Increments: pieces of history that matter

From John Hennessy:

One of the great dilemmas that face public historians–especially on battlefields–is detail. How much do we tell? How detailed should we be? I’d suggest that details are useless unless directly connected to a larger point. An avalanche of detail is the great enemy of battlefield interpretation, so far as the general public is concerned.

Maybe the most famous increment of all: the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania, where thousands fell trying to seize or defend this nondescript ridgeline.

But, there are times when detail is the ONLY way to make something meaningful…and in that vein, I would throw this out:

Men come to the field of battle for a cause.  They often understand the cause imperfectly or simplistically, but still commit with all their might, ready to give their lives.  Achieving that cause—be it suppression of a rebellion, reunification of a divided nation, freedom for slaves, defense of a home, or independence—is a process of increments. Soldiers of the Civil War came to know that their efforts on a given day would not sweep away a rebellion, secure independence, or guarantee freedom. Rather, they came to know, sometimes painfully, that all they could do was succeed in the one tiny increment assigned to them.

Sometimes their task on a battlefield entailed gaining or defending just a few feet of farmland. Sometimes it involved buying, with blood and toil, nothing more tangible than time—time enough to allow others to do something more substantial.  The men knew this and usually acted without hesitation, confident that even though they may not have understood the “why” of their assignment, their commanders did.  And so, men often hurled themselves into places or attempted to do things that in retrospect seem insane (especially at Fredericksburg) or awe inspiring—and sometimes both.

Today, these sometimes small, often violent increments of history find expression only in the places where they happened. The idea that the wave of a general’s arm or a single sentence could instantly redefine a place–a ridge top, a river crossing, an earthwork, or a fenceline fifteen feet in front–to be worthy of an individual soldier’s complete bodily sacrifice is, when you think about it, a remarkable act of faith.

The story of the American Civil War or an individual battle is the accumulation of a thousand such increments, such stories.  Today, most of those increments–each entailing immense sacrifice and effort–are largely forgotten.  But in each is a thread that extends from that place and from that event, connecting it to ultimate success or failure of a cause.

A challenge of public history at these sites is two-fold: to help people understand those smaller increments of the larger battlefield story, and to make those larger connections that accord meaning to the efforts of the men who struggled to achieve those increments. This is a decidedly bottom-up approach to history and interpretation, but one that is entirely human in nature.

The 7th Michigan storms across the Rappahannock, December 11, 1862

I have found it useful over the years to see the battlefields we manage and interpret through the lens of increments. Some are obvious and dramatic, like the crossing of the Rappahannock by the 7th Michigan on December 11, 1862. Others are less so, like the life-sapping efforts of Confederates to drive Union troops from Fairview at Chancellorsville on May 3, 1863. Today the landscape below Fairview is entirely nondescript–inherently meaningless–until you view it through the lens of the events of that morning. Then it becomes one of the compelling places on earth.

If this sounds like an argument for more detail in our interpretation of these sites, it is not. Rather it is a call for more humanity–for us to help visitors see these events much as the men experienced, understood, and described them–in increments–and then make those upward connections to the success or failure of the larger cause. And it is a summons to recognize the power of the landscapes we manage and to put these places to good and powerful use.

The monument to the 7th Michigan at the upper pontoon crossing.

2 thoughts on “Increments: pieces of history that matter

  1. Well said. The human side of battles is too often neglected and difficult to understand in an age when most people have never been anywhere near a war except for our veterans. Personally, I have found that visiting battlefields gives me an entirely different appreciation of the conflict and the human price paid.

  2. John,
    Your discussion of increments is a good way to illustrate how expendable human lives are in warfare. While we might discuss, at this safe distance, such things as why men joined the army, the troops in the field knew full well that their odds of remaining unscathed were quite bad. That so many stood up to their task anyway speaks to their loyalty to one another and to their cause. This is the type of discussion that pushes beyond the sentimental school of history. Well said.

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