Saturday, May 27, 2006

157: “Honor the Fallen This Memorial Day!”

After the guns became silent, the cleanup began. It started with the wounded -- thousands of wounded. Those not already in hospitals in the many barns nearby, and not already on their way back to Virginia as Lee pulled his men back from the costly repulse at Gettysburg, those that still lay on the blood soaked fields, and among the tress and rocks of this ground were gathered up and swiftly borne away to fill the hospitals again.

First the living, and then the dead. The somber task of burying the Union dead began before the battle was done, and continued for well over a day. In most cases, they were buried where they fell.

The grave diggers were often criticized for their levity while going about their grim work, but in reality, it was simply a mechanism to deal with the horrors of so many mangled bodies…and if the sight of that didn’t reach you, the smell surely would. And so they would make small jokes about how this one smelled, or what he looked like he did back home: farmer, merchant, teacher, schoolboy…

After the Union dead were interred, it would take two more days to bury the Confederate dead. Meanwhile, there were tens of thousands of horses, mules and livestock that were rotting on the battlefield. They, too, had to be disposed of. There were a large number of dead horses in the small garden of the Widow Leister farm, where Major General Meade made his headquarters. Slaughtered by Confederate artillery that overshot its intended mark on Cemetery Ridge, the horses died by the dozen on the reverse slope. Later, Lydia Leister would burn their bones, and sell the ash/bone mix as fertilizer. She made about $30.

Local attorney David Wills realized almost immediately not just the importance of the battle, but the importance of the battlefield. He began to buy up portions of it for a memorial association he founded. By mid-summer, he had contacted Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin, and obtained approval to go ahead and construct a “National Soldiers and Sailor’s Cemetery” at Gettysburg. A location on the west slope of Cemetery Hill, adjacent to the old Evergreen Cemetery was obtained, and a design was approved. A group of local African-Americans won the contract to disinter the Union dead from their makeshift graves on the battlefield and after identification of the remains at least as to the state for which the soldier had fought, reinter them in the new cemetery.

When that task was finally completed in the 1880s, there were 3,577 men from fourteen northern states buried in that graveyard. Since then, veterans and fallen from all of America’s wars have added more than 3,000 interments to that number.

For all of that, only one person has truly caught the essence of the events here, and the cost, and what the men bought with their blood. And on a cool November afternoon in 1863, he put the matter quite clearly:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we may take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

He put no hate in his speech, nor disrespect of the enemy. He placed the enormous toll of the battle into the perspective of the new United States that would emerge from the war – a new nation that was no longer divided by the issue of slavery, a nation united.

In Europe at the time, the nationalist movement had been underway for a half-century or more, and resulted in wars between nations. In America, our civil war defined how we, the United States of America, would be viewed by those outside our nation, and how we would perceive ourselves. It gave us an identity that all Americans could claim, a single spirit, a national unity.

In all of America’s other major wars combined (The Revolution, War of 1812, Mexican War, Spanish American War, WW I, WW II, Korea, Viet Nam, Gulf War I), the total killed is approximately 590,360.

In the Civil War, approximately 617,000 Americans fell in combat, or from accident or disease while serving. Almost a million more were wounded. Countless more were starved in Prisoner of War Camps.

There must be something about this “experiment in Liberty” that we call a nation that drives men and women to sacrifice themselves in such numbers for it.

Visit a National Cemetery or an observance of Memorial Day this weekend. Whatever you do, do something to honor those who gave their lives in the service of this nation, so “…that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”


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