Columnists > Judgment Calls

Dying under the flag

On the battlefield, what follows death is a matter at the forefront

Issue: "Global shame," June 15, 2002

On Flag Day, June 14, some Americans show the flag and remember those who died under it in wars past (or this year, in Afghanistan). But many of us are uncomfortable with death, and our modern, sanitized news reports do not tell how it looks and sounds and feels when machine-gun bullets rip through your chest. Instead, we read how seven American soldiers of Operation Anaconda "were killed in a firefight" when their helicopter crash-landed and they met unexpectedly "heavy resistance."

Reporting of earlier wars was often more vivid. New York Times correspondent Samuel Wilkeson reported on the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863) that "soldiers in Federal blue were torn to pieces in the road and died with the peculiar yells that blend the extorted cry of pain with horror and despair." And he focused on one casualty, "a central figure of transcendingly absorbing interest, the dead body of an oldest born, crushed by a shell [and] abandoned to death...."

That was a peculiar sentence: Why was one corpse of "transcendingly absorbing interest," and how did Wilkeson know it was the body of an oldest born? But readers probably went on to Wilkeson's description of how, around 1:00 p.m., a bird was singing in a peach tree near Union General Meade's headquarters, and then "a shell screamed over the house, instantly followed by another, and another, and in a moment the air was full [of shells that] shrieked, whirled, moaned, whistled and wrathfully fluttered over our ground.... Forty minutes, fifty minutes, counted on watches that ran oh so languidly."

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Wilkeson continued, "Then there was a lull, and we knew that the rebel infantry was charging." General Robert E. Lee sent 15,000 men against the center of the Union line. "They rushed in perfect order across an open field up to the very muzzles of our guns, which tore lanes through them as they came." A few made it over the barricades, but the Army of the Potomac held its ground.

Some Union soldiers died. Capt. Cushing, Company A, Fourth Regular artillery, received a severe wound early in the afternoon but kept his post beside his guns. He poured "grape and canister into the advancing columns of the rebels until they had reached the very muzzles of his pieces, and sure of their capture, were attempting to turn them upon our forces, when they were driven off by our infantry. At this moment Capt. Cushing received his death wound, and fell lifeless to the earth."

Most of the dead were Confederates. Wilkeson wrote that "the field in front of the stonewall was literally covered with dead and wounded ... [the rebels] lay in swaths, as if mown down by a scythe.... Not less than one thousand dead and wounded laid in a space of less than four acres in extent."

Wilkeson's conclusion was visionary but puzzling. "Oh, you dead, who at Gettysburg have baptized with your blood the birth of freedom in America, how you are to be envied! I rise from a grave whose wet clay I have passionately kissed, and I look up and see Christ spanning this battlefield with His feet and reaching fraternally and lovingly up to heaven. His right hand opens the gates of Paradise ..."

Why was Wilkeson kissing wet clay? In the July 8 issue Times editors explained that the reporter's eldest son, Lieut. Bayard Wilkeson, 19, died after 10 hours of agony on the first day of battle, July 1, abandoned in the field. Wilkeson, despite his "transcendingly absorbing interest" in just one soldier, steeled himself to write of many soldiers. He told of sights and sounds and feelings so his readers could live the horror and courage and carnage through his articles. He wrote of his vision of Christ and the battlefield dead because he knew that, in war, the question of what happens after death is at the forefront. Mourning for his son, he tried to show what it means to be a hero.

Les Sillars
Les Sillars

Les directs the journalism program at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va., and is the editor of WORLD's Mailbag section.

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