Sunday, May 31, 2009

Memorial Day, A Week Late

Note: I wrote most of this entry last Monday - Memorial Day - then really wanted to add the text of the letters between Generals Grant and Beauregard - see below - and so called Shiloh Military Park, and the nicest guy offered to send me copies in the mail. Just got them, so now I can finish the entry...

* originally written Memorial Day *

I need to go back several generations before I find family members who served in the military. I'm thinking the American Revolution. Although one of my great-grandfathers did serve in World War I. And another long-ago grandfather served in the Civil War (Union side). And all of those relatives survived their wars to live long lives. So on days like today (Veterans Day being another one), I find myself taking a moment to remember other people's family members instead of my own. The heart aches at the stories of loss, of bravery, of moments in action.

Today, President Obama sent a wreath to the Civil War Confederate Army memorial in spite of a plea from historians and others to stop that tradition (started in 1914 by Woodrow Wilson). But he also sent a wreath to honor the African Americans who fought, and died, in the Civil War - this, a new tradition. It seems a perfect solution to me. While the Civil War is defined as the war about slavery, the war itself was complex. The soldiers who fought for either the North or South - they were fighting for "their side." And still, they were Americans. Honoring all honors us all.

In 2001, I took a road trip across the country. I stopped at the Shiloh National Military Park, in Tennessee, mostly because I love the name Shiloh, and because Shiloh means "peace" and so I wanted to see how Shiloh and Military could come together.

I found out it had been a bloody battle, in early April, in warm weather. Success was elusive as each side gained ground only to lose it again. In the end, the Union Army won. But nearly 25,000 died in the process, over two days, almost equally divided between North and South - about 20 percent of all the soldiers that took part. It was the first large scale battle of the war, and its horrific casualties shocked both the North and the South. And the name Shiloh? It came from the small sweet church that sat in what became the middle of that battlefield. The church survived the battle but was destroyed weeks later. It has been rebuilt, and continues to have a congregation.

There was a short video at the military park about the Battle of Shiloh. (What had we been doing? was the thought I had that day back so many years ago, as I watched it.) And then, at the end of the video, this. After surrendering in battle, the Southern general - Gen. Beauregard - wrote a letter to Union General Grant, asking permission to return to the battlefield, now just a field, to identify and remove their dead. He wrote: "Certain gentlemen wishing to avail themselves of this opportunity to remove the remains of their sons and their friends, I must request for them the privilege of accompanying the burial party...."General Grant responded, saying that the Union army already had buried the dead - had done it quickly, due to the heat. "There cannot, therefore, be any necessity of admitting within our lines the parties you desire to send on the grounds asked," he wrote, then added - and this is a line that struck me deeply - "I shall always be glad to extend any courtesy consistent with duty, and especially so when dictated by humanity." Both generals signed their letters "your obedient servant."

So here we were, killing tens of thousands of ourselves. And then asking for that aftermath courtesy of being allowed to bury our own dead, a request that could be granted because of the dictates of humanity. How do you kill and care simultaneously? I don't think there was successful marginalizing of the enemy in the Civil War, not really. How can you marginalize yourself? And seeing 25,000 men lying dead and dying near a sweet church called Shiloh... The first page of the Shiloh park website quotes a Union veteran:
"No soldier who took part in the two day’s engagement at Shiloh ever spoiled for a fight again," he said. "We wanted a square, stand-up fight [and] got all we wanted of it."

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