This morning I read the ending chapter of a fine volume that I read two years ago in its entirety. The author became a friend and I have valued his insights as a historian (I will not forget his visit to our home when I was so ill). As he chronicled the history of the 26th North Carolina Infantry at the Battle of Gettysburg, Covered with Glory, Professor Rod Gragg employed the unforgettable scene of a veteran’s gathering, the North Carolina Society of Baltimore, to demonstrate how the American Civil War had, in fact, created a new America. It was not only a fine conclusion to a fascinating book, but also a splendid picture of the true unity that we need today between increasingly adversarial American sub-cultural groups. Our national motto is “E pluribus unum”—out of many, one. It is as much a vision as a motto. And it seems to me that it is being tested; that we are being tested. Darker spirits are whispering lies to us that our greatness is in our self-interests; that loyalty to the “many” will somehow translate to strengthening of the “one.” How are we responding? What are the signs of unity in our day? Some are supposing that we dismantle standards, sacred stones, and historical monuments that once marked a generation that sought peace for us, their progeny, by consecrating them. Is that a noble way forward?
Commemorating the Pickett-Pettigrew Charge veteran Union Sergeant Charles H. McConnell of the 24th Michigan Regiment, by then a pharmaceutical executive, introduced the keynote speaker of the day: the man he had shot and wounded at McPherson’s Ridge some forty years earlier. He called him, “my dear old friend.” The two men stood before the North Carolina crowd as Americans who had fought through the trials of American nationhood, to emerge as one. The speaker, Lieutenant Colonel John Randolph Lane, former commander of the 26th North Carolina Regiment in the Confederate Army, greeted his friend and turned, wearing his old gray uniform and at seventy-two stood before the guests, former Union and Confederate soldiers, united as one to remember the deeds of old that had created one American nation. He was “erect as an Indian, with all the ease and grace of an accomplished cavalier,” wrote one reporter (Gragg, 244). Colonel Lane, by this time, was an increasingly popular American figure, embodying the virtues that the nation sought for her youth: gallantry, forgiveness, magnanimity, godliness, and humility. Having been honored to preside at the increasing number of Confederate and Union monuments going up through the nation, Colonel Lane was no novice to such an occasion. Yet, on that day, his words, to be recorded in newspapers around the country, spoke of how the Tar-heel effort in that day helped to create a stronger and united nation:
“‘Your valor is coming to be regarded as the common heritage of the American nation,’ he told them. ‘It no longer belongs to your State alone; it no longer belongs to the South; it is the high water mark of what Americans have done and can do.’ He wept. In front of everyone and without apology, the old warrior looked at the tiny, aged remnant of the 26th North Carolina and he wept. ‘I give you the highest tribute,’ he told them, ‘— a comrade’s tears.’ The blue – uniformed band of Pennsylvania veterans then broke into a spirited rendition of ‘Dixie,’ and the audience – Northerners, Southerners, Americans all – erupted in cheers. In that rare moment of reflection – on the battleground at Gettysburg – surely John Randolph Lane again heard the guns, saw the faces, recalled the horrors, mourned the fallen, and remembered the words: covered with glory… covered with glory.’” (Gragg, 245)
I read this to my wife this morning and wondered, with her, how it was that those so close to the pain of that terrible conflict could honor the gallantry of a People on both sides, all Americans, and unite the nation with such glorious monuments, of stone and of lyric, and, yet, we, much farther removed from the cannon fire, yet supposedly more enlightened, could abolish the edifices of national healing that they had erected. Is this the best way to unite former adversaries into a united People? I would prefer to show “honor unto whom honor is due,” to old Soldiers and, now, their descendants; to African-Americans who suffered so terribly in the sinful plight of an institutionalized slavery that was the trigger to that civil war, and that had to be destroyed from our land; and to a vision of President Abraham Lincoln for a United States of America, where all men are, indeed, created equal and have equal rights before the law. I am reminded, as I write these words, of the Proverb:
“Do not move an ancient landmark or enter the fields of the fatherless, for their Redeemer is strong; he will plead their cause against you. Apply your heart to instruction and your ear to words of knowledge” (Proverbs 23:10–12).
So let us apply our hearts to this instruction. Is it not, then, better to add new monuments to honor those that we believe need to be honored? When we do, then we as a generation will erect sacred stones in our day according to light we have, according to our national conscience in our time. But demolish the signs and symbols placed in hallowed memory by another generation who were seeking good will for all in their time? As a matter of fact a truly united people—whether a nation, a team, a church, or a community of any kind—must seek to build for the future by honoring the past, not by dismantling another generation’s monuments to those same aspirations.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001),
“Anniversary of Gettysburg Forty Years After the Battle.” The Charlotte Daily Observer, July 4, 1903. Accessed January 17, 2016. doi:10.1163/_afco_asc_957.
Gragg, Rod. Covered with Glory: The 26th North Carolina Infantry at Gettysburg. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.