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on the field of battle



For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 ESV) 

This week I toured the Cedar Mountain Battlefield with a couple of friends who love history. As we walked about the area, noting the stone markers where Jackson's company was, where the artillery batteries were, and where the Union troops from Wisconsin marched, I was struck by the loss -- the human suffering and sacrifice that took place on both sides of the battle. This was the first occasion in which Clara Barton served as a nurse on the front lines of battle. About 3900 men were injured or died that day. Many of the injured would later die, as well. 

It's easy today to be simplistic about history, cancelling entire groups of people we think were in the wrong. Aldous Huxley once wrote, "The propagandist's purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human." As I strolled the battlefield, now dotted with wildflowers, I thought of the loss of lives on that very ground. We do not know all the various motives of the soldiers on the field of battle. Many of the Union soldiers were likely fighting for an end to slavery in the south. It was a just cause. The boys from Wisconsin were a long way from home, and many would never return to their families. However, the northern general, John Pope, occupying the town of Culpeper, had enacted harsh wartime laws upon the civilians of Culpeper, treating them as traitors to be dealt with cruelly. The local Confederates -- the vast majority of whom never owned slaves -- were likely fighting for their families and homes in what they saw as an unjust invasion of their land. 

The lessons of history can be complex -- and there are many unanswered questions -- but there is one God who guides the course of human history to its proper end (Isa 41:4; Eph 1:10-12). We must never forget, though, that it is a human history, and the value of each human life must be felt. Those who fought on that field were real people, and they should be remembered for their courage and sacrifice. 

In 1943 poet T. S. Eliot published a poem about soldiers from India and Britain who fought together, and were buried, in South Africa. Here's an excerpt...   

A man's destination is his own village, 
His own fire, and his wife's cooking; 
To sit in front of his own door at sunset 
And see his grandson, and his neighbor's grandson 
Playing in the dust together. 

A man's destination is not his destiny, 
Every country is home to one man 
And exile to another. Where a man dies bravely 
At one with his destiny, that soil is his. 
Let his village remember. 

Let those who go home tell the same story of you: 
Of action with a common purpose, action 
None the less fruitful if neither you nor we 
Know, until the judgment after death, 
What is the fruit of action. 

-- T. S. Eliot, from "To the Indians who died in South Africa" (1943).




Photo at top is of a Confederate cannon placement near Culpeper, VA, with Cedar Mountain in the background. Bottom, wildflowers on the field of battle. 




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