When the Guns Stop Firing
Why is it that wars never end as conveniently and definitively as they are supposed to? It should be so simple, according to movies, television shows and even some of the news coverage in the past: The enemies lay down their guns, everyone pats each other on the back for a job well done, someone kisses a nurse, fade to black. As usual, reality has an unfortunate habit of materializing differently. Wars never truly end when the guns stop firing. The end of the fighting only serves as the beginning of some of the most difficult aspects of any war: reconciliation, reconstruction and the arduous task of coming to terms with what has just happened. Like the war itself, this process embodies triumph, tragedy and everything in between.
The aftermath of war obviously has a powerful effect on not only the countries and societies that wage it but also the soldiers who fight it. We’re all familiar with the more triumphant endings: soldiers who parlayed their fame and hero status into high positions in politics or business. But for every veteran who went on to become president of a company — or president of the United States — there are thousands more who had to go home and attempt to restore some semblance of a normal life. After years of war, particularly the bloody and fraternal brand of warfare that the Civil War was, returning to a normal life was no easy task.
The vast majority of Civil War soldiers had probably never ventured more than a few miles from where they were born before enlisting. Their entire world was the people and the places they saw around them every day. The war changed all that. These men — most of them barely old enough to be called men — were exposed to things they could never have imagined before the war. Even the soldiers who survived could not escape the death of their youthful innocence. The various ways in which they attempted to reconcile their past, present and future demonstrates another fascinating aspect of war that is rarely talked about.
Certainly most men were elated that the fighting and killing was over, not to mention the mind-numbing drudgery of army life. But what about the loss of comraderie, the end of the adventure and the incredibly jarring shift in what had become everyday life for these soldiers that the end of the fighting brought? Not everything about the end of the war was good. Over the next year, Civil War Times will take an in-depth look at the veterans of the Civil War and many of the stories, issues and perspectives that surround them. We begin this month with Jim Morgan’s exploration of former Civil War soldiers who enlisted in the Egyptian army in the 1870s in search of adventure, redemption and a return to the life that they had come to know so well. Some would end up finding what they were looking for, but not in the ways that they expected.