Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Gettysburg 150: The words of Dr. Joseph L. Harsh

Today, Gettysburg National Military Park and the Gettysburg Foundation officially begin our commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. This evening, the park is hosting a ceremony to begin the commemoration. Afterwards, there will be an illumination with candles in the Soldier's National Cemetery. Over the next several days, Gettysburg will host hundreds of media members, hundreds of thousands of the general public, and the eyes of the United States and those of the world, as we remember those "who here gave their lives that that nation might live."

What follows is an article which I posted on here last year for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. It was written by Dr. Joseph L. Harsh for the Hallowed Ground magazine in 2002. Dr. Harsh's work has had a tremendous impact on me as a young historian, and I find his words here to be particularly appropriate as we begin our commemorations of what occurred at Gettysburg 150 years ago. His words remind us all why we have gathered at Gettysburg once again.

They are all gone now.
The dewy cheeked boys, who left home before their first shave; their older brothers, who marched away from young wives clutching infants in their arms; and their grizzled fathers, whose gray streaked hair and beards belied arms as stout as their hearts.
They are all gone.
The men who discovered at Bull Run that war was not a lark, but a vulture; who crept through the Bloody Cornfield and knelt in the Bloody Lane; who crawled through the snows on Marye’s Heights; who would not yield on Little Round Top and who climbed the post and rail fence on the Emmittsburg Pike amidst a hail of bullets; they who lay among the burning trees of the Wilderness; and who endured the dank, stinking trenches of Petersburg.
They who surrendered at Appomattox, and they who did not jeer the vanquished there.
They are all gone.
The men who lost a leg, an arm, an eye, a career, a farm, a fortune. Also gone are their women, who gave up a husband, a son, a brother, a father, a sweetheart.
They are all gone.
They who learned that life is passionate, precarious, and precious. They, who generation was touched with fire.
They are all gone.
And so are their children, for whom they fought. Even their grandchildren are few and very old.
We who are their great, and great-great, and great-great-great grandchildren can never know them now. We can never see them, or hear them, or touch them.
We can know them only through the ancient photographs of faded brown and white, where they stand mute, unmoving, mysterious to our gaze.
Or, through their music, which seems romantic, naïve, and sometimes sickly sentimental to our ears.
Or, through their relics, the torn flags, the moth-eaten uniforms, the dented swords and the rusted buttons, resting on silken pillows, behind glass panes in climate controlled museums, beyond our touch.
Or, through their words, in their diaries and letters and reminiscences, which sometimes approach but never quite convey to our understanding the true meaning of why they fought and what they experienced.
Even more than through any of these, we can come nearer to them when we stand on the ground where they fought, where they sweated in the summer and shivered in the winter, where their blood seeped into the soil, where they risked their lives and many lost the risk, where they faced the ultimate test of loyalty to an idea and a cause.
But, perhaps, we come closest of all to them, when we simply value the legacy they left being. For, WE ARE the future for whom they fought.
Said one of them, who was not a soldier but who also forfeited his life in the war, while standing among the freshly dug graves of Gettysburg, the world “can never forget what they did here.”
But he was wrong. We can forget. We have too often forgotten. We forgot when we built cookie cutter town houses on the fields of Chantilly, and pricey, pseudo-chateaux on Longstreet’s Wilderness, and motels and t-shirt shops on Cemetery Ridge. And, it cannot be that we were remembering, when we contemplated building a racing track at Brandy Station.
Yes, they are all gone now.
And the least that we can do—and, sadly, the most that we can do—to reach back through fast receding years and thank them for the pain, the suffering, the sacrifice, to thank them for our United States, is to preserve, to protect, and to defend the ground they hallowed.
But our obligation is much greater than to thank them. Our most sacred duty, our ultimate loyalty, is to remember, to keep alive, and to pass on their willingness to sacrifice, their love of country, their devotion to freedom.
We are the future now, but ultimately we are only a link between the past and the future. This generation may never be called upon to make huge, soul-wrenching sacrifices of life and fortune.
But someday—and it is as inevitable as the rising of the sun—a future generation will again be touched with fire and will be summoned to defend our country and our freedom.
If our children, or grandchildren, or great-grandchildren, when that call comes, are too soft, too lazy, too uncaring to meet the challenge, not only will they fail, but we fail also, and so will fail every generation which has preceded us.
Antietam, Gettysburg, and Appomattox will have been in vain.
Yes, they are all gone now.
And soon—in a blink of the cosmic eye of time—we also will all be gone. But we are all connected.
The Civil War is not a closed book.
It is a continuing story that never ends.

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