Archive for May 31st, 2021

Memorial Day 2021

Civil War Soldier DageurrotypeAnother Memorial Day weekend. The day we remember our fallen soldiers, those who gave their lives to serve and protect this country, this democracy. I’m no historical anthropologist so I can’t be completely certain when I say that I don’t believe there is any one group of people on this planet who have not been touched by war in some significant way.

The history of this world has been written in the bloody ink of war.

A few years back, when I began doing genealogy for the families of my wife and myself, I was surprised at the many, many generations in each of our lines who had taken part in the wars of their times, putting their lives aside to give so much of themselves– in some cases, their very lives– for causes that often might have been mere abstractions to them. I was surprised at the number of our relatives who had died in combat on the soil of this land. In some cases, some were buried far from their homes near the battlefields of the American south.

Part of me is proud that these people have answered the call to be a small part in something bigger. But another part of me is simply sad to think that they were called on to give so much in order to satisfy or deny the baser motives of those in power. War has usually been about greed and acquisition, nationalistic pride or ethnic and religious hatred– in each instance proposed with the greatest conviction and certainty by the leaders of each side of the cause.

And on Memorial Day, we remember the people who actually fulfilled the pleas of these leaders, be they right or wrong. These citizens did what they were asked and what they felt was necessary in their time and place.  And I have nothing but respect for that.

For today’s image, I chose the daguerreotype of the Civil War soldier at the top because there was something in him that seemed to show the sacrifice of war. Maybe it’s the steely stare of his eyes. Or maybe it was his belt that is cinched in to what looks to be a ridiculously tiny diameter, showing how emaciated he appears to be. I’m not exactly sure but there is something in him that seems contemporary, less dated. He looks like he could be the guy behind you in line at the local convenience store.

And for today’s Sunday musical selection, I have chosen the song Ben McCulloch from Steve Earle. It tells the story of two brothers — the guy above was no doubt like them– who enlist in the Confederate Army in the Civil War and discover the hard realities of war as they serve under General McCulloch, who was a real person who died in battle in 1862. The chorus probably echoes the sentiments that many soldiers through time held for their commanding officers as they face overwhelming odds.

I hesitated when choosing this song because I didn’t want it to be seen as glorifying the Confederate dead. I read a couple of Frederick Douglass‘ speeches given in the 1870’s and in that time, there was a growing movement to create an equivalency between the two sides of the Civil War, an effort that continues, unfortunately, to this day.

Douglass pointed out that it was acceptable to honor the courage of the fallen Confederates but it should be forever remembered that they were trying to destroy everything this nation had stood for since its formation and that it should be clearly noted that there was no equivalence between the two sides. Morally, there was a right side and a wrong side.

As Douglass put it:

It was a war of ideas, a battle of principles and ideas which united one section and divided the other; a war between the old and new, slavery and freedom, barbarism and civilization; between a government based upon the broadest and grandest declaration of human rights the world ever heard or read, and another pretended government, based upon an open, bold and shocking denial of all rights, except the right of the strongest.

We should never become a country where the rights of the strongest outweigh those of the weakest among us. Hopefully, fewer folks will have to sacrifice their lives to ensure this. So have a good Memorial Day, hopefully one filled with some appreciation of what the day really encompasses.


This post was adapted and added to from one that ran several years ago.

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