Monday, May 26, 2014

Walk Quietly Among the Dead

Step from the land of the living into the refuge of the dead, and you notice first the graceful symmetry of gravestones marching toward the horizon. You see the perfect harmony of the stones, and, as you imagine the rough farm boys and raw young fellows who followed Sterling Price and Ben McCullough north, you are struck by a feeling of whimsical melancholy.  You know they did not order their ranks with similar military precision on their way to their rendezvous with Nathaniel Lyon's Union forces at Wilson's Creek.

As you walk quietly, searching out names, you see stone after stone bears only the forlorn inscription, "Unknown."  The word echoes in your mind, a drumbeat marking the cadence of your footsteps.

Listen closely … the regiment of the dead will speak to you.

Perhaps they will talk proudly of their mothers and sisters who gathered in sewing clubs and knitting societies and stitched together their uniforms. Perhaps they will tell you of the crowds waving gaily as they set off on their march to glory.  Perhaps instead there will be whispers of the terrible day they learned war wasn't always to be celebrated with parades and marching bands.

A Civil War soldier's life was a hard one, plagued by foul water, poor shelter, blisters, and bad food.  Living off hard crackers, fat meat, parched corn, a Texan said, "our poor buck and grindstone bread would kill the devil." 

The devil stalked their battlefield, certainly.  New weapons, outmoded tactics, and unseasoned leadership combined to crack open the floodgates of Hell and soak the ground with blood. 

Historian Shelby Foote writes of Wilson's Creek, "A regiment would walk up to the firing line, deliver a volley, then reload and deliver another, continuing this until it dissolved and was replaced by another regiment, which repeated the process, melting away in the heat of that furnace, and in turn being replaced.  No fighting anywhere ever required greater courage ... The men went about their deadly business of firing and reloading and melting away in a grim silence broken only by the rattling crash of musketry and the deeper roar of guns, with the screams of the injured sometimes piercing the din.  Far from resembling panolpied war, it was more like reciprocal murder."

It is Memorial Day.  You remember the dead, but you see life reaffirmed in the lush green grass underfoot and the arc of maples and oaks reaching Heavenward.  As you walk among the graves, your eyes are drawn to the small flags that decorate each stone.  You are surprised.  The ground where the nameless Johnny Rebs rest so far from home and family no longer is marked by the traditional "Stars and Bars," the Confederate battle flag.  

The legendary banner, hoisted high with a rebel yell and carried forward into the face of cannon and minie ball, has been surrendered to modern sensibilities.  The graves now bear a small replica of the Confederate national flag, a sterile symbol free of controversy and recognizable by few.  

The once proud battle flag today can be perceived as a symbol of rebellion and repudiation, and we are a nation striving for harmony.  In fact, the Confederate dead rest behind a stone wall that once separated the Union and Confederate killed at Wilson's Creek.  Today the National Cemetery in Springfield, like our nation, is indivisible. 

We know those who rest forever nameless care little about the flag that waves over their lonely vigil. Such petty conflicts matter not to the dead.  

It is the living who mark the graves.  

It is the living who gather among the dead on a weekend late in May, seeking that which the dead might offer, wandering quietly among the stones, remembering ties to family, pondering the shadows of mortality.  

It is the living who stand amidst the flags, safe in the shelter of the sacrifice they symbolize.

I wrote this piece several years ago for a history magazine that's no longer publishing. We have a National Cemetery in Springfield, Missouri, begun long ago when the dead from the Battle of Wilson's Creek were carried a few miles from the battlefield. Wilson's Creek, August 1861, was the bloodiest battle west of the Mississippi during the Civil War

My memory tells me that long ago the Daughters of the Confederacy decorated the graves of Confederate soldiers with the Confederate flag. That organization dwindled away to the point that it sold or gave the portion of the cemetery restricted to Confederate dead to the United States. The rock wall that divides the two remains, but gradually, dead from the various United States armed services have intruded on the old Confederate ground. My parents share a grave on the south side of that wall. 

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