The Old Vets

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The War had been over hardly two decades when I was a boy. If one had occasion to refer to it, he called it simply “the War,” for it was the only war we had had within the memory of all but a negligible few. School books like John Fiske’s History of the United States called it “the Civil War.” Histories for adults called it “the Great Rebellion.” To call it “the Rebellion” in a school book would have confused the pupils, who would have found it hard to distinguish, between “Rebellion” and “Revolution.” In fact, years later I came upon a student at my university who thought them one and the same war. “The War Between the States” hadn’t been coined, and it still sounds odd to nineteenth-century ears.

Our New England town had erected a Memorial Hall of brick with stone trim to honor its sons who had taken part in the conflict. On bronze mural tablets in the foyer are the names of those who lost their lives and of the battles in which they fell. On pedestals, one on each side of the wide flight of granite steps leading to the main entrance, stand heroic bronze statues by a now-forgotten sculptor—the one on the left, a soldier with his musket, standing at parade rest; the one on the right, a sailor, his right hand on the hilt of his cutlass, his left resting lightly on his hip. But what I liked best as a young child was the fieldpiece, a ponderous memento of the great struggle that stood on the lawn before the hall, aimed pointblank at the stores on the opposite side of Main Street. It was my delight to clamber over this monstrous relic or to sit astride its barrel, now forever silent.

In 1868 General John A. Logan, Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued a general order designating May 30 of that year “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion and with the hope that it will be kept up from year to year.” This proposal met with approval by a public that still felt the loss of loved ones. Thereafter, May 30 was known as Decoration Day, until in 1882 the Grand Army urged that the proper designation of May 30 is Memorial Day. By that time, however, the term “Decoration Day” was fixed in the popular vocabulary, so that even now, those of my generation still use it.

In any case, by whatever name the day might be called, it belonged to the Veterans. All business was suspended. Stores, offices, and factories were closed. School did not keep. In fact, everything was at a standstill. Flags flew from all public buildings and from very many private dwellings.

On the last day of school before Decoration Day, in all classrooms there were “exercises.” Boys and girls from the smarter half of the class recited “The Blue and the Gray,” “O Captain! My Captain!” “Sheridan’s Ride,” and “Barbara Frietchie.” In the ninth grade the smartest boy recited the Gettysburg Address. The parents of those pupils who took part attended the exercises, sitting at the front of the room, to the discomfort of their offspring. The class as a whole sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Tenting Tonight,” “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” and “America” —“God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful” were yet to be composed. There was always a Veteran sent by the local Grand Army post to speak to us about loyalty, patriotism, and other abstractions. One of these had actually seen, with his very own eyes, the Great Emancipator himself. When the Veteran had spoken, the prettiest girl in the class, dropping a curtsy, presented him with a nosegay, which he awkwardly accepted. Then the class sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and school let out for the day.

I used to wish that these speakers from the G.A.R. post would tell us about the War and what it was like to go into battle, but this never happened until some years later, when I was a student in high school and all four classes assembled in the auditorium for the exercises. By then the Veterans were getting old.

On that occasion, when the G.A.R. speaker rose from his seat on the platform and advanced stiffly to the lectern, his face was flushed and his eyes wore an inward look as though his thoughts were far away. To my delight he launched into a series of personal recollections— of marches and bivouacs, of advances and retreats under fire, of bayonet charges and hand-to-hand fighting. His memory was still clear; in fact, he seemed to have the faculty of total recall, and as he warmed to his subject, his imagination took fire. For upward of half an hour he ran on, while the principal, a gentleman and a scholar of the old school, grew more and more uneasy. Pointing his finger at the freshmen, who sat in the front rows, the speaker declared that were he to lead a company into battle, he would choose to lead just such youngsters as these. At length he stopped abruptly, turned about, and made his way a trifle unsteadily back to his seat. Of the many Decoration Day speeches that I listened to in my school days, this is the one I remember.