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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

“Only”


In a recent web discussion about Gettysburg, a small controversy sprang up over the word “only.” The following does not minimize or denigrate any of the contributors’ comments. Rather, it prompted me to evaluate about how often the word appears in historical interpretation.

            As an interpreter/guide at Antietam, for instance, I have often used it to compare the casualties inflicted in the four major battlefield sites – the Cornfield, the West Woods, the Bloody Lane, and the Burnside Bridge. Approximately 8,000 casualties occurred in and near the Miller Cornfield in about two hours and twenty minutes. The West Woods claimed an estimated 5,000 in twenty minutes. Around 5,500 fell during the three and a half hour struggle over the Bloody Lane and the three and a half hour struggle for Burnside Bridge accounted for around 600 more. Ironically, the largest number of visitors visit the bridge, followed by the Bloody Lane, the Cornfield, and rarely, the West Woods. 

When explaining this phenomenon to guests, I find myself apologizing for using the word “only” when referring to the number of souls struck down per hour in the most frequented spots on the field. I tell them about the 6th Alabama losing three sets of brothers in the Lane and of the dying father who cradled his deceased son in his arms until death overtook him. I mention the unfortunate Colonel Francis Barlow who received a serious groin wound in the final assault on the Lane. I emphasize how easy it is to reduce battles to numbers and statistics to evaluate which side won, and which side did not. I remind them that the battlefield monuments are tombstones for those comrades who did not return home and not to the survivors.

Referring to the first paragraph, one contributor used “only” to refer to the length of time two brigades stayed in action in the Wheatfield and the low percentage of losses which they incurred. I did not take offense nor do I chastise the individual who punctuated the statement with “only.” From a general's perspective those two brigades might have suffered unacceptably low casualties. In most Civil War actions, the average brigade or regiment, if it was not resupplied with ammunition, would have exhausted most of its rounds in that time. In places like the Wheatfield and the Cornfield, where the opposing forces, because of the limited visibility from the powder smoke, fired into each other at very close ranges, regiments incurred very serious casualties, each one of whom had a name.


These casualty returns come from Tilton’s and Sweitzer’s Brigades, Barnes’s Division, V Corps in the Wheatfield. Bear in mind that Sweitzer went into the field twice. In all three actions, those units spent about 15 – 20 minutes in action. Tilton’s Brigade of four regiments, numbering 655 officers and men lost 19% (125 casualties): 6.25 men/minute. Switzer’s Brigade went into the fray with 1011 officers and men and after an estimated 40 minutes in action lost 420 men (42%): 10.5 men/minute. By Civil War standards, those were not high casualties as compared to our “modern” acceptable casualty rate. Nevertheless, they are just numbers. I write from the soldiers’ perspectives because they were and are not “only” numbers. 

2 comments:

  1. Good analysis. That story about the dying father who cradles his dead son really hits my parent nerve now that I have two boys. So sad. It's those types of personal stories that really emphasis the need to remember the true personal impact of the battle and war on the participants. Just another reason I enjoy your books.

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  2. A.P., You are so right. The father was a 45 year old farmer, Pvt. Joseph A. Johnson (Co. G, 6th Alabama) and his son was 4th Sgt., Edward M. Johnson (Co. G), 24 year old school teacher. I write about the common soldier because they should not have fought and perished unremembered. They fought a different war than the generals. They always do. That is why the regimental rosters and the monuments on the field so often bear their names. The monuments are tombstones that mark their places in time.

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