I know there are people who go to battlefields to get a sense of the grand, strategic sweep of the thing, to study tactics and imagine armies arrayed like chess pieces across the fields and hills. But I am much more interested in the individual soldier’s experience.
The guides at Manassas National Battlefield Park are adept at telling both types of stories. I’ve been hooked ever since I listened in on part of a tour of the first battle of Manassas, when a park ranger quoted from a soldier’s letter that described the cornstalks soaked with blood.
I was lucky enough to have a personal introduction to the sprawling second battle of Manassas when I went to the battlefield last week and no one else showed up for the scheduled tour.
The tour started at Brawner Farm, site of the opening clash of the battle. Confederate and Union troops faced each other across a distance that was only 80 yards apart in places. (I believe it was the largest standup infantry fight of the war.) As darkness fell and the stars came out, soldiers aimed at the opposing troops’ muzzle flashes. In two hours of brutal fighting, 2,300 of the 7,000 men who’d fought lay dead or wounded.
The guide said the wounded were left to fend for themselves. When Union troops returned later to bury the dead, they were chased off by Confederate cavalry. When I asked what options those wounded soldiers had, the guide said many of them would have been tended by Confederate doctors (and likely imprisoned) if they couldn’t make their way to a Union field hospital. But one officer with a head wound dragged himself into the woods and died six days later — of pneumonia.
The notion of leaving the wounded behind distracted me so much that it didn’t occur to me until later to ask how historians knew how and when the man had died. Did he keep a diary that was miraculously found intact? Did someone come upon him just before he died? Or was he captured or rescued?
I was thinking about a character in my novel who is wounded in the war. Standing on that battlefield and hearing the stories really brought home how harrowing it would have been to be grievously wounded in battle and unable to get to safety and medical care.
Here are the other tidbits that caught my attention: The four Union brigade commanders in Brig. Gen. Rufus King’s division disliked one another to the point of refusing to go into battle even when another brigade was losing badly. Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell went looking for Maj. Gen. John Pope before the battle started and got lost in the woods for 12 hours. King was not able to command because he had suffered an epileptic seizure. And one of the generals (I’ve forgotten which one) lost his voice and had to whisper orders to his adjutant to shout to the soldiers in the heat of battle.
And that was just the first evening of the battle. There were two full days yet to come.
After my tour last week, I wandered around the battlefield for a couple hours. It was a warm, sunny day and I had the place to myself — just me and the grasshoppers and bluebirds and turkey vultures soaring overhead and the grasses swaying in the breeze. I was in heaven.