I am one of OLLI’s many history buffs, and have sat spell-bound throughout Dave Milidonis’ Civil War Sesquicentennial Series of classes. He’s a retired military officer by trade, and a military historian by passion. He puts you into the heads and hearts of those who fought, especially the generals on both sides, most of whom graduated long ago from his alma mater, West Point. Like most of us who take his classes, I have long awaited the Civil War battlefields trip that he led for us on June 4—7. It exceeded my lofty expectations! Here are some of my reflections during and since the trip.
For me, a Southern girl born in the state where the war broke out, South Carolina, and living throughout my adulthood in North Carolina, my feelings about the Civil War are highly personal, and highly complicated. Three of my great-great-grandfathers fought in the Civil War—you can easily guess which side they were on! If you’re from the South, you probably know these facts about your ancestry; if you’re not a Southerner, you might not know and might not care whether an ancestor wore either gray or blue between 1861 and 1865. You see, it matters to me, and I think to most present-day Southerners, because we cannot fathom why they went along with the things they did, and we so wish we could understand. The vast majority (70 % or so) of the citizens in the Confederate states did not own slaves. Many who volunteered to go to war had wives and children back at home, and life on the Confederate home-front was one of extreme hardship, deprivation, and ultimately financial ruin and searing grief over lost loved-ones. So why?
We all know the many reasons historians give for the war and the rush to become a participant in it, and I’ll have to settle for those insights into why, though I’ll never really understand. Dave Milidonis does not do much speculating as to why the war was fought. He seeks to teach us what and how and where and when things happened. One day last week we were at Antietam, the bloodiest single day of the war during which 23,000 young Americans were lost. The next day we were at Gettysburg, a three-day battle during which 50,000 died in the bloodiest battle of the war. On our way home we explored Spotsylvania, where trench warfare and hand-to-hand combat made it another horror, another bloodbath. Dave took us across each battlefield, pointing out how they studied the lay of the land and engineered their battle plans accordingly, either to their advantage or to their ultimate peril. He pointed out ingenuity and ineptitude, courage and cowardice, hard work and sloth. He leaves it to each of us to contemplate what learning in such detail about the savagery of this war does to our hearts.
For this Southern girl who had ancestors die in this war, I didn’t return home with any more of a clue as to why they went off to it. What I gained was a much deeper understanding of the costs, and an even keener feeling of sadness over the suffering and the loss. But I also returned home with at least a hint of hopefulness. If this country could recover, come together, and even thrive, in the aftermath of all that carnage and all that hate, surely there is hope for a less divisive future than what we are experiencing now. Perhaps all of our political leaders, upon taking their oaths of office, should be required to go on a Civil War battlefields trip led by Dave Milidonis, and see and feel what the results of divisiveness, animosity, arrogance and stubbornness can be!