Reflections on a Minnie Ball
I believe in remembrance. I’m an archaeologist, and like most of my professional colleagues, much of what I read in the newspapers seems familiar. Not the particulars, you understand, or the great technological changes, but the broad patterns…they don’t ever seem to change do they? Let me give you an example.
In February of 2003, as thousands of American soldiers invade Iraq, I find myself in the quiet of a laboratory contemplating a bullet. Specifically, I am cataloging and analyzing a lead Minnie ball, dropped in the heat of combat during a vicious little engagement of the American Civil War. It came from an excavation conducted the previous fall, in a place that would have been just within the Confederate lines. It has not been fired, likely haven fallen from the trembling fingers of a young man under extreme duress. Like all artifacts, it connects me to another life.
I am handling precisely the same object as another, probably much younger man some 143 years ago. I can see him, a tow-headed 18 year old kid from the Carolina mountains. He’s from a poor family, no money, no slaves, no big fields of tobacco or cotton, never been north of Raleigh before this year. He’s not very clear on what this war is all about, but it’s been fun, a great adventure. All the Yankees he’s seen so far have been running away or getting themselves shot. There are victories under his belt, a swagger in his step. It was all good sport until today. Now he’s pinned down behind this low stone wall, with about 120 of his fellow infantry. There are a couple thousand Yankees firing on their position. Men are falling everywhere around him, screaming their lungs out or just dropping over dead. He’s shaking, and the round, this round, drops from his hand as he fumbles with the ramrod. They are advancing on him with bayonets, now only yards away, and he can’t load his rifle because he’s too scared. If he jumps up to run they’ll cut him down. If he plays dead, they’ll stick him to be sure. He thinks of his comrades, his mother, his sweetheart, he starts crying…
I wish I was in Dixie, Hooray, Hooray
I leave him to his fate, unwilling to watch.
His death is like other deaths, from the Plain of Troy to the streets of Fellujah, and no more or less horrible. As long as we have organized ourselves into nations, important people have sent brave young men and women into battle, and some of them have never returned. Not infrequently, those who started the fighting and sent kids into harms way did no fighting of their own and did not send their own flesh and blood. All the centuries of wars and battles were meant to preserve peace and achieve noble and permanent ends, and none of them did.
We ignore history at our own peril, and make no mistake, the price of our ignorance is mortal.
I drop the Minnie ball back into its labeled bag, shut off the lights in the lab, and go home to watch the news.
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