Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
I am at Gettysburg this weekend so I am just posting just a short meditation and some words written by Walt Whitman.
Yesterday afternoon I wandered around the Soldier’s Cemetery as well as East Cemetery Hill. It was a beautiful evening with the fall foliage in full display under a a blue sky with the sun setting in the west. As I walked about the graves of the 3577 Union Soldiers buried here, over half who are unknowns, I felt such powerful presence and was reminded of the importance of what they did here. There are sections where of the cemetery where unknown soldiers are buried, rank upon rank, with only a small marble marker with a number to identify them.
Each was a son, maybe a husband, father, or brother, or a friend, and most certainly, a comrade in arms. Each has a name, even if we don’t know it; and all of them, and many more gave the last full measure of devotion to duty to preserve this country against an enemy. But unlike other enemies, the soldiers that these men battled were from of an enemy that has raised itself up from within the country; men, no matter how good they might have been, took up arms against the United States. These included men who took up arms and fought against friends who they had served alongside in peace and war.
While men of my family fought for the Confederacy I cannot succumb to the lie that their cause was just. Thus when I stand among the ranks of these fallen Union men I honor their memory in ways I cannot fully do for their opponents in Confederate gray. Do not get me wrong, I weep for those who fought and died on both sides of the American Civil War, and each soldier needs to be remembered, even those who fought for a cause that was evil, the cause of slavery. As a military man myself I cannot walk these battlefields and not have a sense of compassion and even empathy for the Southerners who died here, even while rightly condemning the government and the cause that sent them to their deaths.
Walt Whitman wrote the poem Ashes of Dead Soldeirs after the war was over. Whitman knew the terrible cost borne by soldiers as he volunteered to help the wounded in Federal hospitals during the war. His words speak to me.
When I come here I can sense their presence, the great and the small, John Reynolds, Lewis Armistead, Paddy O’Rorke, Dick Garnett, Alonzo Cushing, and Stong Vincent. The men of the Iron Brigade and the Irish Brigade, Dan Sickles’s Excelsior Brigade, Augustus Van Horne Ellis’s 124th New York “Orange Blossoms,”the men of George Pickett’s doomed division, the 1st Minnesota, the 20th Maine, and so many more.
Whitman penned these words:
“Ashes of soldiers South or North,
As I muse retrospective murmuring a chant in thought,
The war resumes, again to my sense your shapes,
And again the advance of the armies.
Noiseless as mists and vapors,
From their graves in the trenches ascending,
From cemeteries all through Virginia and Tennessee,
From every point of the compass out of the countless graves,
In wafted clouds, in myriads large, or squads of twos or threes or
single ones they come,
And silently gather round me…”
From Walt Whitman- Ashes of Dead Soldiers