The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

July 21, 2013

Musings on modern mail, Civil War


Random thoughts:

— Modern “communication.”

A co-worker recently complained that she sent business-related emails to a young man, but never heard back. When she finally called him, he blithely noted that he has 200 unopened e-mails in his inbox. He told her to either text him, or call and let him know that she sent an e-mail.

TWO HUNDRED unopened (and unanswered) e-mails?

“Can you imagine having 200 unopened letters at home?” I asked.

“No,” she said, “but kids think e-mail is old-fashioned.”

A couple of days later, I happened to find a three-page, single-spaced, typed letter that a good friend wrote to me in May 1980. It’s filled with news, frustrations, dreams and humor. Thirty-three years later, it still speaks.

In 1980, I opened it, read it and wrote back. That’s called “communication.” How old-fashioned.

— Civil War re-enacting. A couple of weeks ago, herds of re-enactors gathered at Gettysburg, Pa., to re-enact the battle fought there 150 years ago. It must have been thrilling and chilling.

I understand the appeal. You’re educating, reliving history, learning, dressing up, firing blanks, having fun and raising money for charity. A friend once invited me to join his re-enactment group, but I didn’t.

I can see myself portraying a 19th century printer, farmer or blacksmith, but never a soldier. I agree with General Sherman: the glory of war is all moonshine … war is hell … war is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.

“I saw in one of the corners a man sitting down and looking up at me,” General Longstreet’s chief of artillery wrote after Gettysburg. “A solid shot had carried away both jaws and his tongue. I noticed the powder smut from the shot on the white skin around the wound. He sat up and looked at me steadily, and I looked at him until the guns could pass; but nothing, of course, could be done for him.”

Robert Stiles, a Union artilleryman, was haunted by the Confederate dead:

“The dead bodies of men and horses had lain there putrefying under the summer sun for three days. The sights and smells that assailed us were simply indescribable — corpses swollen to twice their original size, some of them actually burst asunder with the pressure of foul gases and vapors. I recall … the shocking distension and protrusion of the eyeballs of dead men and dead horses. Several human or inhuman corpses sat upright against a fence, with arms extended in the air and faces hideous with something very like a fixed leer, as if taking a fiendish pleasure in showing us what we essentially were and might at any moment become.”

Such was the Battle of Gettysburg. The dead didn’t get up and walk back to their tents.

— Another Appalachian Trail hike.

I’m starting to plan an October backpacking trip: either 158 miles or 124 miles in the mountains of Pennsylvania and Maryland. If the weather is good, it should be spectacular. I can’t wait.

Danville native Kevin Cullen is a former Commercial-News reporter. Reach him at