As I remind my readers every year on this day, the holiday we celebrate today used to be called “Decoration Day” and it began as a commemoration of the Union soldiers who died during the American Civil War, our greatest national tragedy. That is our greatest national tragedy because every man who died in the war, every woman widowed, and every child orphaned was our countryman. 150 years later we still have not fully recovered from that war.
The impulse that informs Memorial Day is not sorrow, horror, shame, or loss but gratitude, one of the oldest documented human reactions. It is everywhere in ancient art, at every time, among every nation. Keep that in mind as you read the balance of this post.
I’ve mentioned before that I prefer primary sources or, at the very least, authoritative secondary sources who relied on primary sources. Since the American Civil War we have had men and women of extraordinary courage, dedication, and skill, war correspondents who actually witnessed the events they chronicled, who knew and interviewed the soldiers who fought in those wars. It’s a crying shame we don’t turn more frequently to those correspondents to learn about our wars but in this post I’ll remedy that a bit.
Sam Wilkeson was a prominent war correspondent of the American Civil War. His most famous dispatch was from the battlefield of Gettysburg. The dispatch was later re-printed as a pamphlet titled “Samuel Wilkeson’s Thrilling Word Picture Of Gettysburgh”. Here’s a snippet from that dispatch:
Who can write the history of a battle whose eyes are immovably fastened upon a central figure of transcendingly important interest – the dead body of an oldest born, crushed by a shell in a position where a battery should never have been sent, and abandoned to death in a building where surgeons dared not to stay?
The battle of Gettysburgh. I am told that it commenced on the 1st of July, a mile north of the town, between two weak brigades of infantry and some doomed artillery and the whole force of the rebel army. Among other costs of this error was the death of Reynolds. Its value was priceless, however, though priceless was the young and the old blood with which it was bought . . . the marvelous outspread upon the board of death of dead soldiers and dead animals – of dead soldiers in blue, and dead soldiers in grey – more marvelous to me than anything I have ever seen in war – are a ghastly and shocking testimony to the terrible fight . . .
Oh, you dead, who at Gettysburgh have baptized with your blood the second birth of Freedom in America, how you are to be envied! I rise from a grave whose wet clay I have passionately kissed, and I look up and see Christ spanning this battlefield with his feet and reaching fraternally and lovingly up to heaven. His right hand opens the gates of Paradise – with his left he beckons to these mutilated, bloody, swollen forms to ascend.
He drafted that literally sitting beside the corpse of his son, Bayard Wilkeson, a very young Union officer killed in the battle. It received great notice, came to Lincoln’s attention, and was one of the things that moved him to deliver his famous address, in which echoes of Wilkeson’s account are clearly evident.
One of the great American war correspondents to emerge from the First World War was Floyd Gibbons. He witnessed Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing’s, the commander of the the American Expeditionary Forces’s, arrival in Paris in 1918 and wrote:
General Pershing looked down upon the sea of faces turned up toward him, and then it seemed that nature desired to play a part in the ceremony of that great day. A soft breeze from the Champs Elysées touched the cluster of flags on the General’s right and from all the Allied emblems fastened there it selected one flag.
The breeze tenderly caught the folds of this flag and wafted them across the balcony on which the General bowed. He saw and recognised that flag. He extended his hand, caught the flag in his fingers and pressed it to his lips. All France and all America represented in that vast throng that day cheered to the mighty echo when Pershing kissed the tri-colour of France.
It was a tremendous, unforgettable incident. It was exceeded by no other incident during those days of receptions and ceremonies, except one. That was an incident which occurred not in the presence of thousands, but in a lonely old burial ground on the outskirts of Paris. This happened several days after the demonstration in the Place de la Concorde.
On that day of bright sunshine, General Pershing and a small party of officers, French and American, walked through the gravel paths of Picpus Cemetery in the suburbs of Paris, where the bodies of hundreds of those who made the history of France are buried.
Several French women in deep mourning courtesied as General Pershing passed. His party stopped in front of two marble slabs that lay side by side at the foot of a granite monument. From the General’s party a Frenchman stepped forward and, removing his high silk hat, he addressed the small group in quiet, simple tones and well-chosen English words. He was the Marquis de Chambrun. He said:
“On this spot one can say that the historic ties between our nations are not the result of the able schemes of skilful diplomacy. No, the principles of liberty, justice and independence are the glorious links between our nations.
“These principles have enlisted the hearts of our democracies. They have made the strength of their union and have brought about the triumph of their efforts.
“To-day, when, after nearly a century and a half, America and France are engaged in a conflict for the same cause upon which their early friendship was based, we are filled with hope and confidence.
“We know that our great nations are together with our Allies invincible, and we rejoice to think that the United States and France are reunited in the fight for liberty, and will reconsecrate, in a new victory, their everlasting friendship of which your presence to-day at this grave is an exquisite and touching token.”
General Pershing advanced to the tomb and placed upon the marble slab an enormous wreath of pink and white roses. Then he stepped back. He removed his cap and held it in both hands in front of him. The bright sunlight shone down on his silvery grey hair. Looking down at the grave, he spoke in a quiet, impressive tone four simple, all-meaning words:
“Lafayette, we are here.”
Gibbons later came under machine-gun fire during the Battle of Belleau Wood and lost an eye. Still later he become one of the earliest notable radio journalists.
No one ever said it better than Ernie Pyle, the scribe of the common soldier during the Second World War:
This is our war and we will carry it with us as we go from one battleground to another until it is all over, leaving some of us behind on every beach, in every field. We are just beginning with the ones who lie back of us here in Tunisia. I don’t know if it was their good fortune or misfortune to get out of it so early in the game. I guess it doesn’t make any difference once a man is gone. Medals and speeches and victory are nothing anymore. They died and the other lived and no one knows why it is so. When we leave here for the next shore, there is nothing we can do for the ones underneath the wooden crosses here, except perhaps pause and murmur, “Thanks, pal.”
Sometime tomorrow between the hot dogs and the beer and the baseball games (or nowadays, I guess, the soccer games), give a thought or two to the hundreds of thousands of Americans buried in the graveyards or in unmarked graves in battlefields all over the world, pause, and murmur “Thanks, pal.” And hope it is enough.
The image above is a photo of a Civil War cemetery in Chelsea, Maine.