Thirty years ago I never imagined being in formation, commemorating Memorial Day in formal ceremony, while dressed head-to-toe as a corporal in Union Army uniform. No, while marching in the streets of London protesting apartheid, the nuclear arms race and the bombing of Libya during graduate school I didn’t project myself standing here at requiem arms honoring the American dead of wars past and present, but specifically those who died between 1861 and 1865.
Briefly, I have my wife to thank for this. She found a wonderful group of Civil War re-enactors, men and women who encourage an interest in history by spending several weekends a year doing living history, dressing, living and fighting as those on the battlefield did 150 years ago. This group of 70 or so re-enactors in particular, the 20th Maine Co. G based in northern California, has a program for children under 12 which teaches them about the period. The cadet corps, as it is called, proved a perfect match for my son Cormac, then 7, who dove into history at a very young age, probably around four, and has never varied. Not many of his contemporaries in school shared his enthusiasm — in fact none did — but he found a home among kids who donned wool uniforms, learned how to hold a rifle circa 1861, learned the battlefield maneuvers and talked history late into the night around campfires. My wife found him a home, and I came along for the ride. But over the last nine years it has become more than that to me. I look forward to the fellowship and the immersion into a different time.
These days I am the second-in-command of our group’s cadet unit, even though Cormac, 16, now takes the field with a black powder rifle to duel Confederates. This day I hover nervously in back ranks, behind the 12 to 14 year olds, who have their heads lowered, replica rifles upside down, with muzzle on the toe of their boot and butt resting against their lowered forehead. They are holding the position as a sign of respect for those who “gave the last full measure of devotion” as Lincoln said in the Gettysburg address. I’m looking for any signs of fainting or sickness which can happen if the youngsters haven’t taken enough water or lock their knees, which effects blood flow. While I keep my eye on 10 cadets, I listen to the ceremony and peek around the parade ground watching the event along with a couple of dozen civilians. I can’t help but admire the reverence of the 200 Confederate and Union re-enactors standing at requiem arms, our commander Dan dressed smartly standing straight at attention.
The service begins with some history. The Confederate brigade commander walks through the evolution of the day, which actually started in the South in 1862 when the women of Savannah, Georgia decorated the graves of the war dead. The Northern states adopted the tradition in 1868 declaring May 30 Decoration Day. My imagination wanders to images of widows, in black, dressing the dirt covered bodies of their husbands, fathers and children. Gradually the day expanded beyond a remembrance of the Civil War dead to include those fallen in World War I and World War II and so on. The federal government officially christened May 30 Memorial Day in 1967. A year later they moved it to the last Monday in May, thereby creating a three-day weekend. Like many, I am sure, I did not know the roots of the holiday which now is mainly known as the beginning of summer, reserved for barbecues, beer and 50% off sales.
Not everywhere though, certainly not here. We progress through a flag raising to half mast, a 21 gun salute and a reading by a pretty good Lincoln impersonator of the Gettysburg address with its stirring final words recalling the many who sacrificed their lives “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from this earth.” Every time I read or hear those words I think they speak to us today. I believe Lincoln constructed the speech talking to generations yet to come, challenging us to ensure that our government by the people should not perish.
The ceremony calls forward those veterans in attendance for recognition, and remembers the dead of more recent wars. This is when my 25-year-old self returns. Despite what these speakers say today, I can’t accept that those who fought and died in Vietnam and Iraq did so to ensure democracy not perish. Those wars seem horribly misguided seen in the light of the Civil War, where the very existence of the nation hung in balance. In fact we know now that our leaders in the instance of Vietnam knew but did not tell us that the war was unwinnable, the cause not worth the cost. Fighting these conflicts chipped away at the republic Lincoln called us to preserve, instilling fear among us and diverting dollars that could have been used to build the nation he imagined. As I stand behind the cadets I worry about whether they will be thrown into conflicts that lack the meaning of the Civil War or World War II, their lives lost in foreign lands where we don’t belong.
Thanks to Civil War re-enacting, thanks to my wife, my son, I stand and ponder. And catch the first of two 12 year olds that day before they faint. May that be the worst to ever befalls them in uniform. Unless it really is about preserving, as Lincoln said, “our nation conceived in liberty.”
Come out and join us some year. We’re at Roaring Camp in Felton, California near Santa Cruz every Memorial Day. Or visit the nearest military cemetery on that last Monday in May and read the Gettysburg address. I promise you will not leave unchanged.