Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Last Full Measure of Devotion

No doubt if you're an American reader, you'll recognize those words as coming from Abraham Lincoln's address at the dedication ceremony for the new cemetery following the battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War. Ever since I read Joseph Persico's My Enemy, My Brother, I've been moved by stories about that battle, the bloodiest in the war*. Persico's description of Pickett's charge is especially poignant. The book I finished over the weekend, Lisa Klein's Two Girls of Gettysburg, brought home for me, though, that it wasn't just the soldiers who were heroes during that battle.

The book follows the story of two cousins, Lizzie Allbauer of Gettysburg and Rosanna Wilcox of Richmond (who lived for a short time in Gettysburg). Lizzie's father and brother fight for the North; Rosanna marries a young Confederate cavalryman and follows him to camp, where she becomes involved in helping nurse the wounded and dying. Through her eyes we see the cost in suffering and death that the war brought, not only in battle, but through disease, as well. Indirectly, we also see Lizzie's brother Luke change from a teenaged boy reluctant to do his chores into a mature soldier carrying out the orders of his commander.

Those two roles are what we expect to hear in a story about the war. What I appreciated about this book, though, is that it also tells the story of other roles, played by Lizzie and her friend/beau Martin Wiegel. Both Lizzie and Martin spend the war in Gettysburg. It's not that this is the first time I've read a book about the suffering on the home front during the war; Nancy Dane's Civil War series does a great job showing those struggles. What I really appreciated about Klein's book is the way Lizzie and Martin come off as heroes in their own way, even though they aren't living what we would normally consider the "heroic" roles - nurse and soldier.

(there might be some spoilers below)

Lizzie actually is quite a failure as a nurse. The battle at Gettysburg turned the Wiegel farm, where Lizzie had taken her younger cousins for safety, into a field hospital. Everyone is involved in some way in caring for the wounded, but when Lizzie goes into the barn where the worst of the wounded are being treated, she faints. The best she can do is help bring water and food to the soldiers outside the barn, and she even forgets to do that when she goes to wash out bloody bandages so they can be reused. Contrasted with the care we see Rosanna giving on the battlefield in the aftermath of Antietam and Gettysburg, there's no other way to put it - Lizzie is useless as a nurse.

However...she's really the person who kept the family business going when her father left for the war. Of course, she had Martin and Amos (a free black) to do the hardest manual labor, but Lizzie managed the books and came up with ideas to keep business flowing in, even when the war was making circumstances difficult. That's heroic in its own way, right? Someone has to keep food and supplies on the tables of the people who are not fighting in the war, who happen to be the majority of people. Lizzie gave up (not voluntarily at first, granted) her dreams of studying literature at the ladies' seminary in town so she could help with the business. Her sacrifice might not be as noble as the sacrifice of a physical life, but it's still a sacrifice.

Even better, in my view, is the sacrifice Martin Wiegel made. Martin is the same age (or maybe even a little older) than Lizzie and Luke. When several of the young men in town sign up to join the army during a rally, Martin is not one of them. The explanation is that his mother won't let him. Of course, Luke's mother won't let him, either, but he runs away to join the army as a bugler. Martin doesn't even do that, though he could have. While most of the other young men from Gettysburg are away fighting, Martin is at home, working in Lizzie's family's butcher shop and helping with his family's farm. He even confesses to Lizzie once that he doesn't want to fight.

Yet Martin is certainly not the coward some might want to make him out to be. When the hospital is set up on his family's farm, he is one of the hardest workers giving care to the soldiers, doing everything from tearing down the stalls in the barn to build cots to helping the doctors with amputations. As I was reading that part, I wondered how the women would have managed all that if Martin had bowed to what I am sure was considerable social pressure to "be a man" and had gone off to become a soldier. Having Martin there to do the heavy physical work meant the women and the soldiers were able to concentrate on their own jobs, making for better care for the wounded, all the way around.

Certainly there is no act of hopeless courage quite like marching across a field into gunfire; soldiers deserve to be honored for the sacrifices they make. And certainly there is no act of selfless compassion quite like tending to a soldier with half his body blown away by a cannonball; battlefield nurses deserve to be honored for the sacrifices they make. But reading Two Girls of Gettysburg helped me see there is also honor in staying behind and maintaining the life the soldiers are fighting for and hope to return to, the way Lizzie did, or in staying behind and jumping in with supporting work when needed, as Martin did. The honor, I suppose, comes from doing whatever role one fills in a whole-hearted and honorable way.

*Gettysburg was the bloodiest overall battle, with more casualities over the three-day battle than in any other battle. Antietam, however, was the bloodiest single-day battle. I had a bit of an argument with my son over this before we realized we were arguing on different bases. We are most pleased that neither of us was wrong...