- - Monday, October 17, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

IMPERFECT UNION: A FATHER’S SEARCH FOR HIS SON IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG

By Chuck Raasch

Stackpole Books, $29.95, 400 pages

The ghastliness of Gettysburg, the culminating battle of the Civil War, has been reduced to the ultimate horror of a 19-year-old soldier dying in a “puddle of his own blood” in this stark and wrenching war book.

In the course of more than 300 harrowing pages Chuck Raasch writes this nonfiction account of those who fought and died and those who wrote about the conflict — who became that strange and piratical breed who were war correspondents. A compelling leader in that field of bloody journalism was Sam Wilkerson, a correspondent for The New York Times and the father of Bayard Wilkerson, the tragic teenager who did not survive to read what his father wrote while watching over the corpse of his son. The boy who died as he reached manhood belonged to that cadre of men who were never destined to fulfill themselves yet who achieved the incredible in bravery in their brief and doomed lives.

Mr. Raasch’s prose marches toward the death that was so vividly recorded by men like Wilkerson who “somehow had answered the challenge.” As the author describes Wilkerson’s pain — “His heart burdened with his known witness and the soul searching unknown of his boy’s fate, the war correspondent and father began that night composing one of the most compelling battlefield dispatches ever written. It would foreshadow Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg address a little more than four months later and a few hundred yards from where he now wrote.

“The images of redemption and consecration in Wilkerson’s dispatch would be hauntingly similar to Lincoln’s sparse words. Both passages would be transcendent, sorrowful, redemptive and awe inspired and they would capture both the intimacy and enormity of those triumphant tragic moments at Gettysburg. More than 46,000 men in the two armies had been killed, wounded or captured in three days. Lt. Bayard Wilkerson was among them. And in the swelling suffering of the aftermath, his father had to find him”

The author emphasizes that for the North, Gettysburg was a victory of such importance and cost that there seemed no real earthly way to describe it. The expectations put upon the men who had fought there were immense and intimate. He relates the terrible example of a mother whose son had been captured and then wounded at Gettysburg. She was relieved to hear how hard her soldier boy had fought, participating in 15 battles.

“I told him when he went away that I would rather hear he was dead than that he had disgraced himself,” said the mother. Incredibly, she was happy that he had re-enlisted even while lying wounded. “I rather want him to help give the crushing blow,” she told a correspondent for the Boston Journal who noted there were “thousands of such mothers in the land.”

Mr. Raasch observes that young Bayard’s demise would also have been seen as what came to be known as a Good Death, “because in 1863 it was better, even desirable to die young and innocent in the name of a just cause than to die after a purposeless life.”

He adds, “It was no accidental gesture that in his famous dispatch about the battle and his son’s death, Sam Wilkerson described dead Union soldiers as Christ-like.”

He points out that attitudes toward death during the 19th century would be unrecognizable in the 21st. A long and healthy life was not a given. It was estimated that one in five men of military age in the Confederacy died in the war, and an estimated 2 percent of the population of North and South died from combat or disease related to it.

Mr. Raasch has written a terrifying and memorable book which is all the more compelling because of the humanity he invests in the kind of young men who went to war through the ages.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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