Remembering, and the Choices a Nation Makes

From John Hennessy:

Click hereDSC00481 for the Free Lance-Star’s coverage of yesterday’s events marking the 153d anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg.  I expect someone will be publishing Scott Hartwig’s excellent keynote address soon, and when they do we will publish the link.

In the meantime, here are my remarks.


* * * * * *

We are, as I often say,  a remembering people….

153 years ago to at this minute, what were then the open fields around us swarmed with men struggling against death. Alternately terrified and determined, they struggled amidst a world none of who have not been in it can ever really know.

They struggled with that timeless conflict between the commitment to principle and duty and the universal desire to be home and safe.

As the battle raged, back on the edge of town one man—a strong, powerful man–approached his captain and announced simply,

“I can’t go, Captain.”

 “Why not? Are you sick?”

 “No. But I can’t go. I have a family at home, and I must support them. If I go over there I will be killed.”

And then the strong man commenced to cry….

Perhaps more so than any battle of the Civil War, the men who stood on the precipice of battle here at Fredericksburg understood the grim, even hopeless horrors that awaited them.

They knew this, and still they came…..

We are awed by that.

We are a remembering people, and we also remember that 153 years ago tomorrow, Richard Kirkland, a young man from South Carolina, decided to climb over this stone wall to help the wounded that lay all around us. Union wounded.

We remember as well that nine months later, this man died in battle at Chickamauga, giving his life for a cause he clearly believed in deeply.

We are a remembering people. We remember as an expression of respect to those who confronted struggles, horrors, and deprivation that we can only imagine.

We remember too so that we might be inspired.   We remember so that we can emulate them, so that we can incorporate into our own lives the virtues we see in theirs.

We find great comfort in the virtues of our forebears.

We are a remembering people….

But while are a remembering people, we are often a forgetful nation.

We often choose to see the deeds of our forebears merely as examples of our national character.

Instead, they were actors in our national journey.

At every moment, a nation faces choices. Sometimes they are mundane…changing course by a few, almost imperceptible degrees. At other times, the choices are momentous—they define us a people, as a nation.

No event in our history more vividly reflects one of those moments of choice than the Civil War.

Some would say we stand at such a critical moment today. Time and events will tell.  I will say this:  If ever there was a time when Americans needed a clear understanding of history now is it.

Be it then or now, at such times, fear, morality, courage, ignorance, wisdom, self interest, and national interest swirl together, tumultuously–in the case of the Civil War, violently.  In the end, our nation chooses.

Messy though it is, it’s a process that translates the sentiment of the people into the path for a nation—the constitution, laws, policies, and traditions that define our nation and its course into the future.

These men on this field knew well—far better than we give them credit for—the choices at stake that winter of 1862:  that they by their actions would help set the nation’s path.

And so we gather here today.


6 thoughts on “Remembering, and the Choices a Nation Makes

  1. We have a choice, as individuals, to remember or not. I choose to remember and pass that memory on to all who will listen.

    But, if a nation is to remember, then the work of the public historian must be supplemented by an army of volunteers….

    For the task is very great to awaken an unlearned public to the great struggles and knife-edge decisions of the past which shaped our world of today—and understand that reflection on that past is necessary to add context to the decisions of the present which will mold our grand-children’s future.

    Thank you for keeping the history, not only of events but of individuals of every estate caught up in these events, alive for us.

    Jay Rarick
    Irish Brigade Camp No. 4
    Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War
    Fredericksburg, VA

    – & –

    Past Adjutant
    Squadron 364
    Sons of the American Legion
    Woodbridge, VA

  2. An important difference between being a historian and being a history researcher is the ability to find the larger themes in these historic events, and to express them in evocative prose like this. Well done, John.

  3. The unsung heroes are those rank and file soldiers whose stories may not carry the historical heft that the stories of great Union or Confederate generals, but which intrigue us more, because they were — or are — more like us: most of us that is.

    Like others on this blog, I began reinvestigating the Civil War on this 150 anno, and did so by pulling out my great-grandfather’s Memoir — which I had never read, mostly because the handwriting is in a sloppy scrawl. As I worked through the MS in 2013 and 2014 I came to see that Pvt. Calif Newton Drew of Machias, Maine, was a foot-soldier, who had also earned a distinguished service record as an Army Scout, first for Hancock, then for Gens. Wright, Sedgwick and Meade … He participated in the great battles, but also had a few close-shaves while scouting – and made some difference — at least if you believe his stories.

    Drew was at Fredericksburg I, but also was with the 6th Maine in the capture of Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg II– the battle of Chancellorsville –when the 5th Wisconsin and 6th Maine, as regiments of the Light Brigade organized by Hooker. The Light Brigade, or Light Division assaujlt on Marye’s Heights undid the stigma of Burnside’s failed attack on Fredericksburg, and beat Jubal Early back from the Stone Wall….

    Pvt. Drew was also in Upton’s charge at Spottsylvania — when the Light Brigade was essentially reconstituted for the attack on the mule shoe. In other words, there is something of an untold story here …

    I’m editing and working Pvt. Drew’s memoir with a “graphic-novel” presentation and have a web-page devoted to the project, under the title YANKEE SCOUT. I am making a few issues of YANKEE SCOUT available on my website dedicated to this project –here:

    Spottsylvania anyone?

  4. Howard: I have seen your site, led there by Bud Hall, who loves its unique and highly animated aspect. Congratulations on doing something truly different in presenting this piece of history. John H.

    • John:

      Glad to know of that high-quality referral. Drop in anytime, same address — — I have linked to three of the first four issues of YANKEE SCOUT, which can be downloaded from Slideshare, for those interested. These are the “warmer-uppers” in which Drew and the Army are just getting acquainted with one another. Bud Hall was quite enthusiastic after reading Drew’s account of scouting out Rebel-held works at Rappahannock Station, for a couple days preparatory to the Vi Corps November 7 assault there: Culpeper county being his stomping grounds. He’s helped out by offering some suggestions — as on railroads mentioned by Drew — amidst his own projects to preserve Brandy Station battlefield .


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