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These Were Merciful Men

12:00 AM, May 28, 2012 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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A fair number of Americans would probably tell you that Memorial Day is held to celebrate the Indy 500. And, even those who are aware of why, actually, the day has been set aside tend to honor it in the breech, if at all. On my way, every year, to the service in our town, I am struck by how many more cars are parked near the golf course than in the church parking lot.

Tombstones at Arlington National Cemetery, July 2006

But that, of course, is one of the glories of America. One is free to attend services for those whom Lincoln called “these honored dead,” or … not. 

Among those who do, there are doubtless many different paths to remembrance. One might try to capture the essence of the day by imaging those fields of markers in France where the dead of D-Day are buried. Or the iconic photograph of the Marines raising the flag over Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima. Or the long black wall in Washington where the names of the Vietnam dead are carved in stone.

At the church service I attend, we seem to pay special homage to the dead of the American Civil War. Which is fitting since it was the dead of that war that this day was meant to honor. There were so many dead and so many whose remains had been hastily buried, if they had been buried at all, that it was unthinkable that they go forgotten and unremarked. The tradition began as an effort to properly bury and mark and decorate the graves of the dead. It was, thus, “Decoration Day.” It is generally accepted that it was, for several years, celebrated primarily in what had been the union states.

But this is not entirely the case. Memorial Day can be said to have been observed for the very first time in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1, 1865. Just days after the surrender at Appomattox and the assassination at Ford’s Theatre. Captured union soldiers had been held in Charleston and more than 200 had died and been indifferently buried there. Freed slaves turned out to decorate their graves and sing hymns over their bodies.

Decoration Day became Memorial Day and a national day of remembrance, rather than a regional one, that picked at old wounds rather than healing them.

That healing was, of course, profoundly necessary. Most of us tend to forget just how catastrophically bloody that war was. More than 600,000 dead in just over four years of fighting. If that war were fought today, and the percentages held, the total body count would be more than 6 million. Unimaginable. Unbearable.

One element of the church service I attend is a reading of the names of all the men (only men, so far) who have gone off from this little Vermont village where I live and died in one of their country’s wars. The greatest number of those, by far and away, lost their lives in the Civil War.

I’m always struck, as I sit in the pew listening as those names are read off, at the name of the battle where most of them fell—Savage Station. One could hardly imagine a more apt name for what was an exceptionally savage battle, even by the standards of that war. Also, it was one of several major battles fought over the course of one week, one hundred and fifty years ago next month. One battle in a desperate retreat by the Army of the Potomac, almost as though it were a station of the cross.

It was first combat for many of the soldiers who fought there, including those from Vermont. In half an hour of intense combat, the 5th Vermont, which had entered the battle with some 400 men, suffered 200 casualties – dead, wounded, or missing. A company of men from my part of the state which called itself the Equinox Guards, had 25 of its 59 men killed.  Among the dead were Hiram, Silas, William, and Edmund Cummings.  A fifth brother, Henry, was wounded and captured, then released.  The Cummings family also lost a brother-in-law and a cousin in the battle. 

Almost a century and a half later, sitting in a little church and listening to a reading of the Gettysburg Address – “that these dead shall not have died in vain” – one wonders how they could have borne it. 

The service is the same every year and it is almost perfect. There is one change I would make, if anyone asked. I would include, somewhere, the lines that always infiltrate my thoughts sometime during the proceedings:

 Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.

The Lord hath wrought great glory by them through his great power from the beginning. …

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