UNDER the GRASS

Memorial Day should remain May 30, without reference to day of the week. I like the national end-of-May holiday weekend; I celebrate it like everyone else. But it's not Memorial Day.

The old Decoration Day was a time for soldiers to gather in town and walk out to the gravesites of fallen comrades and remember them as they saw fit, and say fitting words among themselves, then come home again. Once the civilians got involved, it became something else. We still lack the thing it once was. Few words are sure to fall more flat or miss the mark more widely than the florid oratory of a county commissioner at a small-town Memorial Day event. After the 272-word Gettysburg Address, what more is left for a civilian to say?

Families of the fallen need no day set aside for remembrance. They have the birthday, the wedding day, the day the troop train left the station, the day the telegram from the War Department came -- they have every day they draw breath.

The rest of us should just stand back today and say little and try in some impossible way to understand what it was to be him, or her. And what it means to be those who shared the experience but lived.

It's been 20 years since I did the research that turned into my first book, a Civil War history of one county in southeastern Pennsylvania. The book was distilled from hundreds of letters and diaries, enlistment records, muster rolls, doctor's reports and box after box of official government documents.

Always as this time of year rolls around, I remember them; the ones who left the paper trail I followed between the present and the past. These people were real to me; I would recognize their handwriting at once. Their quirks of spelling, the references to the novels they had read and the shows they had seen.

With time, their experiences have melded in my head into one big thing called "the war." But there are lines from them that still spike out, and I seem to carry them mentally not as old brown ink on thin blue paper, but as spoken voices of young men who died at war.

In other cases, it is the officialese of the government paperwork that stays with me. The departmental language of death. In still others it is the delicate words of parents or wives, agreeing with their menfolk's desire to attain glory, urging them to be brave -- but not too brave.

The more the time passes, the more the words, the spoken words, shape themselves into poetic cantos.

1861
Hi is still whearing the old boots he took with him from home. They can not get a pair large enough for him.

I was over there this forenoon to see Phares Brown. He says he likes it first rate and he may as well like it as not like it for they don't ask a fellow down here whether they like it or not.

The boys will march all day and play foot ball at dark

It was a point of argument at one time which would be the most likely to seize the baggage, the mosquitos or the secessionists ...

It wod do you good to see the boys hear. Some is a-plan cards, and some a-swaren, and some a-tuslen, and some a-riteing to thear gals.

Thee must not worry about us for we are doeing finely, also there is no danger of us getting in an engagement this winter and the war will all be over before spring.

I did not mind cooking out of doors untill yesterday morning when I found every thing snowed up which I did not expect to see down here. ... I don't see much advantage in being south, for we could not have any more ... freasing whether in Penna.

... more bugles than men with ability to blow them. The result was far from pleasing ...

[A woman's voice]: As memory dwells upon the scene I wonder that we realized so little of what war meant.

1862
An involuntary sentence burst from my heart, and all I could say was, "My God, this is awful."

[Shells] make an awful noise flying through the air. You can plainly see them. ... They all seem to be coming right at you.

A person in battle has no feeling at all. He does not think of danger nor fear death. When you are just marching in is the worst. It loocks hard, though, to see them carrying the men off wounded on streachers.

The bank was thickly strewn with dead and wounded. These latter were begging some for water, some for a doctor, and some holding up their hands and begging for God's sake that we should not kill them.

A dying cavalryman (one of ours) lay where he had been blown some distance from his horse which was dead, both having apparently been killed by the same shell. He asked me something in an unintelligable tone I could not understand.

We had to lay on the ground without eny blankets or tents. For my par[t] I got to rails and laid on them but my close was dripen wet. I did sleep a little but not much.

I should have passed him as a stranger, he's changed so much. Looking up, he did not know me till I spoke.

... a mean hole for a Maryland town ...

"Bucktails to the front"

I soon concluded to retire to a woodpile, which I did under a heavy fire & on reaching it tumbled over a dead man, but deeming it too dangerous an experiment to move again, I laid down, resolved to await daylight.

Broken guns, scattered clothing & accoutrements, trampled corn & grass, the marks of shot, dead horses, half-buried men .... The smell was truly awful.

... we would have to fight if we got into it, as we were too tired to run away.

The most affecting case was that of a New York soldier, who had his name and regiment pinned to his vest. Falling from his pocket was an ambrotype case which, on opening, disclosed the features of a woman and child, the latter not more than six or eight months old.

... very glad that Morgan Davis succeeded in getting the body of John home.

1863
... much of the business part of [Vicksburg] had been burned, and the rest went the same road before we left ...

If there ever was a city sufferd from the effects of war, Nashville has had a goodly portion. Please me to see it in ashes, for it is a real rebbel hole, nothing but traitors and spys in it. Yes, and street women, any ammount of them.

Our regt. is not in as good sanitary condition as I've known it to be, ther being some over ninty (90) odd cases of Clapp at present and we only number 188 men all told.

... mere masses of blood and rags ...

If I should fall it could not be in a better cause, and this reflection would do much toward calming the feelings in such a trial. I hope thee will look upon it so.

As the Johnnies got too thick for us we busted for the rear ...

It was nothing more than a perfect slaughter but I think the Rebs lost as many as we did.

I reckon you have bully times at home now. I would not mind being with you for a while running about at nights instead of standing still along the Rappahannock River, watching the movement of the Rebs.

I thought the war was going on at home and that the rebels were throwing shell at us and a piece of shell struck Laura on the head. Oh I was in an awfull way when I awoke. I was all in a perspiration.

They detailed squads of us to go load wood fore the new troops that lazed around there, the 9-month bounty men, poor helpless souls.

Thee has wrote a good letter for one so young and it was dated at chool, which I was glad to see. Thee has improved so much in thy writing that I hardly new it, and on looking over it I did not see a misspelled word, for which I give thee credit. Only continue to improve and thee will make a good schollar.

... much need exhists among the families of volunteers, owing to the irregularity of payments in the army.

1 pocket book
1 Five (5) dollar current bill
1 package of note paper
1 do. envelopes
1 likeness of a lady
Sent by express to his mother, Mrs. Eliza Henderson of Coatesville, Chester County, Penna., together with clothing ... with the exception of clothing buried in.
The death of that number of such Irish savages as made up the bulk of that mob would have been small loss to the world, anyhow; and the lesson would have had a salutory effect, not only on this generation, but one or two succeeding ones. I think most of our soldier boys here feel the same way.

I anticipated the news. I awoke on the morning of the 4th with a terrible weight in my heart -- a weight which I carried with me and could not shake off. When I saw the outside of the letter yesterday, I knew what it contained.

... one leg and one forearm had been amputated before admission, and one leg was amputated in the ward.

What do you think of the war now?

1864
I would liked to of got home once more to of seen you and the folks, but they would not allow me. Take good cair of yourself.

It was a hard struggle, for a number of us were out of ammunition by the time we got into the forts; and we had to fight with the bayonets and the butts of our guns, and we fought in this way about twenty minutes until the Second Brigade came up .... All the boys from around home are safe.

We prepared to skedaddle. A captain shouted "Who has a rat-tail file or nail to spike these pieces?" One of the boys grumbled, "This is a hell of a place to ask for a file." I had hold of one of the wheels, and, although scared like thunder, ... looked up into the captain's face and laughed.

Where we once counted thousands we can now count but hundreds and another ten days will finish us up all together. ... The seven days before Richmond are nothing to this. Gettysburg was as severe, but did not last so long.

... I almost doubt that I am alive myself.

"Petersburg Express" firing at intervals of 15 minutes all night. Sharp shooters very busy. ... The regiment still in the front pits. Some 8 or 10 killed and wounded.

I wish I was some rich man's dog laying beside his stove.

I almost forgot to tell you that I have lost a nother brother in this cruel war. He was wounded at Cold Harbor twice on the 2nd of June last and died from the affects on the 2nd of July at Georgetown Hospital. You have heard me speak of him, his name was Daniel.

Amputated leg looks as though some dog had chewed it off.

Rock & McCarter stood by me well. They carried me off amid a perfect hail of Rebel bulets. I can never forget them.

Although I feel very sorry you have moved, still I can't help but admire your spunk. But my advice to you my dear son is not to rush into any unnecessary danger. A soldier can be brave, but likewise it is well enough for him to be prudent. May God in his infinite mercy protect you from all danger both seen and unseen, which shall be my daily prayer. ... I am working on the government shoes. I can make 9 or ten pair a week and think after a while I can make more as I get used to the work.

I cannot tell you any thing about how our army is making out, for we know nothing about it.

Head Quarters, Pennsylvania State Agency, Washington, D.C., July 24, 1864

Dear Sir: Your letter of the 25th inst. making inquiries about the remains of your two sons is duly received. In reply I have to say it is almost impossible at this time to recover from the front those who have been killed in the recent battles. ...

Fr. Jordan, col. and Military Agent of Penn.

P.S. The foregoing circular letter answers most of your questions. You can not therefore disinter before fall. Untill lately the government did not charge anything for going down to the army, but now they charge $7.00 for each person from here to City Point, & as much to return, by water.

1865
The only thing to do, is to kill every son of a bitch.

[An army nurse's voice]: I've talked with very many [soldiers] since I'm here & never have I heard one say they would enlist again, did they know what they do now. I do not blame them either. It's all very well to talk & be patriotic. I've done it myself, but I tell you such a place as this is where the beauty is taken off -- you can see the dread reality of the case.

... crowded into a few years the emotions of a lifetime.


Memorial Day began not in one place but in many. Hilltop cemeteries across the North, behind old stone churches and meetings, with long views across the farms. On the grass where fathers and mothers -- the ones who could find the corpse among the slain -- laid their boys.

After the war, everyone wanted to forget. Was there ever a war everyone didn't want to forget after it ended? But in the springtime the veterans, still boys themselves in '66 or '67, walked up the hill to the graves of their buddies and remembered. As a later generation of veterans walked to a long black wall in a gash in the earth in Washington, D.C., and remembered.

When I wrote that book, I went to the cemeteries to finish building a statistical picture of the community I was studying. I had built a skeleton from census records, fleshed it with draft enrollment books and regimental files in the National Archives. The last stop was the cold grass on the windy hills, with cicadas singing down in the creekbeds and no other sound. There where all stories end, on marble tombs, spalling from decades of acid rain and barely legible (I learned to go in the evening when the slanting sunlight revealed the eroded letters).

Under them lay boys full of honest virtues and dreams of glory, and criminals with nothing better to do but go get shot at. Every volunteer army is the same; the best of a generation, and some of the worst, and most somewhere between.

The granite shaft in the small city where I live now honors those who fell "in defense of the union in the War of the Rebellion." As palpable a lie as ever lured men to war; like killing your estranged wife and saying you did it in defense of marriage. All that political hot air, and they bought it.

Did they die for nothing, then? Look around you. Look at the faces of people at work or play. They never knew it, those soldiers, but they allowed all this to happen. What they did re-set this nation on its foundation and set men, women, and children free.


My family's history is not where I now live. The family has deep roots in Chester County, Pennsylvania, which used to be a beautiful country place; its dales and hollows grew foxes, then sheep, then milk cows, then, finally, housing developments.

When Memorial Day arrives, my natural place to commemorate it would be the grave of "Cousin" Joe Acker -- actually he would have been my great-great-grandmother's cousin, but that family seemed to collapse time to an eternal present tense. Joe was a sergeant in the 97th Pennsylvania, which enlisted in the summer of 1861.

One May day in 1864 the 97th was trying to hold the Bermuda Hundred line together in the face of strong probing attacks from Pickett's rebels. A staff officer -- that detested species -- wandered up to the front, and, looking to prove himself worthy of his stripes, told Acker to take a detachment out and see whether there were any rebels in that woods out in front of them.

"I can tell you from here," Cousin Joe said. "It's full of them."

But the staff officer, now having got his authority and ego tangled up in the case, insisted. And with no higher officer in sight to appeal to, Acker took a platoon out and crept toward the woods. When they got to the edge of it, the Confederates shot him dead.

His men dragged the body back, cursing and looking for that staff officer, who had quickly vanished. They never got his name.

That story is known in some detail because the regimental history of the 97th was written by the man who had recruited Acker and a handful of other farm boys from up in the Great Valley near Paoli.

I live now in Lancaster County, only one municipal unit removed from Chester County, but a different world altogether, historically. Chester is Quaker, Lancaster is German; Federalist vs. Democratic; spiritual and otherworldly vs. grubbily commercial. I still tend to see these places in their 19th century garb. That's the effect of doing too much research.

Joe Acker's grave is back in Great Valley Presbyterian cemetery, an hour's drive from here. But some stray branches of the family tree crossed into Lancaster County before me. One is the Passmores. Unlike the Ackers, the Passmores were no sort of gentry, even on the local level. One was a tavern-keeper along the road where the lime wagons dragged their loads to the kilns and the Lancaster farmers took their wheat to Wilmington. His sons sought livings on the Lancaster side of the line in the 1850s, working in stone quarries one year, teaching school the next. A public school teacher could have workman's knuckles back then.

The younger son was Josiah. He was older than the average soldier when the Civil War began, a family man, and he did not go in with the first wave of Northern enlistments. But he seems to have been one of the many men the threat of a draft shook out in 1862. He joined a 9-months regiment from Lancaster County that fought at Antietam and Chancellorsville. When he came home, he enlisted again. He joined the 2nd Pa. Heavy Artillery, which was a cushy "safe" regiment at the time, full of married men with children. Its duty was guarding Fortress Monroe down on the Virginia coast, a place almost immune to rebel attacks.

But when Grant took over the army in the East, he called in all the available manpower, including the "Heavies." Their days of safe duty ended, and they got thrown into the meat grinder of the Petersburg trenches. I have one of his letters home, to his little sister, my great-great-grandmother. He fretted a good deal about how his wife was getting by. Josiah died in the Battle of the Crater, the hideous debacle that was re-enacted at the beginning of the movie "Cold Mountain."

They brought his body back to Lancaster County, and buried it in a hilltop German Reformed churchyard outside the little village of New Providence. When I moved out here in 1990, I found the spot. Every year now, we visit his grave on Memorial Day. Sometimes the Boy Scouts have got the flag on it, sometimes they miss it. This year they found it alright. We brought a blossom from our garden.

What can you say about that? You could remind your anti-war friends That he was a not entirely willing participant in a not entirely legal war, in which a lot of basic American rights were overturned by a president elected by a minority of the voters. No, that's wrong. That's turning a dead man into a rhetorical trope. It takes him out of his context and his time, uses him to advance a present-day argument that has nothing to do with him. That's not what Memorial Day means. That's not what honor looks like.

This holiday began as a private affair, among the veterans themselves. In my part of the world, at first, they marched out to the cemeteries together, black and white, a truly remarkable thing in the old segregated North. Then the civilians and the politicians got hold of it and it became about speeches and contemporary matters and the blacks and whites stopped mingling.

Every attempt to use Memorial Day for any purpose but honoring the dead is unseemly. The day belongs to the individual man or boy who went to do a duty, with whatever mix of willingness and fear, and died doing it, as he knew he might. Any thought that goes much beyond that risks desecration.

INDEX - AUTHOR



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© May 28, 2006 Douglas Harper Moe: "Say, what's a good word for scrutiny?" Shemp: "uh ... SCRUTINY!"