Tar Heel war stories need a binder

by | Jul 7, 2016 | News

Some call the endless fascination with the Civil War puzzling — silly, even. They should rethink that.

There are no reliable figures for those who were wounded or maimed, or those whose health was wrecked. No one can quantify the grief and privation of families struggling to make do in the absence of their menfolk. But we do have a fairly reliable estimate of those who died.

Well over 600,000 people lost their lives in that war, all of them Americans. Our forbears did this to each other in their own homeland. That horrible reality deserves acknowledgment even if we make no effort to learn anything from it.

It is much better, of course, to learn. There’s no shortage of material; only of context and coordination. Thousands of us own pieces of that conflict: a photo of a too-eager recruit striking a histrionic pose; a Minie ball; a cannonball; a bayonet; a bullet mold or a powder box. But those are only the visual aids.

The most valuable artifacts are newspaper clippings, letters, diaries and narratives from the war generation. These primary-source documents, as they’re called, should be the foundation for a clearer understanding of what happened, and how it felt to be there.

A wartime letter from home can be as informative as a letter from the front, and they’re out there, in abundance. There are diaries and chronicles like those of Fayetteville teenager Melinda Ray, Jane Evans Elliot of the Little River plantation called Ellerslie, and Harriett Cobb Lane, whose “Civil War Remembrances” relates the flight of a sister trying, with mixed results, to evade Sherman’s foragers as she fled with her small children from blood-stained Bentonville to her father’s Wayne County home.

Each story is a part of our history, the state’s account of itself. Merely possessing those parts and doing nothing with them truncates the story, distorts both content and context and thereby disserves the living. Loose ends remain loose, questions go unanswered. Misinformation is passed from generation to generation.

That’s a problem we can do something about. Technology has made both preservation and sharing much easier than they were a short time ago. Among us, we have far more information than we realize — enough to put the brush strokes in the right places on our state’s family portrait.

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