It struck me, years ago, while covering the start of the Boston Marathon: lined up there in Hopkinton were over 30,000 runners. The vastness of that crowd stunned me when it dawned on me that was a common sight in many of the battles of the civil war; in many cases only a percentage of the total who battled during the four years of bloody warfare. No wonder confusion often blurred the overall picture.
I have been fascinated by the civil war since I was a youngster; reading books and studying maps on the famous battles. I have built up a rather extensive library, including some treasured first editions. But, as I have aged, the lure of the mass charges has diminished somewhat and has given way to a much greater respect for rare individuals whose talents emerged in the heat of battle and the pressure of decision making.
Some of my favorites include Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of the 20th Maine. His actions on the fishhook end of the union lines on Little Round Top in Gettysburg were only a partial picture of a seemingly ordinary scholar who turned out to be a dangerous warrior. I remember years ago when my wife Marci and I visited his home at Bowdoin College in Maine. Located across the street from the campus where he served as college president. But his restlessness drove him to politics, where he served four terms as governor of Maine. Handsome and reserved, he would live a long life dying in 1914 from the wound he received almost 50 years before in Petersburg. Though slight of build and quiet in personality, he was ferocious when it counted, fighting in 20 engagements where he was wounded six times.
But the greatest general of the civil war was Ulysses S. Grant. I know the support voiced for Robert E. Lee and I appreciate many things about the man. But, Grant—to the shock of many—was a frightening opponent whose close working relationship with President Lincoln forged a powerful duo who finally were able to bring four years of slaughter to an end. It is because of Grant's weaknesses that endear him to me. Small in stature, reserved by nature, he was impressively strong under the most trying circumstances. With a taste for strong drink, he battled a lifetime to keep control. Without his beloved Julia he was lost. But demons conquered are the true determiner of greatness.
Another flawed character of the war was confederate Nathan Bedford Forrest. He too surprised many with his courage, brilliant strategies and audacity. Maybe not a person you'd invite to dinner but a warrior whose greatest moments came about under the crucible of war.
With the Internet waiting to serve us, devote some of your time to finding out what aspect of this crucial time in our nation's history is most fascinating to you. But, a warning: it is addictive.
anchor/reporter WBZ TV 1975-2015