I am not a historian. But, like any true historian, I know that an important way to learn about history is to go to source documents. Documents written by someone who has witnessed or experienced a historical event can be quite useful in understanding what happened.
At this point of the Civil War 150th commemoration, we've just passed the 150th anniversary of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War: Chickamauga, September 19 and 20, 1863.
Much has been written about this battle, which was both a Union defeat and a hollow Confederate victory. My spouse and I had hoped to attend the reenactment, but circumstances (and a cataract ripe for surgery) dictated otherwise.
But I really don't want to write about the battle itself, which was fought over two days and resulted in approximately 34,000 casualties (killed, wounded, captured).
There is a legend that "Chickamauga" (the battle is named after nearby Chickamauga Creek) means "River of Blood" in the Cherokee language, but this is probably not true.
What was true is that there was a whole lot of suffering. Just imagine, in early July is a battle, the Battle of Gettysburg, with some 51,000 casualities and barely two and a half months later, this battle. And, the war still has not quite two more years to run, although no one knows that yet.
One of the soldiers in this battle was a young man who had enlisted in the Ninth Indiana Infantry, on the side of the Union. He fought at Shiloh, at Chickamauga, at the nearby battles of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, and participated in Sherman's March to the Sea. He knew about the horrors of war firsthand. After the war he became a newspaperman and a writer of short stories, many of them drawing from his experiences in the Civil War. One of his stories even became the basis for a Twilight Zone episode - the TV show created by Binghamton, New York's own Rod Serling.
His name was Ambrose Bierce and he knew well that not only did soldiers suffer, but so did all the civilians who came into contact with the combatants. We may never know the true final casualty count of the Civil War but it may well be more extensive than any of us can easily picture.
Which brings us to one of Ambrose Bierce's most famous short stories - a story called Chickamauga.
I highly recommend this story, both for the skill of the writer and the subject matter, but I also warn you it is not easily read.
When you read it remember that in this story, as in any war, so much is not what is seems.
I will explore the theme of civilian suffering (not necessarily the suffering that has gotten the most attention from historians) in a future post.