Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Photo Of The 57th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry

A few days ago I wrote a post about the efforts of the Civil War Preservation Trust to thwart Wal-Mart's efforts to build a superstore on the battlefield of the Wilderness and Chancellorsville. In that post, I used a few lines to discuss why this battlefield is so important to me, but even when I posted the entry, something felt incomplete; I had left something out of the discussion.
Last night it came to me. I remembered a picture that is the single most moving image I have come across in my years of study, and my collection of Civil War books and photographic compendia numbers in the hundreds.
I do not suppose to know what war is like, but this picture captures the humanity, the loss, and the destructiveness of not only the Civil War, but war in general, in a way that no other picture has ever been able to replicate for me. One the one hand, there are the sterile, bloodless works of artists like Don Troiani, on the other hand is this:
Before we go on, a huge note of thanks and recognition to I found this picture through their search criteria in about 5 seconds, and was able to download this image for free. Please avail yourselves of this incredible resource! Now, if you'll indulge me, please place your mouse over the picture and click it to bring up a larger image, then study the faces and clothing of the men, as well as the surroundings upon which they stand.
Having done so, let's begin our discussion, and by the end, your investment in this photograph is sure to increase. This image is of the men of Company I of the 57th Massachusetts Infantry, taken in late June or early July of 1864 (no confirmatory date has been found). There are nine men in this image, and they are all that is left of the 86 soldiers of the company who went into battle for the first time several weeks before on May 6th, 1864, the second day of the Battle of the Wilderness.
Over the course of the next weeks, Co. I and the entire 57th Mass took part in nearly every major action of the famed Overland Campaign: the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, the North Anna River, Cold Harbor, and into the siege of Petersburg. This campaign ushered a new level of fighting into the Civil War (and warfare in general) with constant marching and virtually continuous contact with the enemy; these men were pushing forward every step of the way. 77 men of Company I had been killed, wounded, or taken prisoner during the campaigning and unrelenting combat of the early summer, 1864 in Virginia, and from the beginning of its service in May, 1864 until it was mustered out, only 10 men of the original 900+ of the regiment survived the war unscathed. A regimental history was written several years ago by Warren Wilkinson, with the fitting title of "Mother, May You Never See the Sights I Have Seen". This image graces the cover.
These nine men, commanded by Sgt R.K. Williams (the far right figure) were all that were standing when they found time for a brief respite and this photograph. They look worn-out, dirty, exhausted. They stand resolute, brave, and unflinching. They are on a wasted, muddy land where the only visible life, save for these nine souls, is the distant trees in the top-right corner. These troops have seen and done things that no one should be asked to do or have to live with having done, and they still had the courage to go forward and continue the fight.
There is all that, and there is the fact that they look just like us! There are no long-whiskered gentlemen or gray-haired officers; they look like men I went to high school, college, grad school with, played sports with, hung out with and befriended. These men capture the essence of American troops at war for me, because this picture could have been taken on the fields of Saratoga or the dusty streets of Fallujah, and I'd still feel like I know them, and I would still ache for what they had to go through. There had been 86, now there were nine. I've never had to go through losing one friend, let alone 77.
This picture came back to my mind because the first field where these men went to war and began to lose comrades was the Wilderness, and this ground may be lost if Wal-Mart has its way. These men took a stand behind a cause 144 years ago, now we can take a stand for them and their memory through the Civil War Preservation Trust.
Oh yeah, Wal-Mart and its ghoulish disrespect are disgraceful and despicable!
(Note: the above link to the book is to Amazon, but all available copies are from independent booksellers. Remember to support your local used and independent bookstores!)

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