The main thing I remember from ten years ago today is the disbelief I felt. I flipped on the TV that morning and there on the screen was this image of a building with this big, oddly-shaped smoking hole in the middle of it. Instead of hearing about what the weather was supposed to be like that day or who won the Monday Night Football game that I was too tired to watch the night before, I'm standing there looking at what I'm suddenly hoping is nothing more than a terrible accident. It was, of course, much more than that.
Like a lot of folks in Oklahoma, it was also a little bit of a nightmarish deja vu for me, bringing back unpleasant memories of the 1995 bombing in downtown Oklahoma City. Another day filled with incredible disbelief. The kind that makes you want to close your eyes and wish it all away. But knowing that you simply can't.
More than once, I've heard the 9/11 terrorist attacks compared to Pearl Harbor. How unexpected it all was, and the shock, disbelief, and rage that greeted the rapidly spreading news about what had happened.
Prior to September 11th in fact, when people thought about surprise attacks, the one that probably came to mind for most was Pear Harbor. Whether you were around when it happened or not, that was the image you very often had of what a surprise attack and the reaction that followed it looked like. Then came 9/11. And now we have another searing image of surprise attack. And of the shock and disbelief that came with it. A new Pearl Harbor for a new generation to reflect back on, whether they want to or not.
I sometimes think that the Civil War generation had it's own Pearl Harbor, only it occurred about a year after the war had already started. The battle of Shiloh.
It's not a perfect comparison of course, and there were other moments in the war prior to Shiloh that certainly caused shock and disbelief. In some respects though, the reaction to the start of the war, at Fort Sumter, almost seems to have caused an opposite response. It was almost as if a lot of folks were glad the war was finally here. Which probably speaks to the seemingly endless, building tension that preceded those opening shots. The actual event itself was almost like a release. Although not for everyone. One of the vivid images I have of that event is Mary Boykin Chestnut writing about how the first shot out in Charleston Harbor caused her to leap out of bed, hit her knees, and pray like she had never prayed before.
And the reaction to First Manassas was very often stunned disbelief, especially in the North. The size of the causality list was a shock to both sides, as was the fact that the Union army had not only lost, but then did wind sprints getting back to D.C. Which, from then till now, has unfortunately obscured just how close a battle it really was.
But the closest thing the 1860's saw to a Pearl Harbor or 9/11 reaction came in April of 1862, when word of what had just occurred at some obscure spot on the Tennessee River began to circulate. A battle that not even the epic struggle at First Manassas could approach. A battle so titanic, so incredibly horrifying, that you had to line up every battle from all three of the country's previous wars put together to try and match it.
And you still came up short.
Papers filled with casualty lists that seemingly had no end. Thousands dead or missing. Boatload after boatload of wounded. Accounts that defied belief. In some cases perhaps, with fairly good reason. But in those early days, no one knew fact from fiction. All they knew was that something unprecedented had taken place in Tennessee, and the news was as awful and unexpected as anything they had ever known. It was Pearl Harbor before there was a Pearl Harbor. 9/11 long before a plane first took to the sky.
Shiloh garnered a kind of response that no other battle of the war ever matched. That's not really a good thing though. It's just saying that it was awful, and that unlike equally horrific battles that followed over the next three years, people were not prepared for the extent of awful that Shiloh was. This is why the Pearl Harbor generation could have related to that generation of 1862. And why those of us who lived through 9/11 can do so as well. They might be 150 years removed from us, but there are moments when that time chasm means nothing.
History does repeat itself. Sometimes, we wish it would not. But it reminds us that the past is not always as past as we think it is. And that people, and their emotions, are about the same as they've always been. We might not be able to relate to the details of life in the 1860's, but we can relate to things like fear, dread, disbelief. As well as joy, hope, and the promise of a new and better day. Human then, and human now.
No one knew what the future held on April 8th, 1862. None of us knew what the future held on September 12th, 2001. We only knew we had to face it, and we did so. Sometimes with fear, sometimes with dread. And sometimes with hope that comes with the promise of a new and better day. Just as did those folks in those dark and endless days of the American Civil War.
Be safe today, and take a moment to remember the folks who are no longer here so that we can be.