From New Market Road To The Wilderness

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Some of you may remember I did series of posts (here, here, here and here) about my time in Virginia last August. Working with my stellar editor James Gibney we managed to pull together a short piece for the magazine. Ostensibly it's about the endangered battlefields of the Civil War, with a focus on the Wilderness. But it also touches on some of the themes we've been discussing on the blog:

I pulled our rental car to the side of the road, and treated my son and nephew to an awkward impromptu lecture on the bravery of Sergeant Major Christian Fleetwood and Private Charles Veale. It was only mildly successful--I had to talk over SUVs loudly whizzing past, and there really wasn't much to see. Parts of the battlefield had been destroyed by housing developments. Other portions, owned by the county, are closed to the public. I ordered the kids out of the car and had them read the marker aloud, in unison. They squirmed around and gave mediocre waves as I snapped pictures.

In my lifetime, I have floated through all manner of geekdom--comic books, sci-fi, sports, medieval history, video games. The Civil War, with its swashbuckling heroes, its staggering toll, and its consequence of emancipation, is the culmination of an unorthodox intellectual journey. Galactus and Charlemagne are charming, but if not for Fleetwood and Veale, I might not exist. By the time I stumbled upon New Market Heights, I'd read about the battle in at least three books.

But I had come to Virginia to move beyond books and render my journey through the "late unpleasantness" in 3-D. Books about everything from the caliber of every cannon fired to post-traumatic stress disorder to Civil War cuisine can't adequately capture the actual conditions under which the soldiers lived and died; they can't convey, say, the spatial reality of being caught between gunfire from two sides. Any lesson on the Battle of the Crater isn't complete until you've been to Petersburg and seen the crater for yourself. Civil War sites are the classrooms of history.

I think it's worth noting that this is a beginning. It's too much to say that I've found the cause of my life, but I've certainly fallen hard and deep, not just for the Civil War, but for the epic nature of mid-19th century America. You have to imagine what it must have been to have lived as a slave, and then to be given the chance to literally fight for your freedom, to, in some cases, directly fight against the exact same men, who only months ago, you called master.

And there were so many of them--180,000, with 20 percent of them dying. To put that in perspective, when George Washington greets his army at the start of the Revoloutionary War, they number (according to the Glorious Cause) 20,000. The math of the entire Civil War really just boggles, but the math of black soldiers, in particular, boggles me personally. As I say, Galactus can't cope.

Moving on, there's a video after the jump with historian Frank Smith, who directs African American Civil War Memorial down on U Street. He was excellent, and I greatly appreciated him deading this notion of black Confederate soldiers.

Stay tuned, guys. More coming on this front.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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