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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Vollaro

My Afternoon at Cheatham Hill, or, The Incredible Banality of Battlefield Markers

About a mile distant from my home as the crow flies is a 25-foot-high monument carved from white granite that commemorates soldiers from Illinois who died while assaulting Cheatham's Hill during the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. The monument rises up from the forest floor completely surrounded by trees on three sides like some mysterious ancient monolith from a long-dead civilization. It faces an open grassy field that descends down a steep slope. This is "The Dead Angle," where hundreds of American men died fighting one another at close quarters with rifles, pistols, bayonets, sabers, clubs, and bloodied fists. 

Bloodied fists. I do not believe in trigger warnings, but if I did, I might say something like "this essay contains images of violent mayhem associated with war." And conveniently, this is also the main point of my essay: any attempt to explain war that does not contain images of violent mayhem is fundamentally dishonest and possibly even dangerous to society. 

When you live on the site of an old battlefield as I do, you are literally surrounded by invitations to reflect upon war. I've lived a half mile from Kennesaw Mountain Battlefield Park for twelve years. I drive through the park every day. I've hiked its trails and climbed the mountain ridge where--on June 27, 1864--the Northern Army of General William Tecumseh Sherman tried and failed to overwhelm Confederate soldiers who were dug into well-fortified positions above them. There are two Civil War cemeteries in my town, one with mainly Union dead and the other, less than a mile away, for Confederate soldiers. 

This monument to the Illinois soldiers is surrounded by a handful of historical plaques and three individual gravestones, and because I am a writer, I have paid attention to the text on these markers. The language matters, because as you wander through this little commemorative park, writing is the main medium through which you can begin to visualize the battle. Unfortunately, the writing tells a deceptive story. 

The clearest example of this deception is a marker erected less than half a mile away by the Georgia Historical Commission in 1954 to honor "McCook's Brigade." Daniel McCook was one of the two Union brigadier generals killed at the Dead Angle: 

McCook's was 1 of 5 brigades designated to attempt a break-through, June 27. Its 5 regiments formed on the then wooded slope this side of the stream -- four in column, of regimental fronts, one advanced as skirmishers. The assault was toward the angle; down the hill -- across the stream -- up the cleared slope beyond, to the objective -- the only brigade of 5 to reach it, where a close-up line was held until Cheatham withdrew July 3.

This description was written in the forensic deadpan deployed by so many military writers--cold, clinical, and wallowing in technical detail, while at the same time scrupulously avoiding any of the ugliest realities of war, like someone describing moves in a chess match. Military details are always foregrounded in these accounts--the number of brigades, the dates, the physical movements of units. The reader is encouraged to draw a physical map of the battlefield in his/her mind, to view the action from above, from a safe, clinical distance. 

Much closer to the monument itself is another marker, more recently erected by the Park, that offers a slightly more vivid description of the battle: 

Despite hundreds of casualties, the Federals surged toward this protruding angle in the Confederate defense line. Union Col. Daniel McCook, a brigade commander, fell mortally wounded on the brink of these earthworks while leading his troops. As Federals reached the Southern line, savage hand-to-hand combat broke out. Confederate Maj. Gen. Frank Cheatham's Tennesseans stubbornly held their line, and those Federals not shot, clubbed down, bayoneted, or captured sought shelter. The Union charge was broken.

The reader is subtly encouraged to imagine the battle as an orderly, mappable event, with lines so clearly drawn that they can be described with geometric metaphors--lines that were "held" or "broken" or the slope of a hill described as an "angle." One can almost imagine dotted lines drawn on a map or an arrow indicating the Union "charge" up the hill. At the same time, the violence is described in watered-down language, again, from a great distance.

Another nearby plaque describes the "Climax at Cheatham Hill" in prose laced with heroic cliches: The "well-entrenched Confederates" were assaulted by "ocean waves driven by a hurricane." Units "charged" and were "repulsed." Others "retreated in disarray." One brigadier general "fell mortally wounded" but still managed to yell "Come on, boys!" Another general was shot off his white horse. The Confederate major general "grimly defended the hill that would eventually bear his name." 

A group of outnumbered soldiers defending a fortified position against overwhelming odds? Does this sound familiar? Thanks mainly to Hollywood, you've heard this story already. The sign stages the battle for the reader using an already familiar narrative template. Even the verb choice is comfortably predictable. In this way, war is made orderly and safe, while the chaos and horror of battle is hidden behind euphemistic language. 

The authors of this sanitized tourist propaganda are guilty of literary malpractice, but I will concede that most Americans probably won't care as much as I do. Because I am a writer, I am sensitive to the unspoken potentialities of a piece of writing, the lives it could have lived in the multiverse of literary possibility. I can see what was not said or even thought by the writer--the omissions and the obfuscations--and I can reasonably speculate about why these gaps occurred. When I read these plaques, I see how they forestall the possibility of any engagement with the horror and meaninglessness of war while at the same time perpetuating the stupid but stubbornly persistent notion that war is somehow heroic, despite libraries-worth of evidence to the contrary. 

One way to see the timidity and deceptiveness of these markers is to compare them to accounts of the battle that do not engage in obfuscation. One such account was written by a Confederate soldier named Sam Watkins, who was present at the Dead Angle and wrote a vivid, unsparing account of the battle. Here is one memorable passage: 

The sun beaming down on our uncovered heads, the thermometer being one hundred and ten degrees in the shade, and a solid line of blazing fire right from the muzzles of the Yankee guns being poured right into our very faces, singeing our hair and clothes, the hot blood of our dead and wounded spurting on us, the blinding smoke and stifling atmosphere filling our eyes and mouths, and the awful concussion causing the blood to gush out of our noses and ears, and above all, the roar of battle, made it a perfect pandemonium.

Watkins' account is not entirely free of romanticizing language, but it is a far more honest accounting of war than any of the plaques erected on the battlefield site for tourists, and written by a man who was clearly traumatized by the events long afterwards. Later in his narrative, he describes the battle's aftermath: 

We remained here three days after the battle.  In the meantime the woods had taken fire, and during the nights and days of all that time continued to burn, and at all times, every hour of day and night, you could hear the shrieks and screams of the poor fellows who were left on the field, and a stench, so sickening as to nauseate the whole of both armies, arose from the decaying bodies of the dead left lying on the field.

Watkins also describes himself as "sick as a horse, and as wet with blood and sweat as I could be" when the worst of the battle was over. Nearby, men were vomiting from fatigue and sunstroke, faces "blackened with powder and smoke" and the dead "piled indiscriminately in the trenches." The men who were not wounded nevertheless had bullet holes in their hats and clothing. 

In one memorable passage, Watkins describes a temporary truce to bury the dead: 

On the third morning the Yankees raised a white flag, asked an armistice to bury their dead, not for any respect either army had for the dead, but to get rid of the sickening stench.  I get sick now when I happen to think about it.  Long and deep trenches were dug, and hooks made from bayonets crooked for the purpose, and all the dead were dragged and thrown pell mell into these trenches.  Nothing was allowed to be taken off the dead, and finely dressed officers, with gold watch chains dangling over their vests, were thrown into the ditches.  During the whole day both armies were hard at work, burying the Federal dead….

I read this account several years before I first visited Cheatham Hill. On that day, as I stood on the top of the hill trying to picture the battle in my mind, I was grateful to have read Watkins' narrative rather than having to rely solely on those banal markers. His account opened up the space for me to imagine the carnage without ideological glossing, as a horrific tragedy that defies explanation or justification. Because this is what a battle is, in its essence: a field littered with the corpses of mostly young men whose lives have been violently terminated in anguish and suffering, and the survivors, some of whom were left to linger on with missing limbs or other disfigurements and psychological scarring. The justifications for this slaughter always comes afterwards--the insistence that the cause was just; that the nation defended itself against its enemies or was made whole again; that some evil was defeated. A great speech delivered at a cemetery to commemorate the fallen. A granite monument overlooking a field. But none of these gestures is sufficient to account for the field of corpses, each one representing a vast library of memories and experiences that was burned to the ground in a single moment. 


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