Sunday, May 22, 2005

Blood and Beauty

No, this isn't a post about the lovely ladies in my movie.

It's about my vacation.

And I've already lost this post once, so stream of consciousness is turning into stream of obscenities, but here we go again.

So I just got back from touring four Civil War battle sites: Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.

And my return to Antietam and Gettysburg reinforced something I've wondered about for years: How death and destruction take place at some of the world's most beautiful spots. Or, possibly, how beautiful spots attract death and destruction.

This is something I first started wondering about in high school. I went to France with the French club (and before you say, "Duh!" I might point out some people went to France with the Spanish club) a couple of times, and the first time, one of the stops was the D-Day memorials at Normandy.

The beach at Normandy, once you get past the unfortunate tourist-generated litter, is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. And I've seen many beautiful places, in many beautiful countries.

But it's tough to beat Normandy. On a blue-sky, white-cloud kind of day, this is a perfect beach. White sand. Blue water.

And standing there, 15 years old, I couldn't imagine what that place looked like running red with blood.

Years later, watching "Saving Private Ryan," I figured the opening D-Day scenes are as close as I'll ever get to knowing. And even then, I couldn't reconcile what I was watching in that horrific opening with the beach I stood on in the early '90s.

So I always sort of marveled at how this truly breathtaking place could be the site of so much horror and tragedy.

And going back to the two main Northern Civil War battle sites just reinforced that mystery.

The Antietam battlefield, outside Sharpsburg, Maryland, is beautiful. Rolling hills, green grass, farmland. It was another beautiful day, and you stand on the hill behind the visitors center, listening to the ranger talk about artillery, and you just can't see it. It's just beautiful.

And then you go on the driving tour and you're standing at the bloody cornfield, and you're looking at a now-empty field about the size of maybe a couple of football fields, and you're thinking about Stephen Sears' book and how 10,000 people died in that little stretch of land in about five hours. Antietam was the bloodiest day in American military history. In about 12 hours, 25,000 men were killed, wounded or captured. The Confederates sat at one end of the cornfield, watching the stalks wave, and when the Union line stepped out of the waving corn, they fired en masse. Then charged. Then the Union counter-charged. And so forth.

John Bell Hood, whom I've mentioned, was asked after the fighting where his Texas brigade was. "Dead on the field," he replied. Wait until his next command charges the Devil's Den at Gettysburg. And wait until the Army of Tennessee charges Franklin.

So after a rainy, foggy day in Virginia, eating a bad, bad breakfast at Denny's and trying desperately to cram four battlefields into five hours (the driving tours total about nine hours if I'd bought them), I got to two of the four. It's OK, I haven't read the books on the other two yet, anyway, and now I have an excuse to go back.

But that night, Stewie and I headed for Gettysburg, and we spent the next day touring the battlefield, after eating a decent breakfast.

Aside, the best breakfast I had was at the lovely Jacob Rohrbach Inn, a b&b I stayed at in Sharpsburg. I haven't had a home-cooked breakfast in ages, and that French toast hit the spot. I heartily recommend the b&b, possibly haunted, and not too expensive at all.

(Strangest moment: sitting in the "Clara Barton Room" of this historic inn, done up in full-blown period mode, and noticing a little card pointing out the free wireless Internet.)

Back to Gettysburg. Steve's interested, but hadn't been up there, whereas, of course, I'm currently battling a serious addiction. So I knew from the past how lovely some of the area around Gettysburg is.

And of course, that's where the worst fighting is.

I'm trying to explain Pickett's charge, and basically what it comes down to is, it's a lovely day and we're looking at this lovely grassy field rising gently to a copse of trees. And I'm telling Stewie how basically 10,000 guys marched up this beautiful field, about a mile, toward that pretty stone wall and nice little stand of trees, and toward a whole bunch of guys with guns just waiting for them.

On a sunny day, like today, so many places on the battlefield, full of grass and giant boulders and green trees, are places that would almost make you feel good... if you didn't know what happened there.

The monuments kind of ruin that feel-good look. You know, the big stone edifices - beautiful in an artistic sense, don't get me wrong at all - that serve as reminders that for guys like Strong Vincent (one of the best Union names, but that's an earlier post) and Lewis Armistead and Henry Burgwyn, there was no happy ending. Just a bullet or two, glory and a monument.

You'd like to think they thought about the beauty of this Adams County 'burgh as they died. But I'm looking at an empty field and listening to a CD in Stewie's truck. There was no artillery barrage. There weren't bullets whipping by, there weren't men screaming and bleeding and dying around us. There wasn't smoke to hide the sun, there wasn't death everywhere.

And so many of the men who fought and died at Gettysburg were younger than me, the tourist, passing through, admiring the craftsmanship of a monument that put a positive spin on the idea that a generation of Virginians and North Carolinians hurled itself into the teeth of the guns to die.

(I might mention, Ambrose Burnside was villified as incompetent for sending his men charging up a hill at a Confederate army intrenched behind a stone wall at Fredericksburg. Robert E. Lee did the exact same thing at Gettysburg, took the blame, and is still deified down South.)

It's hard to reconcile the blood and the beauty. I'm happy to be a hawk when it comes to talking about war in a political sense, Israeli and American alike, at least insofar as supporting the troops is concerned. And I mean, if you're going to play, play to win.

But on days like this, seeing these sites and hearing about, reading about, what young men faced, it's pretty easy to see how war is sometimes viewed as the greatest evil of all.

Sometimes I think it should be mandatory that any president who wants to wage a war (yeah, Dubya, I'm talking to you) should have to go to a place like Gettysburg and really think about what war means. It means young men, dying - whether for a just cause or not. Those Southerners believed they were right. And that powered their legs up that rise. And those Northerners believed they were right. And they gunned the Rebels down.

Fifty thousand men, dead, wounded or captured, in one weekend. And not 50,000 Iraqis or Afghanis or other people no one in America really gives a shit about (fair or not). That's 50,000 Americans. Fifty thousand husbands, sons, fathers, brothers.

That's a small city worth of people. Gone. In three days.

William Dorsey Pender, a major general at 29. Killed by a shell.

James Keith Marshall, leading a brigade at 24. Shot dead during Pickett's charge.

Union Gen. Stephen Weed, 29, was shot down on Little Round Top. While artilleryman Charles Hazlett bent over the dying general to hear his last words, he himself was shot and killed.

The list goes on and on and on.

And you stand there, on the hills and in the valleys of Gettysburg, on a bright May Saturday, and you can't help but think how beautiful everything is.

As Galadriel says in "Lord of the Rings," beautiful... and terrible.

It boggles the mind. It really does.

(Should I mention I also saw "Revenge of the Sith" while on vacation, and was pleasantly, shockingly impressed? Very good movie. It really feels like a "Star Wars" movie, unlike the first two episodes, and it almost makes up for how godawful those two were. Good company, too, seeing it with Justin Timpane (whom I've mentioned), several members of his family, Daniel Ross and others.)

Antietam, America's bloodiest day
Four Virginia battlefields, NPS style
Read this, knowing the NPS people cheerfully sent me on the Sunken Road tour anyway
Gettysburg in all its glory and tragedy
From the "Oh, dear God" Dept., the grim details of Pickett's charge
The American cemetery at Normandy, with a picture that includes the beach
The Historic Jacob Rohrbach Inn, Joanne and Paul Breitenbach, proprietors
The inn's "Clara Barton Room," where I stayed (but didn't use the Internet)
French toast recipes, b&b style's official "Revenge of the Sith" page

Oh, yeah, and Stewie rightly pointed out I missed a nickname. On the set, Joe Ripple started calling me "Oddjob," partly because I was doing all kinds of stuff (holding the boom, feeding lines, etc.) and mostly because he's always wanted an Asian manservant, and I'm as close as he's ever going to get.

(Aside, we will attempt to resume (almost) daily updates this week. That's the royal "we.")

(Also aside, I'm going to put bullets on the links from now on, because I like writing longer descriptions, but I can't figure out how to widen the template, and I think it looks weird and confusing when the links break onto a second line.)

1 Comment:

Stewie said...

Good times, man.

Tip of the day (since a blog is always a work in progress) and you like to use links...

If you want your links to open in a new window, as opposed to opening in the same window, add "target="_blank" " between the "a" and the "http://blah blah."

Since the comment section won't let me add the "target=_"blank"," you'll have to take my word on it.

New window looks like this...

[a target="_blank" href=""]New Window[/a]

Same window looks like this...

[a href=""]Same Window[/a]

Where the "[" and "]" are replaced with "<" and ">" respectively.

This way, no one navigates away from your page. A new window will open.