Ten teenagers were killed here by bayonets, rifles and cannon. That was 116 years ago and the grassy pasture where they bled to death is now called "the field of honor." They died in an "immortal . . . intrepid charge," and on the day of their death the "ordinary [teen-age] men were super beings."
That's how the state-owned Virginia Military Institute, which owns and runs the New Market Battlefield Park here in the Shenandoah Valley, tells the story of a gory battle involving 10,500 soldiers and 1,400 casualties. The 10 teen-agers were among 257 VMI cadets who fought here for the bedraggled Confederacy in its final year.
According to VMI, located in nearby Lexington and long a bastion of the Old South, fighting and dying at the Battle of New Market was a glorious thing for the cadets to do.
About 70 miles east of here, up over Massanutten Mountain and the Blue Ridge, are four other Civil War battlefields where, within 17 miles of Fredericksburg, about 100,000 Confederate and Union troops were killed or crippled. War and death, as described at these battlefield parks run by the U.S. Park Service was not so glamorous:
"The wounded slowly froze to death" at Fredericksburg, and "in the green hell of the Wilderness . . . many of the wounded burned to death." There was "useless slaughter," "steadfast bravery was never more futilely wasted" and at the end of the carnage nothing was as significant as "the blood, the sweat, and the long dying."
Clearly the Civil War has more than one authorized version in Virginia. Capsulated, romanticized, mummified and sanitized, the conflict is perpetuated here by institutions designed to keep the nation from forgetting that it was wrenched apart for four years by a conflict that claimed 1,094,453 American casualties, more than World Wars I and Ii combined.
At the New Market Battlefield Park and the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond (run by the private Confederate Memorial Literary Society), there is scant mention of death or suffering. But at battlefields across Virginia that are run by the U.S. Park Service, the emphasis is on little else.
Moving between the South's and the Park Service's versions of the war, the contrast is striking. It's honor against horror, military strategy against ghastly suffering, the glorious call to arms against disembowlment by bayonet.
"We try to be nonpartisan, to tell it like it was. Most of our exhibits are factual exhibits," says Robert Myers, asistant for business operations at the New Market battlefield. Myers, a native Virginian with the honeyed accent of the state's central regions, explains that the upbeat tone of the battlefield museum (an elaborate $1.1 million facility donated to VMI by a wealthy alumnus) reflects the success of the South's armies in Virginia.
"We just can't help it if the Confederacy won most of its battles in Virginia," Myers says, smiling.
He's right, the Army of Northern Virginia under the masterly leadership of Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson taunted, confused and whipped the armies of the Union for more than three years across Virginia. With about half the manpower and far less weaponry, the Confederacy simply outfought the federals in Virginia until it was overwhelmed in the last year of the war.
No state, however, paid a higher price for its pride than Virginia. Nearly 60 percent of the war, some 2,144 battles and skirmishes, was fought here. More soldiers, some 286,000, were killed or grievously wounded here than in any other single state. The Shenandoah Valley, the bread-basket of the South, was ravaged by Union troops, who burned crops and slaughtered farm animals. Richmond, Fredericksburg, Petersburg and much of central Virginia were nearly leveled by war. When it was over, the state was a wasteland. Crippled veterans had no choice but to limp back home because most of the horseflesh in Virginia was dead.
The war left Virginians with poverty, bitterness and memories of glory. According to John Stanchak, managing editor of The Civil War Times, the nation's leading historical journal on the war, the poverty and the bitterness are gone, but the memories of glory have been preserved, if not exaggerated, by local historical associations across the South.
"The South does glorify the war because it has lost historical perspective [the crippled veterans are dead, the cities have been rebuilt] and because regional pride was all the people of the South had to cling to at the end of the war," says Stanchak. He says the Park Service presents an objective, albeit bloody, view of the war.
At the Museum of the Confederacy -- an institution of the Old South, by anyone's measure -- museum director Edward D. C. Campbell concedes there is romanticization to Virginia's memories of a war that was horrible. "I don't think many Americans in the South or the North have a feel for the carnage. When they hear about it, they are shocked," Campbell said.
But in the Civil War institutions of the South, including Campbell's, Americans don't hear much about carnage.
While the slide show at a federal battlefield park near Fredericksburg tells visitors to listen in the ageless wind to distant voices of butchered soldiers, a movie here in New Market speaks of the brooding spirit of Stonewall Jackson living in the Shenandoah Valley. The impression is unmistakable - if Jackson and his army had not been vanquished, the South might never have fallen.