Montpelier: James Madison University Magazine



March-hard Civil War Illuminates
"A World That is Dimly Lit"

Montpelier Spring 2000

July 12, 1861. The sun dangled hatefully in a mid-morning sky made hazy by dust and gunsmoke. The 2nd Rhode Island volunteers ­­ their woolen uniforms already drenched with sweat despite the early hour ­­ splashed wearily across a lethargic Virginia stream known as Bull Run.

One of the officers who urged them forward was 32-year old Maj. Sullivan Ballou of Smithfield, Rhode Island. In the spring, Ballou had left a wife, two children and a promising law practice to help quash the South's bid for independence. Now he found himself in secessionist Virginia, part of a military sleight-of-hand his commanders hoped would destroy an upstart Confederate army.

The plan was simple. Attack the Confederates with a diversionary force and then, like a boxer throwing a roundhouse punch, sweep around the unsuspecting Southerners to deliver a crushing blow. Ballou and his men were part of this intended coup de gras. But something had gone wrong.

As the 2nd Rhode Island hastened along Sudley Road near the village of Manassas Junction, gunshots reached their ears. The Confederates, realizing that the initial attack was a ruse, had turned their main army to meet the Federal roundhouse and were now trading shots with Union skirmishers. The trick had failed.

Ballou and his men abandoned Sudley Road, raced through a stand of live oaks, and emerged onto what was known as Matthews Hill. Here they were met by a line of gray-clad soldiers advancing across a grassy swale, with Confederate artillery delivering a deadly bombardment to the hilltop.

Once the Federals brought up their own field pieces, Ballou rode his lathered mount back and forth across the crest of Matthews Hill directing artillery and infantry fire. Although inexperienced, his men fought valiantly even when forced to give ground, and did not falter even when two of their officers fell mortally wounded.

One of those officers was Ballou himself, whose profile on horseback attracted the awesome killing power of a Confederate cannon ball. And yet, while his life's blood ebbed away on the field of battle, Sullivan Ballou was achieving immortality.

Behind the lines reposed an unmailed letter Ballou had written only a week before to his wife, Sarah. It's profound beauty and haunting sentiment would elicit the tears of millions of Americans 129 years later as part of a PBS series on the Civil War. Suspecting he would soon die, Ballou wrote:

"But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the garish day and in the darkest night ­ amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours ­ always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.

"Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again."

Walk the ground where Union Maj. Sullivan Ballou lost his life. Imagine the danger that swept Matthews Hill near Manassas in the summer of 1861, and the carnage that ruled for 10 brutal hours on a 3,000-acre killing field. Contemplate the 900 young Americans who would never leave this hallowed ground alive, and then come away unmoved -- if you can.

The 17 participants of the 1999 JMU Civil War Institute walked away with an overpowering sense of awe, of melancholy, of gratitude to those who fought and died here.

Now entering its ninth year, the institute has gained national renown for combining outstanding faculty, guest speakers and the university's proximity to major historical sites to gain new insights into one of the most pivotal events in American history.

For four days each summer, participants from across the country have explored one aspect of the Civil War through lectures and in-depth guided tours.

But why, in an age of technological achievement that often beggars comprehension, do we dwell on a creaky old era from which no living memory survives? What purpose can be served by revisiting musty events and moldy corpses as if they were part of our everyday lives? In short, what's it got to do with us?

"Everything! Absolutely everything!"

The words erupt from the throat of Bob Jacobs at a pitch just below that of someone leading a cavalry charge. Jacobs, an adjunct history professor, has hosted field excursions for the Civil War Institute since its inception, and was one of the primary interpreters at the Manassas battlefield last summer.

"Making a connection with the past is integral to understanding what we as Americans are today," he says. "What our Civil War ancestors did helped forge our national identity," he continues. "Without them, we would not exist as the country we know today."

The 1999 Civil War Institute explored the reasons people did what they did. What were the forces that drove brother to kill brother? Could the conflagration have been avoided? If so, why did it happen anyway?
The man most directly responsible for the institute's recent shift from unrelenting battlefield analysis to a more comprehensive understanding of the war is history professor and institute co-director David Dillard. For him, the political and social reasons the Civil War was fought are equally as important as the outcomes of its battles.

"Civil War battles were dynamic and dramatic and certainly command our attention because of the courage and sacrifice that attended them," Dillard says. "But we have to remember that these battles, memorable though they are, were the result of many years of political and sectional strife. To really understand the Civil War as it was, we have to look at its causes, not just its battles."

Equally fascinating, Dillard says, are the reasons people took the sides they did. He noted that some of the most compelling information we have deals with the intense personal struggles of people who had to decide to fight for the North or the South.

"What most people don't realize is that the United States of 1860 wasn't remotely like the United States of today," Dillard says. "A vast number of people didn't view it as an indivisible nation. To them -and this was notably true of Southerners - it was a collection of autonomous states with few strong ties to a central government. Southerners thought of themselves as Virginians or Georgians or Texans - not as Americans."

The institute, with its itinerary of nonstop lectures and field trips, brought this and other issues into focus under 1999's "The Winds of War" theme.

During its initial half-day series of lectures Dillard and history professor Chris Arndt presented a historical framework on which to hang the coming conflict - a framework constructed of sectional differences, political maneuverings, economics, the South's deep distrust of the federal government and, of course, the issue of slavery.

Simply put, no single cause touched off the Civil War. And yet, while the institute's lecturers stressed the complexity of the issues that ultimately led to secession and war, Dillard insists that "if you scratch all the causes long enough, you eventually get to the issue of slavery.

"It is the thing without which the differences between the two sections of the country don't make any sense," Dillard says. "Remove slavery from the equation, and I just can't see the war ever having been fought."

While slavery was the primary cause for the war, southerners identified a number of reasons they joined the Confederate "cause." Vice President Alexander Stephens spoke for most Southern politicians when he declared slavery the "cornerstone of the Confederacy," yet many Southern farmers did not own slaves. Would these yeoman, who received little direct profit from slavery, follow the lead of the large slave owners into war? Abraham Lincoln believed that these men would not, and clearly some Confederate leaders wondered as well.

Dillard says the answer may be found in one of the Civil War's most poignant, and popular, stories. Late in the war, two Union soldiers stopped to inspect a Confederate captive. Dirty, barefoot and clad in rags that hung on a scarecrow frame, the young rebel personified exhaustion and defeat.

"For God's sake, Johnny," said one of the Federals, shaking his head at the Confederate's shoddy condition, "why are you people fighting so hard?"

The Southerner shot a weary glance at his captor. "Because you're here," he said.

With those three words, says Dillard, an unknown Confederate soldier explained why thousands of his countrymen had marched away to the hellholes of Antietam, Shiloh and the Wilderness; why, even with an entire society in flames, many of them would resist to the last man if asked to do so.

The institute's hard marching began on the second day with a trip to Harper's Ferry, W.Va. Standing in front of the armory where, in October 1859, abolitionist John Brown attempted to incite a slave revolt, Dillard
and University of Georgia history professor David McGee told how the incident
polarized the nation.

"For Northerners, Brown was a man who could stand there and echo the words of the New Testament," says McGee. "For Southerners, the very fact that Brown had sought their murder through a slave uprising graphically illustrated what the North really had in mind for the South.

"From this point on," he says, "there was no backing down for either side."

The richly appointed Old Senate Chamber was the second stop of the day for the Civil War Institute, where participants marveled at the polished woods, the rich upholstery, the breathtaking speaker's chair with its attendant velvet curtains and fierce eagle-and-shield emblem. And quietly, as though realizing the significance of the spot, they gazed at a nondescript row of chairs where the sentiments that would create civil war took shape.

In 1856, for example, abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was savagely beaten on the Senate floor by Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina. The attack on Sumner was made with a gutta-percha cane in retaliation for a philippic titled, "The Crime Against Kansas," delivered by Sumner in the Senate. The attack highlighted the heated emotions that would soon produce the Civil War.

The institute's hard march continued to Arlington, the pre-war home of Robert E. Lee, and then to the courthouse in historic Warrenton for a lecture by Lesley Gordon, author of General George Pickett in Life and Legend. Gordon's talk provided a final look at the whys of the Civil War ‹ in particular, why men fought for either the North or the South.

Gordon pointed out that while militarily Pickett was one of the Confederacy's least successful officers, the intense personal struggle he waged in deciding which side to fight for makes him a clear example of the internal struggles faced by many in the North and South.

Stationed in Washington Territory when the Civil War erupted, Pickett agonized for the duration of his 3,000-mile journey back to Virginia over whether to serve the North or the South. Arriving home, Pickett offered his sword to the land of his birth -Virginia.

The third day's march had institute participants crossing the stone bridge where the battle of First Manassas began. As the Union troops marched across Bull Run and streamed toward Manassas, men on both sides put their prewar convictions to the test; hiking through deep woods to see the ford the 2nd Rhode Island crossed on its way to do battle; standing on the spot where Sullivan Ballou gave his life for his country; and hearing his final words to Sarah read aloud brought the emotions of these fateful moments to life. Yet more marching took the group to the spot where a soon-to-die Confederate general would bestow immortality on another Confederate general by shouting, "There stands Jackson like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!"

Absorbing these sights on a 95-degree day gave the group a healthy appreciation for the 70,000 men in woolen uniforms who fought here for 10 grueling hours. It was easy to see how, when the Confederates had won at the end of the day, utter exhaustion made it impossible for them to go on and capture Washington City.

Both sides - fatigued and disorganized -would withdraw to fight again. Only now they knew the war would be neither quick nor easy. And there was a reason for that.

"It was the passion on both sides," Dillard says. "Each side passionately believed it was the true guardian of what it meant to be an American and was protecting the legacy of the Founding Fathers. It's very ironic because they were looking to the same people and
the same ideals, but they understood those people and ideals very differently."

The institute's third day also included a trip to Ball's Bluff, site of a small but vicious battle near Leesburg in October 1861, where Confederates again sent Union forces fleeing in defeat. Providing the commentary for Ball's Bluff was adjunct history professor and veteran institute instructor Ben Fordney.

The institute drew to a close on the fourth day, following a visit to Fort Edward Johnson in western Augusta County. Here, on the crest of Shenandoah Mountain in early 1862, Confederates under the command of Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson dug a complex of breastworks for nearly three-quarters of a mile along the crest of the mountain, and cut their artillery emplacements at strategic points within it. Although the site was abandoned before it was fully manned, the plan to use Fort Edward Johnson as a training camp offers a unique opportunity to see how Virginians and the Confederacy as a whole attempted to prepare for the longer, tougher war they now knew lay ahead.

JMU anthropology students under professors Clarence Geier and Carole Nash are examining the works in hopes of coming to a better understanding of Civil War soldiers and the societies that sent them to war. "The uniqueness of Fort Edward Johnson lies in its size, complexity, relatively pristine condition, and the fact that it was constructed, occupied and abandoned all in a 19-day period," Geier says.

Dillard plans to take this year's institute in a new direction. Rather than an intensive weekend excursion, he wants to reshape the experience so that it becomes more like a traditional institute ‹ one that is longer, features more classroom work and ultimately requires the participants to form their own conclusions about the war and its impact on our country.

"This part of the institute, of course, would mostly appeal to students and teachers as well as serious historians," Dillard says. Even so, the soul of the institute remains its physical connection to the war ‹ walking the battlefields and sensing from the perspective of being there what the Civil War was all about.

The 2000 Civil War Institute, scheduled for June 5-30, will focus on Grant's "Hard War" campaign in Virginia in 1864. By examining the battlefields at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor and Petersburg, a clearer picture of the measures each side was prepared to take to attain victory will emerge. The strong convictions and emotions that had led the Union and the Confederacy to war in 1861 remained, but they had also evolved as both sides realized that victory would require tremendous sacrifices.

"It's really easy using 20/20 hindsight to say that these people should have seen the war coming and taken measures to stop it," Dillard says. "But that's not how it works. We wander through a world that is dimly lit, sometimes. Our job at the Civil War Institute is to shed a bit of light, if we can, and to reach a better understanding of why soldiers North and South risked everything for their respective causes.
"In doing so, we as Americans can gain a fuller respect for the sacrifices they made, and for the society we enjoy today."

by Charles Culbertson


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