The soldiers’ faith….in us


From John Hennessy.  [This is derived from the speech given in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery yesterday, Memorial Day, 2015.]

Luminaria 2013 moonWe take for granted that men and women are willing to die for their country when called upon to do so.  We presume their trust in what Democracy and freedom are and what they mean to the world are inspiration enough.  We presume their determination to protect things precious to all of us—family, our communities, our most cherished principles and traditions—will ensure our own safety, our own prosperity.

We presume.

But think for a moment of this transaction from the other side:  what underlies their willingness to give their lives for us, if need be?

Faith.

Faith is the foundation of the military experience.  I don’t mean faith in God or a religion—though that’s certainly important to many.  I mean the faith that a soldier must have in what we ask of him or her.  When we ask a soldier to fight for this nation, he or she serves because he has faith the cause is worthy of the effort.

When a lieutenant asks a private to charge across the plain at Fredericksburg in 1862 or to kick in a door in Ramadi in 2004, the private does so in part because he has faith—faith that what he’s being asked to do will somehow contribute to a larger end.  That faith is what renders, by virtue of a word or a wave of an army or a blast on a bugle, a non-descript rise of ground or a distant fenceline or the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania worth dying for, if need be.

Soldiers rarely have the perspective to see how what they are doing fits into the larger effort, but they must have faith that it does.

That fiber of faith runs from the lowest private to the highest general and beyond.

When that faith is threatened or broken, armies cease to function and causes, no matter how noble, can fail.

I mention this particularly today, here, because the soldier’s faith extends not just to his fellow soldiers, or commanding officers, or generals-in-chief.  That fiber of faith extends to the nation beyond, to all of us. When we ask young men and women to die for our nation if need be, they agree because they have faith in us.

They have faith that what we are asking of them is reasonable, just, achievable, and necessary to the health of our nation.

They have faith that we will value and appreciate their efforts and their sacrifices.

They have faith that should they fall, we will care for those left behind–for the grief of families is also part of the national sacrifice of war.

And there’s something else.  It applies as much to the men who repose in this cemetery—men who died for their nation more than 150 years ago—as it does to more than 35 men and women from this region who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan:

They had faith that should they die, we of their generation and all who followed would not forget what they had done.

We are part of that vital fiber of faith that sustains our nation and inspires the men and women who serve it.  The sacrifice of the more than 15,000 men who lie in this cemetery is a sublime thing to be sure—and history tells us without question that their sacrifice propelled our nation down an essential path of improvement.

But know this too:  your presence in this cemetery today, too, is essential to the health of our nation.  Indeed, your presence here today justifies their faith in the America they left behind.

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William T. Sherman at Spotsylvania, Chancellorsville, and Fredericksburg, May 1865


from:  Harrison

Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, photographed at center in Washington in 1865 within a week or two of touring battlefields in the Fredericksburg area.  He rode with the Twentieth Army Corps and Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum, seated here at Sherman’s left, through Spotsylvania to Chancellorsville, and with the Fifteenth Corps and Major Gen. John Logan, seated at Sherman’s right, north from Fredericksburg.  Courtesy Library of Congress.

Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, photographed at center in Washington in May 1865, within a week or two of touring battlefields in the Fredericksburg area.  He rode with the Twentieth Army Corps and Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum, seated here at Sherman’s left, through Spotsylvania to Chancellorsville, and with the Fifteenth Corps and Maj. Gen. John Logan, seated at Sherman’s right, north from Fredericksburg.  Courtesy Library of Congress.

With the Civil War’s post-sesquicentennial era nearly at hand, and the Centennial of the National Park Service coming next year, I’ve been considering the origins of public history at the sites of, or about, the Fredericksburg-area battles.  “Public history” of course is variously defined.  My understanding for the purposes of this blog post is a broad one:  publicly funded, historical engagement with places that would eventually compose Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, and undertaken outside of commercial, private, or civilian-academic endeavors.  That leaves in play a wide range of both motivations and interpreters, eyewitnesses or otherwise.

In between, for instance, the official reports of Civil War officers and current National Park Service tours and exhibits stretches a long chain of governmental endeavor—whether undertaken on or away from the sites of the battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House—embodied in documents or events ranging from courts martial evidence; medical and surgical case-histories; damage/requisition claims submitted by civilians before and after 1865;  soldiers’ pension- and service affidavits; United States Army staff rides beginning locally around 1911; federal legislative action beginning in 1898 towards creation of the park in 1927; and NPS living history programs of the 1970s’ and 1980’s.

Besides Confederate and Federal, national authorities, state governments participated as well.  During the war New York soldiers contributed artifacts found in the combat zones to a “collection of relics” maintained by their state’s Bureau of Military Statistics. In 1898, Virginia’s General Assembly passed a bill incorporating the Fredericksburg and Adjacent National Battlefields Memorial Park Association of Virginia.  A decade later, the New Jersey Legislature appropriated $6,000 for a monument to the 23rd New Jersey Infantry, dedicated on the grounds of Salem Church in 1907 to mark the regiment’s farthest advance there on May 3, 1863.

In almost any given week, then, from the time during the Civil War when the guns fell silent, and through the time that I write this, historical engagement with some aspect of one of the four battles (or with the collective legacy of all four) was occurring as a function of government, including of the military services.  Moreover, the recording or interpretation of civilians’ perspectives that I note above and below shows that much of this activity, from the outset, involved aspects of what we now call “social history.”

The general march-routes of Sherman’s four corps through the Fredericksburg area.  Green arrow is my notation of Sherman’s personal route from Chancellorsville to Fredericksburg on May 15.  Detail from:  Military Map Showing the Marches of the United States Forces Under Command of Maj. Gen'l W.T. Sherman…drawn by Capt. William Kossak and John B. Muller.  Courtesy Library of Congress.

Detail from contemporary map, showing the general march-routes of Sherman’s four corps through the Fredericksburg area.  Green arrow is my notation of his personal route from Chancellorsville to Fredericksburg on May 15.

(Full map and citation are here.)

This month brings the sesquicentennial of some of the first instances of historical touring of the Fredericksburg-area battlefields during peacetime in Virginia (even if not yet during peacetime nationwide), by military personnel other than members of the units who had fought at those places.

The intermittent touring of mid-May 1865, ranging from the informal or self-guided to the planned and guided, was among the secondary activities of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman and some units of a four-corps army group that he accompanied through the Fredericksburg area.  Although a majority of the regiments in one of the four corps had fought at Chancellorsville with the Army of the Potomac, they were strangers to the sites of the local battles that had come after Chancellorsville.  Most of the men in the other three corps were seeing the Virginia combat zones for the first time.  My blog post today samples impressions of the four battlefields penned by soldiers of three of the corps: the Fifteenth, the Seventeenth, and the Twentieth.
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