Tag Archives: robert e. lee

How long ago was history?

When I was in grade school, whatever history I was taught seemed as distant as fairy tales, a never-never of such ancientness as to be inconceivable. It was certain that there was an unbridgeable divide between the now I lived in and a history that resided only in books, and pained us with dates and names we were required to memorize. There was no continuity; past and present were as immiscible as diesel fuel and salt water.

These things change as you get older and what is taught as history is what you lived through when you were younger. When I was born, Harry Truman hadn’t yet campaigned for president. For my grandchildren, Truman is a fuzzy black-and-white halftone in their textbook. For me, however, he was my first president. Eisenhower, the Vietnam War, the Kennedy assassination, the moon landing — these were things I can remember a time that was before.

Now that I’m about to turn 70, a century doesn’t seem like such a long time, or such a meaningful slice of eternity. My grandmother was born in the 19th century and I’m now alive in the 21st. She used to muse occasionally on the fact that she was born before the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk and lived to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.

It’s really just a flash before you connect with what seemed so alien in that history textbook. Six degrees of separation.


From me to my wife takes the first step. Her great-grandmother, Nancy Jane Steele, was alive until my wife was 8 years old. She was 98 when she died, in my wife’s childhood bed. She could remember eating sandwiches made from the cambium layer of tree bark because there was nothing else to eat during the Civil War. She had been married to Civil War veteran Rowan Steele, who had been messenger and courier for Col. Robert E. Lee, Jr., who was the youngest son of the legendary general, Bobby Lee. And that’s only five degrees of separation. Who knew a Yankee boy from New Jersey would be this close to the biggest name in the Confederacy?

We think of a century as being the measurement of a considerable piece of time — it is long enough to tick off entire ages in the history books: The 19th Century was distinct from the 18th Century; the 14th Century was so different from the 10th Century: the revolution between the Romanesque and the Gothic. But a century is really just the space from grandparent to grandchild. Not long at all.

In Ancient Rome, that is exactly how they counted eras. The Latin word we translate as “century” is “saeculum,” but saeculum doesn’t actually mean a hundred years. It is the time from the birth of a grandparent that you outlive to the death of the child who outlives you. They calculated it to be anywhere from 112 to 117 years.

How we can skip across these centuries. Let’s take something from the history books, say, the accession of James II of England in 1685. Unutterably distant, no?

Well, I can trace a person-to-person connection to that year in only nine degrees of separation. And without Kevin Bacon entering the equation at all.

That same year, Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach in Thuringia, now part of Germany. One of his sons was Johann Christian Bach, also a composer. J.C. Bach was friend and mentor to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who once heard the young Beethoven play the piano. He was impressed. Beethoven had a few paying students to help him afford his daily vin de pays. One of those students was Carl Czerny, who wrote an infernal and deeply hated series of piano finger-exercises that young pianists still suffer through. One of Czerny’s students became probably the greatest piano teacher of all time, Theodor Leschetizky (among his students are Jan Paderewski, Alexander Brailowsky, Ignaz Friedman, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Artur Schnabel, and Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler — all of them among the most famous pianists of the first half of the 20th century). And Mieczyslaw Horszowski — who died in 1993 at the age of 101, playing and recording well into his 90s.

Well, Horszowski had a piano student named Eugene Istomin, who made a series of legendary piano-trio recordings with Isaac Stern and cellist Leonard Rose. And when I was a volunteer photographer for the Eastern Music Festival, in Greensboro, N.C., in the early 1970s, I was tasked with picking Rose up from the airport, cello and all. I was his chauffeur.

There it is, from Bach to me in nine easy steps. So, the 17th Century isn’t all that far away. Another nine and we could be building Chartres. History is not that long ago.

grave digging patrol antietam 1862

Most Americans’ response to the Civil War depends on which side of the Mason-Dixon Line they were born.

And they can endlessly discuss the causes of the war and its meaning. Was it fought to end slavery, or to impose Northern industrial power on the agricultural South? Was the Confederacy an evil attempt to perpetuate racism or a noble attempt to protect its native soil and individual rights?

But when you are standing in Bloody Lane, you can’t pick sides. It no longer matters who was right and who was wrong.

Before Sept. 17, 1862, the brief dirt drive was called the Sunken Road, and it was a shortcut between two farm roads near Sharpsburg, Md. All around were cornfields rolling up and down on the hilly Appalachian landscape.

The narrow dirt road, depressed into the ground like a cattle chute, now seems more like a mass grave than a road.

And it was just that in 1862, when during the battle of Antietam Creek, Confederate soldiers mowed down the advancing Federals and were in turn mowed down. The slaughter was unimaginable.

You can see it in the photographs made a few days after the battle. The soldiers, mostly Southerners, fill the sunken road like executed Polish Jews. It was so bad, as one Union private said, “You could walk from one end of Bloody Lane to the other on dead soldiers and your feet would never touch the ground.”

Civil War 150 The Lost Order

Even today, with the way covered with crushed blue stone, the dirt underneath seems maroon. Perhaps it is the iron in the ground that makes it so; perhaps it is the blood, still there after 135 years.

Antietam was the worst single day of the Civil War. Nearly 23,000 men were killed or wounded. They were piled like meat on the ground and left for days before enough graves could be dug for them. There were flies, there was a stench.

The whole thing was a fiasco, for both sides, really. Robert E. Lee had taken his Confederate forces, numbering about 40,000 men, into the North, intending to take Union supplies at Harrisburg, Pa. It was a strategic move that Lee hoped would lend the Confederacy enough respect so that England would recognize the presumptive nation diplomatically. This, many Southerners hoped, would force the Union to negotiate a peace with the seceding states.

But he didn’t get farther than Maryland before the Union, under the sluggish General George McClellan, showed up with 87,000 men.

After a period of jockeying for position, Lee wound up with his troops in a long line, running north and south along Antietam Creek and through the town of Sharpsburg. The Union approached from the east.

Lee braced for a battle, but McClellan hesitated. When he attacked, his battle plan was botched by his field commanders. In the early morning, his men attacked the north part of Lee’s line. They fought relentlessly for several bloody hours, only to reach an exhausted standoff.

antietam harpers weekly

In the middle of the battle, the Union soldiers attacked at about 9:30 a.m. That is where the Southerners had set themselves in the Sunken Road. It was a perfect defensive position, and when the Federal troops marched over the rise a few tens of yards above the road, the fire devastated their ranks.

For four hours, the battle went on, soldier falling on dead soldier, and at the end, the Confederate commander at one end of the road misjudged an order, and retreated, opening up the end of the road to Northern reinforcements.

Given a clean line of fire on the remaining Rebels, the Yankees hacked through them like machetes through a jungle.

That is where the midden of bodies came from that filled the hollow of the road.

Later that day, along the southern boundary of the battle, the Yankees tried to cross a bridge over the creek and were held back for several hours by the Confederates.

But at the end of the battle, both Northern and Southern battle lines were nearly exactly where they had been in the morning. The battle had been a pointless bloodbath. The cocky McClellan claimed victory, but he could not say what he had won.

McClellan had lost every chance he had been given, hesitating and halting. “It wouldn’t be prudent to fight at this time,” he said at just the moment he might have broken Lee’s line and finished off the whole blood-soaked Civil War in an afternoon. As a result, Lee managed to get his army back safely south of the Potomac River. McClellan had lost his chance.

bodies on battlefield antietam

But all these years later, as you stand in Bloody Lane, the grassy margins of the road inclining up around you and the way lined with the criss-cross of split-rail fencing, it doesn’t matter if the soldiers were Yankee or Reb. They were all young, brave, impetuous and dead.

It is painful to stand in the declivity, looking up at the mound in front of you, covered in cornstalks in a mid-July day. You can see that when the Yankees came over the rise, they were already close enough to touch. There was no neutralizing distance for your rifle fire to travel, no bang-bang-you’re-dead, no time, no room for playing soldier. Your enemy was in your face and you had to tear through that face with lead, the blood splattered was both Federal and Confederate, in one red pond among the furrows.

It is only made more poignant by the peacefulness of the countryside  now, turned into a National Battlefield Park. Birds and butterflies play among the grassy seedheads, tourists come with their videocams and enjoy the scene. Husbands regale their wives with statistics:

In four hours on 200-yard stretch of Bloody Lane, 5,000 men were blown apart.

In another part of the battlefield, Union General John Sedgewick lost more than 2,200 men in less than half an hour in a charge into the West Woods.

In the Miller Farm cornfield, Union General Hooker later wrote, “every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife, and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before. It was never my fortune to witness a more bloody, dismal battlefield.”

I am not a superstitious man. I lay hold of empirical evidence, hard fact. But it is difficult to stand in Bloody Lane and not feel that all the soldiers are still there, perhaps not as ghosts, but as a presence under your boot-sole, there, soaked into the dirt.

It is almost, as some cultures believe, as if everything that happens in a place is always happening in that place. The battle was not something that occurred before my great-grandfather was born, but a palpable electricity in the air. You can not stand there in Bloody Lane and not be moved by that presence.