“The story of your life began long before you were born.”
My friend Mark Pflum, a high school history teacher, begins his classes with those words. They are not just true for his high school students.
Each of us is the product of a long story we may not fully grasp. One chapter in many of our stories started on April 12, 1861, the day 150 years ago this week when the American Civil War began with the bombardment of Fort Sumter in South Carolina.
In 1997 I gained a deeper appreciation of my own connection to that chapter. My middle name, Dow, comes from my great-great grandfather, James Dow, a Union soldier. He was killed at a little Virginia crossroads called Cold Harbor on June 1, 1864. I’d known the name since I was small, but I began to understand the man better that weekend in 1997.
Living in Hagerstown, Md., I began to hear things about a big re-enactment of the Battle of Antietam. Curious, I contacted a Civil War re-enactor I’d gotten to know online while doing genealogy research on Grandpa Dow. I asked if I could come and meet him and his friends at the reenactment. I wanted to see what Grandpa might have looked like.
“Of course!” he replied. “But if you want to see the battle, the best way to do that is from the inside. We’ll loan you some gear and you can join us.”
After some deliberation, and a few reservations, I decided to do it.
The event transformed me. I saw 14,000 men out on the rolling fields south of Hagerstown. There was hardly a clue I wasn’t in 1862. I was tired; I was hot; I was confused; I was thirsty. I was even a bit shaken at times. I got a first glimpse, a tiny glimpse, of what the “original cast” went through.
It forced me to go back and re-read every Civil War book that I’d ever read before. I brought fresh eyes and a visceral awareness to those texts now. Now I could understand why sometimes the soldiers of both side would just stop and look across the field at each other, too exhausted to pick up their arms and attack. No purely academic education could have brought such deeper awareness.
In the last 14 years, I’ve spent countless weekends doing battle re-enactments and public demonstrations. Three times I’ve spent a whole week in the field retracing various Civil War marches, on foot and in the gear they would have recognized.
Twice I’ve retraced the 120 miles from Fairfax Courthouse, Va., to Gettysburg, Pa. that James Dow marched in 1863. I’ll never exactly recreate his experience, for he’d been wounded in the shoulder at Salem Church just six weeks before. But I know what it’s like to be dusty, sunburned, weary, lonely and want to go home to my family. And I also know what it’s like to have comrades around me who understand, who encourage each other and who stick together despite it all.
It makes me appreciate every July 4, every anniversary of every battle. The shared suffering of those men, and all soldiers before them and since, gave me the gift of speaking my mind without fear, worshiping when and where I choose, and having a voice in who governs me.
Few people in the long sweep of human history have enjoyed the exercise of those rights. I do, you do, we do because of a history that began long before I was born.
Yes, the anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War has just passed. It is one of the most tragic tales of that long story. I do not celebrate it, as some might. I’ve studied too much of the dark horror in those years for me to celebrate the beginning of the conflict. But something good did come out of it. We emerged as one nation, welded together as never before, with a conviction that we must never do that to ourselves again.
Sometimes I talk to visitors at historic sites and they’re new to America, have no clue what this “Civil War” is all about. They ask who won. I tell them we all lost the Civil War, both North and South, because 628,000 men died who shouldn’t have had to. And we all won the Civil War because we all got to be Americans again.
Maybe this year you too will come along and explore history with new eyes.
Remember, April 12 and every other 150th anniversary that will arrive in the next four years isn’t just history, it’s your history.
Doug Dobbs is a Civil War re-enactor from Maryland, and a former teacher. This piece was written on behalf of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. For more information on the Civil War in Pennsylvania go to www.pacivilwar150.com