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It was early on Sunday, in the spring of 1864, and all around were signs of God’s glorious creation. Daybreak had just begun, and the sun was slowly peeking over the horizon. As it ascended, the vast landscape of sleeping clouds appeared to catch fire and the midnight blue evening was painted over by a brilliant orange glow. A gentle breeze stirred the miles of tall grass covering the fields beneath and the sweet song of birds softly echoed through the trees.
Below in the valley, the scene was very different. Hidden amidst a thick hanging fog, two armies were just beginning to stir. Many soldiers did not share nature’s sentiments in welcoming back another sunrise. Exhausted, homesick and terribly traumatized by the horrors they had witnessed on the battlefield, the promise of another day brought nothing more than prolonged suffering.
After all, weeks had turned into months, months had turned into years, and no end appeared in sight. Many felt as if they had been on campaign forever. Most were only able to find a sense of peace and comfort while sleeping. That is, when they actually could sleep and the nightmares didn’t get them.
The cause of their collective misery was named ‘conflict’ and it had become an adversary to both sides. It was the only thing left that they could agree on, and the only thing keeping them from ending this damn war.
Conflict was the enemy.
Enlisting under the guise of heroism, few men had ever expected to be away from their families this long and none could have predicted the hardships they would experience. The romance and pageantry of fulfilling one’s duty was long gone. Although they were thankful for their lives, many looked upon their fallen comrades with a sense of envy, as they were finally at rest in a much better place. For these reluctant survivors, time appeared to stand still.
Looking more dead than alive, they were now faded memories of the vibrant men they had once been. Long gone were the patriotism and the thrill of recruitment parades and brand new uniforms. No longer were they believers in the promise of adventure or the spoils of war. For those who had gone off to serve, the only truth that remained was to kill or be killed. Conscience and character were now long-forgotten friends and the memory of the evils they had committed would linger for the rest of their lives.
Emerging from their weathered tents, some struck fires as the smell of stale coffee began to permeate the air. The gentle sounds of the surrounding countryside gave way to the neighing of irritated horses and the clanging of metal. As they began their daily rituals, muskets were inspected, swords were sheathed and once pristine jackets were pulled on over dirty white shirts and tattered suspenders.
Over the last three years, their nation had been literally torn in half in a great civil war. The result was one of the most horrific conflicts in history, as neighbors struck down one another in the name of a cause.
Perhaps if either side could have foreseen the tragedy to come, diplomacy may have been exercised in place of musket fire. Unfortunately any chance of compromise was drowned in a sea of blood that rolled over the republic like a mighty wave.
Death and devastation was not limited to God’s creatures. Destruction stained the landscape as once-tall cities had been turned into piles of rubble and acres of breathtaking forest were burned to the ground. Trenches filled with blood and mud snaked through the landscape and millions of flies filled the air. Grave details struggled to complete their gruesome duty as piles of bodies were swallowed up by the shadow of death.
On this day, conflict continued to reign as neither force intended to flinch. The cost came in the futures of a hundred thousand troops who fell under fire. Many had marched on the bluffs overlooking the farms at Antietam only to be cut down like corn during harvest. Some had repelled suicide assaults behind stone walls at Fredericksburg and during Pickett’s disastrous charge at Gettysburg.
They had all witnessed firsthand the bloody magnificence of bayonet charges and grimaced at the stench of rotting bodies that later littered the ground. Yet regardless of the cost, neither side was willing to surrender. Each was willing to fight to the last man.
Thus conflict and the war it had ignited marched on, and on, and on…