock was one of the women who rushed to Gettysburg. As dedicated as any man, she worked the horrific scene there and then went south to the Battle of the Wilderness and other Virginia warfare. You can read her account in South After Gettysburg: The Letters of Cornelia Hancock from the Army of the Potomac, 1863-1865.

Both of our local newspapers ran pictures of Gettysburg’s 150th reenactment that (not surprisingly) depicted Pickett’s Charge (not led by General Pickett). A 2005 book, however, will give you a view beyond the merely military. In The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History: Immigrants, Women, and African Americans in the Civil War’s Defining Battle, author Margaret Creighton offers a more profound analysis.

I am so sorry to say, though, that I can’t find the most poignant piece I’ve ever read on Gettysburg. (Filing, as I’ve mentioned before, is my nemesis.) I do know that it was published by Maryland’s Surratt Society, which uncovers many forgotten Civil War documents. Although I can’t recall her name, I remember that the article was about a woman who, with her husband and aging father-in-law, owned a small cemetery near Gettysburg. Her husband was away with the war, and she buried her share of the gory dead – some of them in her front yard. She was eight months pregnant.

* * *

The best memoir I’ve read about the less celebrated 150th is Brokenbone, the name of the plantation where Kate Stone lived on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi, across the river from Vicksburg. She was young and upper class, but she had a more complex view of her society than most “mature” people. The same was true of Clara Solomon, a Jewish girl in New Orleans, and Sarah Morgan, who led her family from Baton Rouge when it fell. Teenage Sarah was the only sensible one in her large family, which included a mother driven nearly insane at the collapse of their comfortable world.

So there are lots of diaries you can read to get a more interesting view of the Civil War, but here’s a final suggestion on Vicksburg: the letters of Treyphena Fox, a Massachusetts native who could not have been more vehement in her pro-slavery views. She married a physician who owned a plantation deep in Louisiana, and when New Orleans fell, the family began their long odyssey for safety. They were living with his relatives near Vicksburg when she wrote on July 3, 1863:

The plantation is immediately on the line – 2 miles from the Big Black [River]. Pickets are stationed at several points around the house & troops of soldiers have been camped in the yard… There are four families of us here now… Daniel’s wife and three children [were] burned out of house and home… Many of the negroes have left, the corn and meat were taken the 1st week the Yankees came… The garden is a perfect waste… We are not allowed to pass outside the pickets to gather berries… How are these nine children to be fed?

Because she was so self-absorbed and racist, it’s hard for me to work up much sympathy for Fox (thank goodness no one names their daughters “Treyphena” anymore!), but in any war, it’s important to remember that the good suffer along with the evil. And that war always has been waged on civilians, especially women who are too often the victims of rapes that historically have been excused. I’ll not go into that, having written about rape recently.

It’s important to keep that in mind, though, even as we bestow deserved honors on veterans. Civilians die. Early in World War II, for example, during the British blitz, a London housewife was statistically more likely to die than a soldier in North Africa. Especially in civil wars, there is little civility for civilians. Third World wars that are raging now show that: no one goes out of their way to protect the non-military -- indeed, in civil wars, the most common these days, the government’s main target often is its civilians.

Final point. I also read in last week’s news something that was truly news, and almost incredible in the sense of meaningful but unnoticed change. For what I suppose is the first time in the history of the world, the US military last year had more suicides than combat deaths.

This is tragic, of course, for those families whose unhappy loved ones killed themselves, but it may indicate that we are rearing a more sensitive generation. It certainly indicates that war is safer for professionals – but not necessarily for civilians. Now that the 4th’s fireworks are over, these thoughts merit more thought.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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