BUFORD

He rode slowly away to inspect the ground in front of him,  between him and the Rebels. If we made a stand here, how long do you think we could hold? Long enough for John Reynolds to get here with the infantry? How long would that take? Will Reynolds hurry? Reynolds is a good man. But he might not understand the situation. How do you make him understand? At this distance. But if you hold, you at least give him time to see the ground. But how long can you hold against Lee’s whole army? If it is the whole army. These are two very good brigades, you built them yourself. Suppose you sacrifice them and Reynolds is late? For Reynolds will be late. They’re always late.

Think on it John.

(The Killer Angels, “Monday, June 29, 1863,” Michael Shaara, 1974)

This is Michael Shaara’s interpretation of the mindset of a solider on the eve of battle, as precise and insightful as Tolstoy and even more momentous. The decisions Brigadier General John Buford made that evening and the following morning had an enormous impact on history (Tolstoy tended to focus on the futility and absurdity of such situations), altering the course of the Civil War’s most important battle and likely securing the preservation of an American Union that has gone on, for better or worse, to dominate the history of the century and a half that have passed since. Buford survived Gettysburg but was felled by scarlet fever before the year was out. He died in the rented Washington D.C. house of George Stoneman, who owes his own modern day fame to the Cavalry raid which became the source of the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and in the arms of Myles Keough, who died at Little Big Horn and owes such modern day fame as he may possess to being the subject of John Wayne’s graveside reverie in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

Any present fame Buford possesses is likely due to Shaara’s book and his being played (wonderfully) by Sam Elliott in Gettysburg, the greatest battle film ever made.

We now live in an age when the individual does not count, where anything really momentous–certainly anything of military value–has been machine-tooled, focus grouped and shaped by a committee working for the good of all mankind and little concerned with such trivial matters as victory and defeat. The idea that one man, alone, would be allowed to make such momentous decisions, let alone be forced to do so, is as alien to our world as the idea that he wouldn’t was to Buford’s. One of the many great virtues of Shaara’s novel is that it uses voluminous research to put the reader in the minds of many such men before and during the most important battle ever fought on American soil.

Dec. 16 will be the 156th anniversary of Buford’s death, at age 37. It’s not likely one American in a thousand recognizes his name. Some day soon, it won’t be one in a million.

Then Gettysburg won’t matter at all, except as a cautionary tale to whoever takes our place.

ELEGY REVISITED IN ANOTHER COUNTRY CHURCHYARD….

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

(Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”)

Virgil Caine is the name and I served on the Danville train,
‘Til Stoneman’s Cavalry came and tore up the tracks again…

(The Band, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”)

I’ve mentioned before that I drive a hundred miles each way to put flowers on my mother’s grave every Mother’s Day. My parents are the only appointed missionaries buried at the oldest Baptist church in Florida (est. 1825). Every year, I walk around to see who has died. Every year, one or two familiar names are added (usually wives joining husbands long passed). Every year, I note the military ranks of many of the departed. It’s a small church with a small graveyard so the military mentions toward the middle and back of the cemetery are a smattering.

Korea (my Sunday School teacher, he never mentioned it).

WWII (the man who loaned us money to travel home to see family the first Christmas we moved there, he never mentioned it…this year, he was joined by his daughter, a college teacher who wrote the letter of recommendation that helped me get a job at the Southern Baptist Convention’s center in Ridgecrest, North Carolina in the summer of ’79….else her husband…the grave was fresh dug, no stone yet).

WWI. (too far back for me to know them personally though the names suggest I knew their heirs).

At the front, the names are somewhat more numerous. Up in that part of the churchyard, the military designation is always CSA. Some of them died in what they would have called The War Between the States, some after. Whenever they died, an alarming number bear birth dates of 1848, 1849, 1850. By the end, the CSA was calling up fifteen-year-olds.

That’s what happens at the end, when your life is at stake.

I never had much sympathy for the Lost Cause or Ye Olde Confederacy. A permanent curse on the slaveocracy who cast their permanent curse on us. As much as I know anything, I know if we’d somehow managed to win, we’d have been the Balkans and the USA would have been some hellish combination of Germany and Russia. Best that it worked out as it did.

But I don’t like to run from the past either.

If I’d been born in 1849, I know where my bones would lie…and I don’t doubt the military designation on my grave would read CSA. If not in this churchyard, then some other, because I doubt there’s a vintage cemetery in the parts of the South where my folks came from that doesn’t have an even longer row of the Lost Cause’s Honored Dead.

Hell, by the time Stoneman’s Cavalry rode their last, ” just eighteen”  was an old man in the army of the CSA.

And it’s not like I have to project.

When Stonewall Jackson’s West Point roommate, George Stoneman, rode out to exact the final vengeance for his humiliation at Chancellorsville (the high tide of both the Confederate States of America and his roommate’s brilliant career, which ebbed away in an instant when a unit from my mother’s home state mistook Jackson for the enemy in the gloaming and mortally wounded him), he left from Knoxville, Tennessee, twenty miles from my father’s stone-cold Unionist home town (where the college my father had not quite graduated from when Pearl Harbor re-directed his life down a path that eventually led him to the bible college that sits seven miles from where my parents are buried, was founded by one of the South’s now forgotten fire-breathing abolitionists and where my father’s older relatives nonetheless had living memories of chasing cows into the woods to keep the Yankees from confiscating them), and reached its turn-back point in Salisbury, North Carolina, where my mother grew up learning to hop trains in the hobo jungle in the days when the legends of Jimmie Rodgers and Woody Guthrie were still aborning.

From this distance, I can be glad the Yankees won, even in this age when we seem so determined to throw it all away.

But when I’m walking through a country churchyard down here, mulling the gravestones, there’s no way for it not to be a little bit personal.

Even from this distance.

This month is the thirtieth anniversary of my mother’s death. But you know what Faulkner said. In the South, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

And, as he did not quite say: “Would that it were.”

Rest of ya’ll will know what we know soon enough. I give it not more than a century and it will pass in the blink of an eye. Then you won’t care if the money’s no good either.

Enjoy this hard and bitterly won space while you can.