Memorial Day was first observed just three years after the end of the Civil War. 620,000 Americans had died. The turning point of the war is often identified as Picket’s Charge during the Battle of Gettysburg, which occurred on July 3, 1863. Fifty years later, all who served – north and south – were invited to return to remember what had occurred. Here’s one account:
Fifty years past the bloody end of the Battle of Gettysburg, over fifty thousand Union and Confederate veterans converged to set camp again in Pennsylvania. The old men came back to see where they had stared death in the eye, and left their youth behind. July 3rd was another sweltering hot Pennsylvania day when the Union veterans again took their positions on Cemetery Ridge, and waited for their old adversaries to emerge from the woods of Seminary Ridge. At 3 in the afternoon, the Rebels charged again, but this time they moved with difficulty through the waist high grass – with canes and crutches and prosthetic limbs – some could fit their old uniforms and most could not – but still the bearded old men kept on coming. The youngest veteran was 61 years old, and the senior member claimed to be 112. Slowly they approached the stone fence at Bloody Angle, and some of the codgers croaked out the rebel yell when they were “surprised” by a group of Union men from the old Philadelphia Brigade. There were those that had feared a bitter confrontation might ensue, but where once they had thrust bayonets at each other, the men clasped hands across the stone wall. They ceremoniously exchanged flags, and some fell into each other’s arms, weeping, while others just sat down in silence and looked sadly across the hallowed ground. [i]
My father fought in World War 2 in Europe against the German army. America was allied with the Soviet Union at that time. Twenty years later, my brother-in-law was stationed in Germany as part of the “Cold War,” and this time America was protecting Germany and western Europe from the Soviets.
In World War 2, China and America were allies fighting Japan. Now, we are allied with Japan to counter a threat from China.
I like to think of the day when the war in Ukraine will be over and there will be peace between those two nations, who share so much history and culture – and suffering.
In my childhood home, alongside our World Book Encyclopedia, we had the 11-volume series, The Story of Civilization, by Will and Ariel Durant. The Durants had also written a small book, The Lessons of History. I remember a comment about war: in three thousand years of recorded history, they could find less than 300 years where a war was not occurring somewhere. They speculated that the only event that might unite all the people of the world would be to face a common enemy from beyond our planet.
Life is complicated, and human conflict may never cease. But it’s important to set aside days to be aware of all the suffering and sacrifice that has occurred, and to be grateful for the unseen forces that work to prevent unnecessary conflict and preserve peace. And to know that, when enough time has passed, sometimes former enemies can gather to embrace over a stone wall or simply “sit down in silence and look sadly across the hallowed ground.”
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wonderful story Steve, which I had never heard before. thank you!