Memorial Day Remembrance
Recently, I have been thinking about how when a chapter in our life closes, we so often look back and think, “I had no idea what I was getting into.” Take marriage, for example, or having a child. We usually think we know what to expect, but when it actually happens, we realize that in truth, we had no idea.
As we approach Memorial Day, I wonder if the same holds true for soldiers. Do our men and women in uniform know exactly what they’re getting into when they make the commitment to serve our country?
Once upon a time, most people didn’t. There was a period in our nation’s history when war seemed like a game, or merely a social outing. It is hard to believe now, but on the eve of the Civil War, the attitude was as if a particularly large county fair was coming up. Excitement was in the air. At last!—something to break the monotonous, every-day humdrum of simply living. War wasn’t dreadful, war was interesting, and besides, everyone knew it would be over in a few months, anyway. One Confederate official famously suggested that when the war was over, he’d be able to wipe up all the blood with his pocket-handkerchief.
Four years later, 2% of the total American population was gone. That’s over 600,000 people—more than both World Wars, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War combined.
But when the Civil War started in 1861, most people had no idea what they were getting into. So, when the first major battle broke out near a small stream in the Virginia countryside, civilians came out with carriages and picnic baskets to watch the festivities.
They were soon racing hell-bent for safety.
While the majority of the country seemed completely oblivious to the pact they had made with Death, and the awful price they were about to pay, some people were wiser. They knew the commitment they were making, a commitment of their youth, of their time, of their future, of their blood, sweat, and tears, of their life.
The best example of this I know of is a famous letter written by a Rhode Island soldier named Sullivan Ballou. Ballou, stationed at Camp Clark in Washington, penned a long and moving message to his wife Sarah, and his words show he did indeed have some idea of what he was getting into. What’s remarkable about this isn’t that Ballou was smart, or foresighted, or simply a good guesser. What’s remarkable is that he knew, and yet was still willing to serve anyway.
Here is an abridged version of his letter:
July 14, 1861
Camp Clark, Washington
My very dear Sarah:
The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days —perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more ...
I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this government, and to pay that debt ...
Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield. The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And it is hard for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood around us ...
I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me—perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name ...
But, O Sarah, if the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they love, I shall always be near you, in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights ... always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.
Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again...
Ballou died seven days later. His wife raised their son Edgar alone and never remarried.
I imagine that even soldiers nowadays don’t know exactly what to expect when they commit to defending our country, our Constitution, and our freedom. But I think they have a better idea now than even Sullivan Ballou did then, and this might be the most inspiring thing of all: that they know, and yet still do. When men and women sign up to serve our country, what they’re really doing is pledging away all that they are or might have been. They’re offering their futures up so that we may keep ours. Those who died gave us nothing less.
I’m so grateful for that.
If you have any friends, family members, or ancestors who died in the service of our country, please know that I’m thinking of them this Memorial Day. Please know how thankful I am for this great nation, and for the men and women who have defended it.
From all of us here at Bowers Advisory Group LLC, I hope you have a wonderful Memorial Day.