A Yankee Officer’s Words: A Reflection For Veterans Day

The Red “Remembrance Poppy” was inspired by the WWI poem “In Flanders Fields.”

ECW welcomes back guest author Rob Wilson

A recent New Yorker story I read about the hundredth anniversary of Armistice Day –  November 11 – reminded me of the human cost of World War I: the lost lives of 9.7 million military personnel and about 10 million civilians.

The very next day I happened to open the latest issue of America’s Civil War to an article about Union Major John Mead Gould and his 1874 book, History of the First-Tenth-Twenty-ninth Maine Regiment. I saw a connection between the New Yorker’s examination of the horror of World War I’s final days— along with the emotional and physical impact the fighting had on many soldiers from both sides— and ACW author Nicholas Picerno’s excerpt of Gould’s unvarnished reflections on the realities of the Civil War.  

Gould was a lieutenant when he composed a May 8, 1863, entry for his journal he later incorporated into his 704-page history of the Maine regiments. His term of service in the 10th Maine had just ended that May, likely prompting him to look back on his experiences and lessons learned.

A portrait of Maj. Gould from his 1874 History of the 1-10-29 Maine (Public domain)

The Portland native initially had joined the 1st Maine soon after the firing on Ft. Sumter and immediately volunteered for the 10th Maine when his original unit’s three month term of service expired. That regiment fought at Cedar Mountain and at Antietam, where Gould was near Twelfth Corps Commander Maj. Gen. Joseph K. F. Mansfield when that commander was mortally wounded. The soldier subsequently helped to carry the general off the battlefield. Eight months after his discharge from the 10th, he reenlisted to serve in the 29th Maine for the rest of the war. That unit fought in a variety of battles in Louisiana and Virginia. During the reconstruction occupation, the 29th stationed in Atlanta. When he resigned from the Army, in March of 1866, Gould calculated he had accumulated “four years, five months and twenty one days” of military service. Summarizing his experiences in wartime and on occupation duty, Gould wrote “ ‘WAR IS HELL” – Said Sherman, ‘WAR BREEDS MORE RASCALS THAN IT KILLS’ – Said the unknown Greek 2,000 years ago.’ ”

The soldier’s pointed 1863 mediation on armed conflict, which he used to conclude the narrative portion of his three-regiment history, provides a more detailed assessment of war. It is one of those wise observations-for-all-times that only a combat veteran could compose. Gould’s assertions and recollections— with the exception of his reference to campaigning in Virginia and Louisiana— could have been penned by a veteran of the trenches of World War I. They certainly have resonance on this centennial anniversary of the end of the terrible conflict that was supposed to be “the war to end all wars.” His words also are appropriate to the November 11 national day of remembrance that, in 1954, supplanted Armistice Day here in the United States. That would be Veterans Day, a time for Americans to honor all U.S. Military Service Members.

The excerpt from Gould’s regimental history follows.

With this I close the narrative portion of our history. What a history we have made, what a school for young men, what a noble thought that you have served your country and offered your life. Here it ends. Glory and success still remain for those who strive for it.

It is a frightful record—war is a tremendous evil—and the man who wrote of the blessings of war to a nation has different eyes from ours, and most certainly he never campaigned in Virginia and Louisiana.

There is indeed a strange fascination in dwelling upon all the sad and disgusting scenes through which we have passed. But no men know better than we, what a scourge and a curse war is. If these pages anywhere convey a different idea let it be dispelled here! We are glad that we could suffer for our country’s good, we glory in our strength and all that is creditable to a soldier, but war we hate; it shall never again exist if we can prevent it.

The warrior’s name would be a name abhorred!

      And every nation, that should lift again

Its hand against a brother, on its forehead

      Would wear forevermore the curse of Cain!

Notes:

In his history, Gould does not reveal the author of the above four lines that are the final words in his narrative. It is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one of the most famous poets of the mid-Nineteenth Century. The quoted verses comprise the third-to-last stanza of his 1845 poem, “The Arsenal at Springfield.” The 12-stanza poem— like Gould’s sobering examination of war— contains a thoughtful message and a hope for a peaceful future that is especially appropriate for this November 11. To read the entire poem, visit The Poetry Foundation’s website. 

References:

Adam Hochschild, “The Eleventh Hour,” The New Yorker, Nov. 5, 2018, 28-33.

Nicholas Picerno, “Many Tales To Tell,” America’s Civil War, January, 2019, 36.

John M. Gould, History of the First – Tenth – Twenty-ninth Maine regiment. In service of the United States from May 3, 1861, to June 21, 1866 (Portland, Maine; 1871) 614. Accessed 11/1/2018 at https://archive.org/details/37525087.3087.emory.edu/page/n667.

“The Biography of John Mead Gould,” Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4. The John Mead Gould website. Accessed 11/3 at http://johnmeadgould.com/jmgould.html.

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One Response to A Yankee Officer’s Words: A Reflection For Veterans Day

  1. Jim Munroe says:

    I am immensely moved by this piece. I am a Vietnam veteran, and I am in complete agreement with Gould’s sentiments. I’m not at all surprised that a Civil War veteran’s experience of war is the same as a Vietnam vet’s experience. War is war, and only those who have experienced it can know how shockingly awful, disgusting, terrifying, and evil it is. Mr. Wilson’s piece is tremendously well written, and I’m grateful for his sharing the connectedness of veterans throughout the ages.

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