Veterans’ Day: A Retrospective Across Space and Time

One of the great gifts of holidays is the call to remember. We can take or leave that call, just as we decide whether and how to observe holidays, but the invitation to pause, to step out of Ordinary Time, and to place ourselves in a different chronology and rhythm is always there. That invitation feels especially strong for me this Veteran’s Day.

As part of my sabbatical this year, I have had the great privilege of traveling the country with my family, spending over two months on the road and setting foot (or at least tires) in 28 states. (My wife blogged our trip, for those interested in reading about our adventures.) We just returned to our home in Easton, Pennsylvania, and in the previous week I have been fortunate enough to visit three of the great 19th-century military cemeteries of our nation. Seeing what distinguished and united these cemeteries, and what they told about the people who have struggled to make and keep this nation, was moving and illuminating…and at times troubling.
The three I visited—Shiloh, Chattanooga, and Gettysburg—were among dozens of military cemeteries established by the federal government during the war, as hundreds of thousands perished between the Atlantic and the Mississippi (and some hundreds further west). One of the earlier cemeteries was Shiloh, established on the northeast corner of the battlefield named for a log-built Methodist meeting-house that was destroyed in the course of the first Big Battle of the war.  

A replica of the church

 The total casualties—killed, wounded, and captured—over two days in April 1862 exceeded 10,000. That was more than the entire Revolutionary War’s total. Nobody had ever seen anything like it in America. Journalists called for the resignation of the victorious Union commander, Ulysses S. Grant, for allowing such extreme carnage; some nicknamed him “the Butcher.” As it turned out, ten more battles would have higher casualty totals by the end of the war, but Shiloh was a shocking wake-up call to the intractable nature of the conflict and the terrible price it would exact on a divided nation.

The cemetery today includes the site of Grant’s headquarters from the battle, and it offers a commanding view of the Tennessee River. In fact, few national cemeteries can boast the natural beauty of Shiloh, where the honored dead are carefully arranged by state in between large sections of “unknowns,” a few of whom were  Confederates. Like other national cemeteries, Shiloh was intended only for Union troops; initial interments were usually piles of bodies in large ditches on the field before a more formal burying ground could be arranged. Confederate and Union soldiers were generally, but not exclusively, laid in separate trenches, and while many of the Union soldiers would receive marked final resting places in the calming geometry of the cemetery, the Confederates were left to be claimed after the war, and many thousands still lie beneath the battlefields on which they fought.


The Wisconsin Color Guard, with river and son behind

The sparse design of the military headstones allowed no room for the poetic epitaphs that frequently appeared in civilian cemeteries of the time, but one striking feature of the landscaping at Shiloh is the placement of several bronze plaques across the grounds, each one bearing a stanza from “The Bivouac of the Dead.” The poem was written by Kentuckian Theodore O’Hara in honor of his state’s cavalry during the Mexican War, but despite its provenance (and O’Hara’s later service as a Confederate officer) the poem became a nearly universal mourning text, and it can be found in Union as well as Confederate cemeteries. The poem’s emphasis on the sacred hush guarding the glorious dead struck a chord with Americans who often turned to nature as a setting for national healing during and after the war (it’s barely a coincidence that city and national parks became an increasing priority from the 1860s onward). At a site of overwhelming carnage, the majestic river, ordered rows, and soothing words made Shiloh a place of solace as well as sorrow. 

The first of the plaques

Like most national cemeteries, Shiloh began with only a few acres, enough to bury the over 2,000 Union dead. By contrast, Chattanooga began with 75 acres on Christmas 1863 in the wake of Grant’s November campaign. Grant’s victory would lead to promotion and a move east to take on Lee’s forces; taking over at Chattanooga was George Thomas, the highest-ranking Virginian in the Union army. The standard practice, as exemplified at Shiloh, had been to arrange burials of identified remains by state. When an aide asked Thomas if he intended to follow the practice, he is said to have replied, “No, no, mix them up. I am sick of states’ rights.” Fallen soldiers from Indiana, New York, Illinois, and Massachusetts now lie together in a moving tribute to the national effort to preserve the Union. 


 But this innovative display of national unity showed up other, more unnerving fault lines. As I walked the old sections of the cemetery, reading off the names of soldiers and home states, I turned to the other side of the path to find a large section of gravestones with no states or units indicated. Instead, what appeared below each name was the the abbreviation “U.S.C.T.”: United States Colored Troops. Thomas may have integrated the states in a new way, but he maintained racial segregation in an army that was still ambivalent about the presence of black soldiers. These recruits had begun appearing in great numbers in 1863 in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation, but they had to endure lower pay, no opportunity for promotion to an officer rank, and (at least initially) an unwillingness by white commanders to use the units in combat. These men who fought for their freedom and the freedom of all American blacks still face uphill today toward their fellow-citizens who carefully excluded them from national belonging and recognition, in death as in life. 

The “colored section,” which faces the section pictured above

 Another striking element at Shiloh is the presence of a huge triumphal arch near the original entrance. This arch, constructed after the war, is one of only four such arches built at national cemeteries on former Confederate soil. The message at the time of its erection was undoubtedly one of dominance, of insisting on Union victory as Reconstruction unraveled into Jim Crow and “national” cemeteries remained permanent reminders of the hateful divisions across sections of the country. If Shiloh was a place of peace, at least for some, Chattanooga was an opportunity to demonstrate Northern prowess on enemy ground.

Yet another dimension of Chattanooga indicates that time did not stop here in 1865. While Shiloh’s subsequent military burials are fairly equal to Civil War interments, Chattanooga now  holds over 40,000 veterans and family members, well beyond the original 3,000. In contrast to the careful geometry at Shiloh and other cemeteries, Chattanooga’s lines follow the uneven topography of the hill country, with dark exposed rock punctuating the gentle curves of the arranged graves, giving more of a sense of growing with the nation’s history, both natural and military. A huge flagpole and upended cannons crown the highest point of the cemetery, and below the crown is a circle of bronze plaques forming an honor gallery. Begun in the early 1990s, this gallery includes memorials to veterans of World War II, Vietnam, Korea, the dead of Pearl Harbor, veterans of the Navy, and many others. Some are inclusive of veterans of all eras, but twentieth-century memorials dominate. At a point geographically above the 19th-century graves, this hillside speaks to the national sacrifices that have been made in unison in generations following the Civil War.

Perhaps few sites have come to symbolize bringing the nation together more than Gettsyburg National Cemetery, the third in my tour. Established following the 1863 battle that amassed 50,000 casualties across three days, the cemetery is most known today as the site of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The words of the address are preserved in bronze on the grounds, as are the words of O’Hara’s “Bivouac of the Dead.”  

Sunrise on the title stanza—note arcs of flat markers behind

 The location had already been known as Cemetery Hill before the battle thanks to the presence of Evergreen Cemetery, the town’s rural cemetery begun in 1854, which backs up to the national cemetery. Like most rural cemeteries, Evergreen emphasizes the variety and tranquility of the landscape, incorporating a variety of sculptural styles in the gravestones and memorials beneath large shade trees (unusually for such cemeteries, cannons also mark the locations of several key Union batteries during the battle). The austerity of the national cemetery’s semicircular plan and flat headstones signals a different kind of mourning on each side of the fence, one marked by individuality and plurality, the other by restraint and conformity. If the government could not consecrate or hallow the ground, it could at least discipline it. 

The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument at sunrise—graves are in foreground, Evergreen with fence behind


A brief walk beyond the cemetery led me to the crest of Cemetery Ridge, the site of Pickett’s Charge and the climax of the Battle of Gettysburg. I had been on this part of the field multiple times, but never by myself with time to take in the views and details. I walked the Angle, where the California Brigade saw hand-to-hand combat with General Armistead’s Virginians (the brigade was from Philadelphia, and the history of the unit might warrant another blog post). I walked up the Union right, where Lt. Alonzo Cushing fell with most of the battery he commanded; I discovered that the stone marker honoring him had been raised by the veterans of the 71st Pennsylvania, part of the California Brigade that had been supported by Cushing’s battery—a moving tribute to a unit that had lost its capacity to remember itself.  

Cannon marking location of Cushing’s battery—71st Pa. in front, Cushing’s marker right of the frame

 Further still, I found a North Carolina marker honoring the 26th North Carolina, which had taken heavy casualties on the first day of the battle and still marched at the head of Pettigrew’s division alongside Pickett’s. The marker was placed at the point where the regiment was finally decimated, mere feet from the stone wall, by canister fire from the 1st Rhode Island Battery. The stone was the farthest they, or any of Pettigrew’s force, reached. Like Cushing’s battery, there had been no regiment left to fund the marker; it had been placed not long ago by those dedicated to their state’s heritage.  

Note the location of the 71st Pa. monument in background—that’s how far they got

 The carnage of the battle played out in these monuments, a rifle shot from the pristine order of the cemetery. Yet the things that moved me the most were these acts of generous remembering, like the simple statue raised by the First Corps for their fallen commander John Reynolds did in the cemetery, well outside the hallowed arcs and dwarfed by the ostentatious state monuments. At the grandest, most heart-wrenching of Civil War sites, it was the individual will to memory, not the sweeping pattern, that stood out. 

Reynolds statue in cemetery, near Baltimore Pike gate

 And so we are met on a day to remember. And to forget, for the details of those sacrifices are destined to sink into tall tales, nightmares, and finally, graves. What does it feel like to serve one’s country? How does that compare to what it felt like in 1862 or 1863 or 1963 or 1993 or 2001? I don’t really know, and I won’t ever; I’m now finally old enough to be effectively undraftable. But as a civilian American and a scholar of American studies, I want to keep struggling with these questions, with the memories that now must be made, quarried, and carved like the stones I have seen over these recent days. Most of us will never make a life of remembering the honored dead or the honored living, but we must not stop wanting to honor, searching for ways to honor, responding with mind and heart and even tears to the terrible work out of which this nation has been made and remade. War is terrible, and the existence of a national military is a symptom of our fallen world. But without the commitment of ordinary citizens to join together and follow orders—for better of for worse—America wouldn’t be America. So thank you, veterans, those I know and those I will never know. Thank you to those whose names and numbers I read this week and the thousands I passed over. And may God bring an end to war and a path to peace for us all. 

Little Round Top, Gen. Warren statue at sunset—just ’cause

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