Shades of Gray on Decoration Day
Four years ago, one of the very first ABG road trips doubled as a birthday present for my oldest son and our official kickoff of commemorating the sesquicentennial of The War. Our Pittsburg Landing/Shiloh-Corinth road trip remains one of my fondest memories. The experience is one I'll always remember.
In the days following that trip, I sat down and typed out some of my thoughts in reflection of that trip. Four years of commemoration and study have done much to strengthen my feelings on this matter. On this, the 150th anniversary of the close of the conflict, I'd like to revisit that article as a way of commemorating the men and women that have given their lives in the defense of their American homeland, including the 350,000+ Confederates that are officially recognized as American service members by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.
Decoration Day, now known as Memorial Day was begun by Southern ladies that honored those that had died in the War Between the States. The commemoration spread throughout the nation and eventually came to recognize the dead of every American war.
And so, in honor of every soul sacrificed on the altar of our Liberty, allow me to revisit my post from Decoration Day 2011.
The Spring has been busy and loaded with events, travels, a few disasters and the trappings of everyday life. In the words of a hero, "so it goes".
Mentioning such a hero is a fitting way to start this entry as heroes are what make this weekend possible. For that matter, they make most everything possible. And so we set out to place men and women on tall pedestals and revere them for great works that they have done. Such great men and women walk on a plain above us. They are not susceptible to error or wrongdoing.. And if we find them guilty of wrong, we drag them from their pedestal and cast them from the ranks of demigods, back to a life as a lowly commoner...perhaps even a criminal. I won't even enter into the examples of this from the ranks of American celebrities that we drag out until they become cliche.
One of my journeys this spring carried me to a rural patch of land on the Tennessee River, where the states of Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi all meet up. In places, it is so desolate that a man will stop and ask for directions. And so I did.
Oh, I was on the right road, the lady reassured me of that. I needed to only drive a few miles until I saw the "kwairy" which, incidentally is a hole in the ground from which rock is harvested. The lady was not the best speaker in the world, had obviously seen better days...if not years. But in that moment, she was a hero to me. She was a friendly source of practical knowledge along a poorly marked road. She probably had no advanced education of the significance of my destination, but she knew where it was and how I could find it. She saved my morning.
And so we finally found the location of Pittsburg Landing. Better known to American History as Shiloh
My son and I walked through a cemetery filled with fallen Union soldiers. We saw the "trenches", mass graves filled with the Confederate dead. We walked around Bloody Pond, where the wounded of both armies turned the still water red.
I was almost brought to tears when we walked from the monument where Albert Sidney Johnston was shot to the the small ditch where he was carried to die. It was so far from his native Texas. He had left the US Army at 58 years old. He had been a hero in previous wars. At Shiloh, he fought his last.
In the midst of the Union Cemetery is a marker for the location of Grant's Headquarters. We also saw sites that were significant to Sherman's involvement. There was the location of Fallen Timbers, where Forrest was nearly killed but instead elevated himself to legend status.
And my mind comes back to the trenches. Family members requested safety to bury their dead. But Grant had already buried them in the trenches due to the heat of the day. And so, the mass of Confederate dead lie unmarked. Known only to God.
Heroes and villains....depending on who you talk to.
And as I shared such important time with my son, teaching him and learning with him - even learning some from him, I wondered to myself what it all meant. It can be a humbling thing to stand in such a place and have an eleven-year-old boy in a blue kepi ask you who the good guys were. I wanted to just make it short and answer "yes and no". But I knew that answer was not good enough for him. Or for me.
So, for months I have thought about it. Other events have played a role and I've come to realize that a war that is often painted, quite literally, so black and white is just not that simple. And when I look at my personal heroes, they aren't that simple. And then I have to look inside myself for the grace to grant these people the right to maintain their humanity while still remaining heroes - the grace to live in the mores and standards of their day - the grace to make mistakes but still be great.
And so I hold my nose for an ABG first. I have to share a quote by the monster and war criminal William T. Sherman: "General Grant is a great general. I know him well. He stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk; and now, sir, we stand by each other always."
Loyalty born of grace and a common struggle. I'd be hypocritical to recognize the evils of these two men and somehow pretend I am above them. I'd be in the wrong if I denied them the ability to be heroes to someone and pretend that everyone holds the same opinion of me that my children do. Because "hero" is a tricky word and can find itself on the oddest labels. And evils, both real and imagined, can cloud our judgement towards people, allowing us to skew their stories.
So, on the Decoration Day (the original name of Memorial Day) weekend, while swimming, eating and drinking, take time to remember heroes from all shades of gray that lie in graves and trenches while we party. Remember those that lie in graves and trenches so we can party. And, please grant grace to those heroes. Someone, somewhere believes in them.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire