Writing Out Loud: MAY 15 WAS A BUSY DAY

By George Stahl

On May 15, 1862, the Civil War was gaining bloody momentum as the battles became more and more intense. One of those was at the area known as Fort Darling at Drewy’s Bluff in Virginia. The Union Navy had a crew aboard the USS Galena, an Ironclad warship that was leading a barrage of assaults up and down the east coast. She had just bombarded Richmond into submission and was headed to Ft. Darling where a confederate attachment of former U.S. Marines was holding fast to the Virginia seacoast. When the Galena reached Drewy’s Bluff, she opened fire with a fury on the Fort. Among her crew were a group of U.S. Marines. This was the first and last time in the Marine Corp’s history that Marine fired on Marine. Under the command of Captain John Rogers, Jr., the Galena’s guns and marksmen gave a valiant effort to bring down Ft. Darling, but the confederate, former U.S. Marines defending her won the day. Damaged, with a good number of her crew wounded or dead, the Iron Clad retreated to sail another day.

Meanwhile, 3,774 miles across the Atlantic from Virginia, on the same day, May 15, 1862, a newly constructed ship was being launched by the John Laird Sons and Company at Birkenhead. The huge, steam powered, sailing screw sloop of war, called Enrica, was commissioned by confederate sympathizer, Commander James Bulloch. However, when she was launched, there were no guns of any kind mounted to her. Under British law, this was forbidden for any ships built for anyone other than the British government. Consequentially, her guns were installed while at sea and when she arrived in the West Indies, they were not silent much longer. In fact, for the next two years, the renamed, CSS Alabama struck fear into the hearts of crews aboard merchant ships, fishing boats and the U.S. Navy until she was sunk by the USS Kearsarge off the coast of France.

During the Civil War, the Navy on both sides were engaged in a cat and mouse game across the Atlantic, where each was trying to stop the supply ships for the other from crossing the North Atlantic. By the time the Kearsarge ceased firing upon the Alabama, she had been torn to shreds, and most of her crew were dead or drowning. Before her demise, the Alabama had sunk, plundered, and captured nearly 80 ships working for the Union.

While the nation was in the thralls of civil war, in the borough of Brooklyn, New York, and entrepreneural marvel, unprecedented in the day, was being erected at Union Grounds Baseball Park in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. The owner of the field, decided that even though the nation was at war with itself, he was going to waste no time in choosing sides or volunteering his talents to the North’s war effort. Instead he had the genius ideas of erecting a fence around his ball field, thus enabling him to charge admittance for the baseball games and any other event held there, except maybe for a war battle. This was the first time a baseball game was going to be played in an official field, with a fence.

So, May 15, 1862, was a pretty big deal. The civil war would go on for another three years, President Lincoln would be assassinated, and the confederates would lose when Lee surrendered to Grant. But, Cammeyer’s idea of a fence around the ball field would be the thing people would remember about that day. The fence of Brooklyn evolved into the Green Monster, at Fenway Park in Boston, or the Ivy-covered walls at Chicago’s Wrigley field. Then there are the elaborate decors like the center field staging rock formations at Angle Stadium, and the swimming pool in Chase Field in Arizona. Cammeyer was only looking to make a buck, have the rest of the teams just gone too far? Maybe, who knows. Is there such a thing in business? Remember, “If you build it, they will come.”

If nothing else, the fence being built around a ball field while a war was waging tells us a few things about the human spirit. One, no matter how bleak or dark it looks, some one is going to find a way to add normalcy to the situation. The idea of fellow countrymen picking up arms against one another is not the normal thing, setting up a fence around a dirt field so you can charge people to come in and watch a baseball game, well, that seems pretty normal. For one thing to happen along with the other, maybe not so normal, but at the time, necessary. Maybe Cammeyer picked that time for his fence for a way to just give people something else to think about. A diversion to the war. A little time to not think about how brother was up against brother, father against son, and Marine against Marine.

The tragedy and solemnness of the civil war could be measured in one day, May 15, 1862. The necessity, irony, and agony of the day can also be measured today, 157 years later. Have we learned from all of that bloodshed, all of that hatred and all of that division? Let’s hope so, but look around; what do you think? Did anything else survive the day besides Cammeyer’s fence? We’d like to think not, but our attitudes and prejudices tell on us, and instead of the fences put in place to charge people for gaining access, we use them to keep people out of our lives at all costs. Maybe they can come down too. That is up to you and me.

Good luck with that.

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