by Chet Raymo
“I grew up with the Civil War, or at least with evidences of the war on every side, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Lookout Mountain loomed over the town. My house was on the back slopes of Missionary Ridge. We swam in Chickamauga Creek. We played in the Chattanooga National Cemetery (close by my grandmother's house) where 12,000 Union dead are buried, including raiders of "The Great Locomotive Chase." The locomotive The General was on display downtown in Union Station. Orchard Knob not far away. Monuments and memorial cannons were everywhere.
It was all rather romantic to a kid. The roar of cannons. The crackle and smoke of rifles and flash of bayonets. The Stars and Bars and Stars and Stripes flagging above the hubbub of battle. It wasn't until we read The Red Badge of Courage in high school that it began to dawn on us that all was not glory and grandeur.
I mention this because I have been watching re-runs of Ken Burns' documentary “The Civil War”, with its mind-numbing catalog of slaughter. Thirty-five thousand Union and Confederate casualties at Chickamauga, the second most terrible toll of the war. As many Americans died in battle and of war-related causes during the Civil War as in all of America's other wars put together- two percent of the population (0.3 percent of the population for World War II).
I am reminded of Phyllis McGinley’s poem “The Conquerors," from the late-1950s:
“It seems vainglorious and proud
Of Atom-man to boast so loud
His prowess homicidal,
When one remembers how for years,
With their rude stones and humble spears,
Our sires, at wiping out their peers,
Were almost never idle.
Despite his under-fissioned art
The Hittite made a splendid start
Toward smiting lesser nations;
While Tamerlane, it's widely known,
Without a bomb to call his own
Destroyed whole populations.
Nor did the ancient Persian need
Uranium to kill his Mede,
The Viking earl, his foeman.
The Greeks got excellent results
With swords and engined catapults.
A chariot served the Roman.
Mere cannon garnered quite a yield
On Waterloo's tempestuous field.
At Hastings and at Flodden
Stout countrymen, with just a bow
And arrow, laid their thousands low,
And Gettysburg was sodden.
Though doubtless now our shrewd machines
Can blow the world to smithereens
More tidily and so on,
Let's give our ancestors their due,
Their ways were coarse, their weapons few,
But ah! how wondrously they slew
With what they had to go on.”