Brian Shea on remembering not just the honored, but the forgotten.
In a crowded and unremarkable strip mall in Northern Virginia, shoppers walk past a metallic plaque mounted in the parking lot. I know, because I’ve ignored it for ten years just like they have while on my way to a favorite kabob restaurant located there. Recently, the sunlight of an autumn day sparkled on the plaque’s metal edge, snapping me out of my daze. I stopped to read the text, being careful to avoid passing automobiles and other pedestrians now irritated that I stood in their path.
“The Battle of Chantilly at Ox Hill, September 2, 1862.”
I had never heard of it.
Underneath the asphalt on which I now stood, Union and Confederate forces collided here after the second major battle of the Civil War at Manassas. It was a horrific fight that lasted about three hours. A violent lightening storm illuminated the battlefield with flashes of blue light, men grimacing in rage, fear, and pain. The rain dampened their ammunition, reducing the struggle to savage bayonet and hand-to-hand combat.
Rallying his men, Union Major General Isaac I. Stevens grasped the flag of the 79th New York Highlanders and rushed towards southern brigades from Georgia and Louisiana. As storm clouds above released a torrent of water, a bullet struck General Stevens in the head, killing him. His body pitched to the ground, wrapped in the flag to which his dying hands still clung. The storm soaked men from north and south as they clawed, stabbed and bludgeoned each other to death under pounding thunder and lightening.
Each side lost between 500 and 600 men. Over 250 lay bleeding where they fell, unable to reach medical care in a military system yet to establish procedures for removing the dead and wounded from the field. By most calculations, it was a stalemate and was soon forgotten in the shadows of Gettysburg, Antietam, and the Civil War’s other more iconic struggles.
Across the road, a small field marks where General Stevens fell. But there is little else here to draw one’s attention to what happened at Ox Hill and it is easy to miss on the surrounding horizon of condos and TJ Maxx stores. The small field of autumn trees blushing in red and yellow are all that remain of Ox Hill’s epic and violent story of human conflict.
It is not unusual to find such places tucked between malls and housing developments in Virginia, a fact that fuels sometimes angry debates about how best to honor our service members. One side argues that such places are sacred and should be memorialized as such. Others say that we must move beyond our painful past and practically speaking, there is barely an inch of Virginia that was not soaked in blood during the Civil War. Preserving each and every one would leave a state-sized museum that left little room for the living to prosper. Mall or national monument. Reflection or progress.
I’m not sure what General Stevens or his men would think of their field being covered in tar and congested retail space. Some might wish their memories be preserved with more dignity. Others might be glad that the country has moved past the divisions that killed them, enjoying a beef kabob on a bright autumn day over a century after their battle in the rain.
But I don’t think any of them would wish to be forgotten either, and as I step out of the way of yet another pedestrian, I can’t help but feel we could do better not only for the men of the 79th New York Highlanders, but for their successors who still walk among us. Because in the end, both are separated only by lines of ink drawn on our calendars.
Someday, veterans who today we stop in airports and thank will be gone. On this 100th anniversary of World War I, almost none remain who saw Flanders Fields or Argonne. Their battles were grander and better remembered than Ox Hill, but a widow’s grief is not proportional to the weight of history’s verdict. Nor should our memories be.
When today’s veterans are gone, will we deem them worthy of more than a metal plaque when we no longer must look them in the eye when rendering judgment? I do not know.
But the forgotten ghosts of Ox Hill are veterans all the same, veterans who never came home. The fate of the men at Ox Hill suggests that Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day should bear no distinction because our treatment of the long dead predicts our commitment to living veterans after they too are no longer with us. If you have ever been with a veteran when his eyes flood with grief for his dead friends, you will know why that distinction matters.
Those of us who never served in the military are eager to show our veterans our appreciation for their experience but must acknowledge that we do not understand the searing effect such experience has on a human soul. Our ribbons and ceremonies do not make the horror of war less abstract for us, as much as we might wish it otherwise. The precise fidelity of this contrast can be seen only by those who have been to war.
When today’s veterans are tomorrow’s honored dead and when nobody is left who remembers them, it is our children who will decide to build a park or a mall. A condo or sacred ground.
If their generation remains as uncertain as us about how to best honor our living veterans, I would urge them to spend some time in gridlock traffic in Northern Virginia until they reach a generic strip mall on West Ox Road.
I would urge them to stand in the small field, close their eyes, and listen to the thunder roll in over the ranks of men descending upon each other. Feel the damp fog of humidity moisten the face. Watch the flashes of lightening whiten the gnashing teeth of men in close quarters combat as explosions push waves of pressure through one’s eardrums. Smell the stale wool of one’s uniform, whose Northern designers did not anticipate Virginia’s oppressive climate. Feel the chill of horror at the metallic taste of blood in the mouth and the dread that it could be yours.
But above all, remember.