Civil War scholars could easily be haunted by war.
They pore over details that seem surreal.
“Years ago, the commanding officer of the 101st Airborne went to the Antietam battlefield in western Maryland, and a park ranger was describing the carnage at what’s become known as Bloody Lane,” U.S. Naval Academy history professor Mary A. DeCredico said. “Bodies were stacked three and four deep.”
In that one battle, on a single September day in 1862, 23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing. It was the bloodiest one-day battle in American history. DeCredico said that in Civil War engagements, armies routinely lost 20 percent to 30 percent of their soldiers.
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“This CO said, ‘America wouldn’t tolerate that today. They just wouldn’t.’”
I asked the scholar what she has learned about warriors of yesterday, today and tomorrow. We talked before her keynote address Monday at Hilton Head Island’s Veterans Day commemoration.
“We have an expression here: ‘Ship, shipmate, self,’” she said. “In other words, you put your ship or your Marine division first, your shipmate second, and yourself last.”
It is a value that shines through the darkness of all wars, even the gruesome reports in Drew Gilpin Faust’s book “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.” That is required reading in DeCredico’s Civil War class.
“I find that those individuals who have served our nation do not take things for granted,” DeCredico said. “They don’t have a sense of entitlement. And they truly love their nation, and they want to protect it.”
She saw it in her father, who was in the second wave to land at Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge.
“When I was growing up, I couldn’t understand why my father said he was living on borrowed time,” she said. “It’s because he didn’t think he would survive the war.”
The disconnect between the home front and the battlefront is still a part of society.
“I think that my father, before he passed away, felt that all young people should have some type of military service because of the discipline, because of the leadership abilities that it produces,” she said. “And I don’t see anything wrong with that.”
She sees a worrisome disconnect in the halls of power.
“Right now, in Congress, only 1 percent of the members of the House and Senate have any military experience,” DeCredico said. “And that scares me because they will be making decisions that will directly affect the students I’m teaching now.”
They are bright. They know what is at risk. And they have accepted: “Ship, shipmate, self.”