Wednesday, December 26, 2012

`The Paths of Glory Lead But to The Grave'

On the drive from the airport, on the way to my in-laws' house, we passed a sliver of the battlefield in Fredericksburg – a visitor's center, stone monuments, headstones. The sesquicentennial observances concluded last week (Dec. 11-15), and on Christmas the place was deserted. The finest allusion I know to a line of poetry came to mind. Abraham Lincoln said his early life on the American frontier, in Kentucky, “could be condensed into a single sentence” from Thomas Gray's “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”: “The short and simple annals of the poor.” Lincoln's early years were spent in near-feudal conditions, as were the lives of many of the men who died here in Fredericksburg. In less than four days of fighting, casualties topped 18,000.

I received two books as Christmas presents from my wife's parents: Marye's Heights: Fredericksburg (2001) by Victor Brooks and The Fredericksburg Campaign (fourth printing, 2012) by Francis Augustin O'Reilly. The latter writes: 

“Close to 8,000 men had fallen in front of the stone wall, while Franklin lost 5,000 more at Prospect Hill. Burnside had sustained more casualties in his diversion than in his main attack. Correspondingly, the Confederates lost approximately 1,000 men on the Marye's Heights sector of the battlefield, and Jackson suffered close to 4,000 casualties in repulsing the Union First Corps.” 

Brooks notes: “Of 15,243 Civil War soldiers resting here, only 2,473 are in identified graves. You will see small stones which mark the graves of the unknown.” 

Four lines after the one recalled by Lincoln, Gray writes: “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”

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