In the military, there is a term known as the “fog of war”. It describes the chaos of battle and having no idea of what is happening around you. You can lose your sense of direction, your sense of strategic competence, and your understanding for how the engagement is developing around you.
Like the fog of war, life itself has much “fog” associated with it. We each find ourselves in various circumstances in which we have absolutely no idea as to how things will turn out. All we know, at that moment in time, is what is right in front of us and what we can feel. Nothing we encounter throws curveballs with the frequency and intensity of life. We experience loss, confusion, panic, worry, anxiety and a host of other emotions. We may not be sure who is in control, but we know it is most certainly not us.
I recently read an article in the Washington Post that described the chaos of the Sultana. It was, and still is, the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history. 1,700 men were killed when the ship exploded and, ironically, this came after the conclusion of the Civil War. The ship that represented freedom and safety for these men who had survived four years of brutal warfare would be their agent of death. Here is an excerpt that described the chaos of the situation.
“The men on the boat had seen all manner of death and despair.
They had witnessed friends and fellow soldiers shot dead on muddy battlefields. They had endured dirty, disease-ridden Confederate prison camps in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. They were tired and injured, sick and underfed.
But, in late April 1865, they also were happy and relieved.
Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. The Civil War had drawn to a close and, however improbably, they had survived it.
Months earlier, on Christmas Day, a Union soldier from Ohio named John Clark Ely had sat in a prison camp in Mississippi, wondering whether he would see home again. “Such a day for us prisoners. Hungry, dirty, sleepy and lousy,” he wrote in his journal. “Will another Christmas find us again among friends and loved ones?”
Now he seemed to have his answer.
Ely was among the more than 2,000 paroled Union prisoners of war, many of them still teenagers, crowded aboard the steamboat Sultana as it pulled away from the docks at Vicksburg, Miss., on April 24. They were headed up the Mississippi River, bound for their farms and families in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and other places they hadn’t set eyes on in far too long.
“Oh, this is the brightest day of my life long to be remembered,” Ely wrote before the trip commenced.
The brightness would not last.
“All of these guys were on their way home after going through so many ordeals,” said historian and author Alan Huffman. “People were just dying around them constantly for four years. You set foot on this boat and you think you’re on your way home. You’re home free. And really, the worst was ahead.”
For two days, the woefully overcrowded boat lurched northward. Melting snow in the north had contributed to one of the worst spring floods in memory. The Sultana stopped in Memphis on April 26 and continued north later that night. About 2 a.m., seven miles upriver from Memphis, a boiler exploded. Two more exploded in rapid succession, visiting yet another hell on men who had already endured so much.
“Some were killed instantly by the explosion. Others awoke to find themselves flying through the air, and did not know what had happened,” Huffman wrote in his book, “Sultana: Surviving the Civil War, Prison, and the Worst Maritime Disaster in American History.” “One minute they were sleeping and the next they found themselves struggling to swim in the very cold Mississippi River. Some passengers burned on the boat. The fortunate ones clung to debris in the river, or to horses and mules that had escaped the boat, hoping to make it to shore, which they could not see because it was dark and the flooded river was at that point almost five miles wide.”
Still others faced a horrible choice: remain aboard the floating inferno, or jump into the river and risk being drowned by the panicked masses in the waters below. Making matters worse, many of the men didn’t know how to swim.
“When I came to my senses I found myself . . . surrounded by wreckage, and in the midst of smoke and fire,” an Ohio soldier recalled in a collection of survivor essays, “Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors,” published in 1892. “The agonizing shrieks and groans of the injured and dying were heart rending, and the stench of burning flesh was intolerable and beyond my power of description.”
“It was all confusion,” remembered one Michigan soldier. “Brave men rushed to and fro in the agony of fear, some uttering the most profane language and others commending their spirits to the Great Ruler of the Universe.”
“There were some killed in the explosion, lying in the bottom of the boat, being trampled upon, while some were crying and praying, many were cursing while others were singing,” recalled another Ohio soldier. “That sight I shall never forget; I often see it in my sleep, and wake with a start.”
We can each likely think of scenarios in our life where the unexpected occurred and turned our world upside-down. We didn’t know what tomorrow would be like, we didn’t know the outcome of decisions that we had made, and we seemed to be drowning in confusion and fear.
But, as Christians, we have a blessed assurance. As we are in the midst of Holy Week this week, we look to the One who DOES know the beginning from the end. We reflect on Him who has conquered all of our circumstances by His sinless life, death, and resurrection.
As long as we are in this world, we will certainly be subject to the circumstances around us. We will continue to experience the “fog of life”, and we will, time and time again, be confronted with fear, worry, anxiety, and uncertainty. But, hold fast to the words of Christ recorded in John 16:33 where He says, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” We serve a God who has overcome the world. He is sovereign and, though we may get lost and disoriented in the fog, He does not.
Each week this blog will be updated with a word for the week from my current studies.