Mesa Musings: Lessons from 150 years ago

It was Wednesday, April 12, 1961, and I stood in my gym shorts on the Costa Mesa High School athletic field.

What could possibly cause me to recall such a trifling memory 50 years later?

I remember that day because of a historic milestone associated with the memory.

As the coach called roll, the guy next to me leaned over and informed me that 100 years ago that very day, Ft. Sumter was attacked.

In 1961, I had no idea what the Battle of Ft. Sumter stood for, and wouldn't appreciate its momentousness for several decades. But I haven't forgotten the "heads-up" provided by my classmate.

Next week, America will mark the 150th anniversary of the bombardment by confederate forces of the U.S. military garrison at the entrance to Charleston harbor. The shots fired at Sumter marked the opening round of the Civil War (1861-1865), our nation's bloodiest conflict.

The fort fell after 34 hours of shelling.

During the next four years, we Americans will celebrate the war's sesquicentennial. Hundreds of significant Civil War battles will be remembered on their 150th anniversaries.

In high school five decades ago, the only thing I knew about the Civil War was what I'd gleaned from reading Stephen Crane's "The Red Badge of Courage."

But, long after graduating — with some proper perspective supplied by life — I began to accumulate a personal store of Civil War knowledge. I've read scores of books, attended classes and lectures and visited countless battlefields over the years.

I was personally introduced to the war 25 years ago while taking an ad hoc tour of the hallowed battleground at Manassas, Va. I squeezed in a self-guided tour while on a Washington, D.C., trip. Manassas was the site of two major Civil War battles that occurred 13 months apart.

During the Manassas visit, I remember walking out of a grove of trees and into an open space, and seeing Confederate cannons on a rise a few hundred yards ahead of me. I tried to imagine how it must have felt to be a 19-year-old Yankee private coming out of those woods and facing those guns.

I'd previously been a 19-year-old U.S. Army private myself. At that moment, standing on the battlefield, I felt deep empathy for the young troopers who fought on both sides. For many, their lives were all-too brief.

I've since also visited Civil War landmarks at Gettysburg, Pa., Antietam, Md., Harpers Ferry, W.Va., Ft. Sumter, S.C., Ft. Fisher and Bentonville, — both in North Carolina — and several sites in Virginia, among many others: Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Appomattox Courthouse, Cold Harbor, Brandy Station, New Market, Spotsylvania Courthouse, Petersburg, Gaines' Mill, Cedar Creek, the Crater and Seven Pines.

I've walked the site of the infamous Confederate prison, Andersonville, in southern Georgia, where thousands of Union prisoners died of exposure, malnutrition and disease. In 1962, as an Orange Coast College student, I participated in the college's production of Saul Levitt's play, "The Andersonville Trial." I portrayed a Union private.

I've visited the locations of General Stonewall Jackson's wounding, near Locust Grove, Va., and his death in Guinea Station, Va. His death dealt a crushing blow to the South's war aspirations.

I've stood on the heights above Fredericksburg, on the banks of the Rappahannock. I tried to imagine the devastating roar of Gen. Robert E. Lee's guns as they opened up on exposed Federal troops crossing the river in December 1862.

At Gettysburg, I've traversed the open fields the Confederates crossed in their assault on Union positions along Cemetery Ridge. Known today as Pickett's Charge, more than 12,500 Confederates began the assault, and 50% were cut down.

I'll be taking my grandson to Gettysburg this summer.

And, I've walked "Bloody Lane" at Antietam, where nearly 6,000 Union and Confederate troops were casualties in horrific close-quarter fighting. The Union's narrow victory emboldened President Abraham Lincoln to issue his historic Emancipation Proclamation.

I look forward to this sesquicentennial! It'll evoke memories that we Americans must never forget.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.

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