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By focusing on battlefield exploits we too often blot out the suffering of the soldiers, the families that lost sons, brothers and husbands, and the hundreds of thousands of children left without fathers. We ignore the crippling physical and psychological wounds that plague veterans. Units in the Civil War were raised locally. Towns and villages could within one day of heavy fighting lose a third or more of their men, plunging entire populations into collective grief. Maine, per capita, sent more men to war than any other Northern state. There is hardly a town in Maine that does not have a Civil War memorial with a shockingly long list of names. The weight of the loss was still felt when I was a boy in the 1960s, especially, in my case, because my grandmother lived with her grandfather, David, the onetime sergeant, until he died when she was 8. He was wracked by pain from his wound until the end of his life.
“Burial Parties were sent out, and those who could get away from their commands went out to view the scene of carnage, and surely it was a scene never to be forgotten,” wrote a New Jersey soldier. “Upon the open fields, like sheaves bound by the reaper, in crevices of the rocks, behind fences, trees and buildings; in thickets, where they had crept for safety only to die in agony; by stream or wall or hedge, wherever the battle had raged or their waking steps could carry them, lay the dead. Some with faces bloated and blackened beyond recognition, lay with glassy eyes staring up at the blazing summer sun; others, with faces downward and clenched hands filled with grass or earth, which told of the agony of the last moments. Here a headless trunk, there a severed limb; in all the grotesque positions that unbearable pain and intense suffering contorts the human form, they lay. Upon the faces of some death had frozen a smile; some showed the trembling shadow of fear, while upon others was indelibly set the grim stamp of determination. All around was the wreck the battle-storm leaves in its wake—broken caissons, dismounted guns, small arms bent and twisted by the storm or dropped and scattered by disabled hands; dead and bloated horses, torn and ragged equipments, and all the sorrowful wreck that the waves of battle leave at their ebb; and over all, hugging the earth like a fog, poisoning every breath, the pestilential stench of decaying humanity.”
The miasma of rotting bodies after the Battle of Gettysburg, exacerbated by the carcasses of 5,000 horses and mules, lingered for weeks. Residents in the town of Gettysburg had to cover their mouths and noses when they went outside.
My grandmother began her life in the shadow of one war—the Civil War—and her life ended in the shadow of another—World War II. Her only son, my uncle Maurice, had fought as an Army infantryman in the South Pacific in World War II, in which he was wounded by a mortar blast. He returned a physical and emotional wreck, speaking little and retreating into a haze of alcoholism. I remember him as a distant, bewildering man, struggling with demons I did not understand. Like his great-grandfather David, he felt betrayed by his country, its generals and its politicians. Maurice mailed his medals back to the Army. Seated at my grandmother’s kitchen table one morning, he told me about the time his platoon was drinking from a stream. When they turned the corner, they saw 25 Japanese corpses in the water. It was the only time he spoke to me about his experiences as a soldier. His erratic behavior was mystifying to me.
I asked my grandmother after he left what was wrong with him. “The war,” she said acidly.
These passage are from “War, Memory, and Gettysburg” by Chris Hedges, published in TruthDig on July 8, 2019.