In 1990, when I was pregnant with Johanna and living in Kansas, we were avid fans of PBS. We didn’t have cable. But what we did have was the anticipation of Ken Burns’ upcoming documentary on the Civil War. Despite all our other differences, Johanna’s father and I were both history buffs (okay, fiends) who loved best the stories contained in American History.
In the introduction to the Ken Burns Civil War documentary, David McCullough, the narrator says “The Civil War was fought in 10,000 places, from Valverde, New Mexico, and Talahome, Tennessee to Saint Albens, Vermont and Fernandina on the Florida Coast.” I remember that first night, almost 21 years ago, when we watched The Civil War and I heard those words. I felt far from home, missing my days as a student at UNM with Paul Hutton teaching me military history. But I was pleased that New Mexico was the first location mentioned in the film, and I promised myself I’d get serious about reading everything written about the New Mexico battles.
Several years later, back in Albuquerque with my two children, I happened to stop by the going-out-of-business sale of the Tulane Bookstore. There, in a dusty bin of rental VCRs, was the entire set of Paul Burns The Civil War – I think there were nine tapes – and they were crazily marked down to $5 each. I was dead broke, but talked the clerk into taking $3 for each tape, handing her the last three tens in my wallet. It didn’t matter. I now owned the documentary. . .and we watched it over and over. My kids were subjected to it at least once a year. We inadvertently left the tapes behind when we moved from North Carolina, and of course, gave up our VCR player soon after that.
And then last Christmas, my kids presented me with The Civil War on DVD. I cried. It was the best gift of the year.
Today is the 152nd anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War. I love Ken Burns’ documentary because it so well portrays the reasons for the war, the personalities (both well-known and unknown, military and civilian) who played parts in the conflict. The music begins and I am immediately pleased to be watching it. Again.
And New Mexico? We had two battles here, Glorietta Pass (considered decisive) and Valverde (considered a major battle) . New Mexico was seen as a prize by both sides, since whoever controlled New Mexico controlled the simplest route to California and the West Coast. In the end, the Union won the prize -the Battle of Glorietta Pass (fought in March 1862) dashed the dreams of the Confederacy to win the route westward .
Shelby Foote, the great historian of the Civil War, says we can’t really understand anything about America without first understanding all there is to know about the great conflict between the states. . .it’s true, as it is true of all history. We can’t really know who we are without knowing where we’ve been. And yes, I know – I’m a little sappy about history. But it’s so important in the quest to understand who we are.
In Burns’ documentary he begins by telling the story of Wilmer McClain, a farmer who owned a home in Mannassas, Virginia – McClean lived where he and his family felt the drumming of the guns during the Battle of Bull Run, the first battle of the Civil War. In fact, shells reached so near McClean’s home, a shell exploded in his summer kitchen.
McClean, tired of the war, moved to a smal crossroads community called Appomatox Courthouse “out of harms’ way”, he hoped . Then, three and a half years later, in McClean’s living room, Lee surrended to Grant. McClean, according to Burns, could rightfully say, “the war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor.”
We are all part of history. New Mexico is part of of the Civil War story, as was Wilmer McClain. It’s a crazy thing to think that 150 years ago today we decided that it was acceptable to kill off a large percentage of its male population between the ages of 18 and 30. But that’s exactly what we did.
It’s a questionable anniversary to celebrate. Over 3 million men fought in it, and over 600,000 men (2 percent of the entire population) perished. “American homes became headquarters. . .” We “slaughtered one another wholesale, here in America, in one another’s cornfields and peach orchards, along familiar road and along waterways with old American names . . .” (Burns). In 2 days At Shiloh, more American soldiers fell than had died in all past American conflicts combined. At Cold Harbor, 7,000 Americans fell in 20 minutes. Today these numbers still make the back of my throat tighten up. I am near tears as I write this.
But it is unquestionably a part of who we are. In the age of Facebook and Twitter, it doesnt’ hurt to take one hard look back, listen to the violins and acoustic guitars playing in Burns’ documentary, pay attention to his meticulously researched number and view his exhaustive archives of photos, so that we can see what we’re made of. What the Union is worth to us. Still.
Burns says between 1861 and 1865 Americans made war on one another and killed each other in great numbers if only in order to become the kind of country where they could no longer conceive how that was possible. I hope that’s truly who we are.