For a number of reasons, which I will discuss here later, my thoughts at this time of year turn toward the battle Gettysburg, an event in our history that has long haunted and fascinated me, especially since I toured the battlefield one June many years ago.
The campaign began at this time of year, on June 15, 1863. Bolstered by six months of stunning victories against superior numbers, Robert E. Lee led 70,000 men of the Army of Northern Virginia across the Potomac to invade Pennsylvania. He planned to strike as far north as the capitol in Harrisburg, or even Philadelphia. Anti-war sentiment in the north was so strong he believed that one more victory on northern soil would force Abraham Lincoln to negotiate for peace. He was probably right.
On the battlefield’s web site, I found a fascinating page for locating civil war ancestors: http://www.nps.gov/gett/historyculture/ancestor-search.htm, If you click the top button on the right, called the “Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System,” you can plug in names and states to search the National Archives data base.
I started by trying my name, because it’s unusual, and discovered eight soldiers named Mussell, seven who fought for the Union, and one Confederate from Georgia. I doubt that any were direct ancestors, since my paternal great-grandfather didn’t arrive on these shores until 1870.
I searched on my mother’s maiden name, which is more common, but that carried its own difficulty: she was born in Virginia, her father came from Michigan, her grandfather from New Jersey, and all three states had soldiers with her name. Out in a trunk in the garage I have an old hand-drawn genealogy, and such tools are likely to be necessary.
The soldiers’s names are matched with regiments, and if you click those, you can see where they were formed, where they fought, and where they were disbanded. Tragically, in every regiment I checked, the number who died of disease was greater than the number who killed in battle, a statistic that holds for both armies as a whole.
It’s pretty amazing to have this kind of information at our fingertips, and one thing we can be sure of: everyone who lived in this country 150 years ago was affected. There were almost a million casualties at a time when the population was only 31 million. If you are lucky enough to have some letters, a family Bible, an aging relative, or family legends, who knows what you can find with this database.
I’ve been watching some cable shows about the civil war, its extraordinary.
Also, a preview of two things I am re-reading and re-viewing for this blog: “The Killer Angels,” Michael Shaara’s 1974 Pulitzer Prize winning historical novel about the battle of Gettysburg, and “Gettysbug,” the 1993 movie which is very faithfully based on the novel.
The battlefield is the most profoundly spiritual place I’ve visited. There is an atmosphere there that is almost palpable. I firmly believe many never left that place where their lives were wrenched from them. I love The Killer Angels and the film Gettysburg. Both are finely wrought and, I believe, quite faithful to the happenings there. Should be a great summer read and viewing.
Almost everyone I’ve ever known who has visited Gettysburg has the same reaction you and I had, that it is sacred ground.