Friday, January 15, 2010

* Echoes of Dante, Gettysburg and Port au Prince

Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863:

165,000 soldiers fought. 51,000 causalties. 3000 fatalities. 3000-5000 horses and mules killed.

The horror and chaos and agony in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti this week remind me of the descripton of the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg. Three thousand to five thousand horses had been killed and their bloated bodies were set afire on the battlefields to prevent disease.

Three thousand soldiers had been killed in four days. Of the 165,000 who fought, nearly one third (51, 000) were casualties. Screams and moans of agony were heard in the bushes and behind walls as the horse carcasses were cremated. The fetid odor of burning flesh and human death songs echoing from every corner of the battlefield as efforts were made to bury the dead and save the wounded, made the circles of hell imagined by Dante come bubbling up into one dicrete pool of torment and suffering on Pennsylvania fields and orchards while the silent orange daylilies kept their mournful watch at every roadside. And then the rain began, and lasted for days, turning the cinders and smoke of hell into the slime mud and disease of hell as it sent poison toward the waters.

I spent five summers at The Civil War Institute at Gettyburg College. One of the professors there reminds students that when the new library was built on campus ten years ago, bones of soldiers and horses were uncovered in the excavation process.

When I was a kid and Ike was President, First Lady Mamie Eisenhower,digging in her
Gettysburg garden, uncovered the bones of a soldier, later identified as a Confederate. She ordered that a quiet military funeral and his re-interment take place.

If the living hell of the battle of Gettysburg can be subsumed by a century and a half of time-passing and nature-growing, then somehow the devastation of the Haitian earthquake will similarly be subsumed.

A century and a half may be the time it takes for the echoes of its dirges, its agony, to quiet themselves.

For the moment, bless those who relieve the suffering.

No comments: