Holly Marcus for Madison Magazine.
Cara Ellen Modisett
The editor, on Reddish Knob, west of Harrisonburg, Va.
We are standing on battle ground. Whether we’ve walked Antietam, New Market, Gettysburg, Chickamauga, or just followed mountain trails, the old roads and rivers – if we’ve spent any time in the valleys of the south, the mountain ridges to the east, the hills in the north, we’ve walked where soldiers died, where mothers grieved, where farmhouses were razed, ships built and where armies traveled.
I grew up with it. The old, lofty barn on my grandparents’ farm was built after Sheridan’s men burned the first. In my home is an old bookshelf that was in my father’s bedroom for years. It belonged to a relative who was the wife of a Mosby’s Ranger.
Learning this war over the last months – beyond the education of my Shenandoah Valley bringing-up, with field trips to New Market and museum displays of blue and gray uniforms and old bullets – has meant seeing the war as real again. I still haven’t been to a re-enactment, though at some point I will. But I’ve been talking with and reading the voices of historians passionate about that era – men and women who believe there’s got to be a new way to tell the story beyond recitations of military strategy, casualty counts and battle dates – so that we don’t lose it to the dry pages of a more conventional history. Scholars who tell the story of the carnage as well as the glory, the stories of the nearly nameless slaves and widows, not just the gods and the generals – the mistakes that were made, the fallibility of the admired, the not-so-black-and-white differences between North and South.
It’s hard to imagine a war on our own soil, between brothers, cousins, father and son, in this day and age. But it happened, not that long ago, on this soil. A few weeks ago I sat in a classroom at Virginia Tech and listened to the voice of professor Bud Robertson, a peaceful, kind, brilliant man who has devoted his life’s learning and teaching to one of the most violent events in world history.
Dr. Robertson grieves for what was lost, talks of “a blundering generation, a war that did not have to come.”
Perhaps the war could have been averted. “From shouting to shooting is a very short distance,” as he put it.
But at the end of four terrible years, something else did come of it: “At Appomattox, we didn’t have the death of anything. We had the birth of modern America.”
That Wednesday Dr. Robertson looked around a classroom full of northerners, southerners, blacks, whites, Asians, men, women, cadets.
“Civil wars don’t end that way, but ours did. And that’s why this morning we have Virginians in here, and Pennsylvanians in here, and New Jerseyans in here.”