Musings on the Civil War & World War I

An unidentified Civil War Veteran

In the words of a modern American president, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”

While thinking about the American Civil War and World War I during the anniversary of the ending of the later conflict, I realized that many of the “Doughboys” of World War I were the sons or grandsons of Civil War veterans. North and South, Union and Confederate. Undoubtedly, the boys who went to war in 1917 and 1918 knew about the Civil War. Their history books taught it, and many probably knew about their relatives’ military service in the 1860’s.

World War I was a distinctly different war than the Civil War, but old echoes remained. The trenches on the Western Front had elaborated from the ones around Petersburg. The wounded were evacuated faster and to sterile operating rooms, though using the same principles developed by Jonathan Letterman and others decades earlier. The uniforms had changed. The United States had changed – politically, socially, economically. The destructive progress of war and the ever-changing process of a nation is expected in history.

American soldiers in World War I

Still, some aspects remained the same. An independence, love of freedom, need to “be the hero,” and unwillingness to stand by while innocents suffered characterized parts of Civil War history and some of America’s motivation to finally enter World War I in 1917. Half a century after division, World War I united American soldiers under one flag, one expeditionary force, and – for some – one unit. The famed Rainbow Division recruited men from all across the country, brought them together for training, deployment, and battle. The grandsons of Civil War veterans now fought side by side, and one wonders if discoveries about their grandpas lent a sense of irony to the situation.

In the midst of the changes, the constant denominator was a patriotic zeal. That enthusiasm is taught and cultivated…by leaders, by propaganda, and by older generations.

I think about who instilled my deep love of country and understanding of civic duties. My parents, certainly. But I also think of my Grandfather and Grandpa. They are the ones I go to ask about leadership – they have military, business, and citizenry experience. They tell me stories with life lessons. They tell me what it was like during the Vietnam Conflict era. They tell me why they believe what they believe. We don’t always agree, but we talk. They teach. I listen and learn to think.

That experience shaped the way I considered the connection between the two wars these last few days. I think of fathers and grandfathers telling their sons and grandsons about the mighty conflict. Some told verbal stories, others bore the visible scars of battle, others preached a sermon in their silence about the war.

“Make your daddy glad,” proclaimed Over There, one of the hit songs George M. Cohan penned during World War I. This emphasis hints at the legacy of military service, the stories, the heritage, and the honor that had sprung up from the Civil War and Spanish American War, putting patriotic pressure on some young men. Slightly reminiscent of the marching songs from the Civil War like Battle Cry of Freedom or the sentiments of We Are Coming Father Abraham, this new song resounded across the country and in Europe as the United States reentered the global stage after a period of isolationism.

Johnnie, get your gun
Get your gun, get your gun
Take it on the run
On the run, on the run
Hear them calling, you and me
Every son of liberty
Hurry right away
No delay, go today
Make your daddy glad
To have had such a lad
Tell your sweetheart not to pine
To be proud her boy’s in line
Over there, over there
Send the word, send the word over there
That the Yanks are coming…

As a military power in an international conflict, American soldiers acquired nicknames; one of the most popular had historic roots back to the Revolutionary War: “Yank” or “Yankee.” Although social and cultural struggles still remained from the Civil War in American, troops from North and South marched and fought together under the same name during World War I. The Yanks came, and perhaps it can be seen as a sign of continuing reconciliation and patriotism. (Though I can’t help wondering if grandpa would have liked his southern boy called a Yank?)

On November 11, 1918, after a brutal autumn campaign, the Allies and Central Powers signed an agreement to an armistice and cease fire. The battlefield conflicts of World War I ended. The Yanks would be coming to their homes in the North and South because it was finally “over, over there.”

And the legacy of freedom continued. The Doughboy Veterans of World War I told and taught their sons who grew up to fight in World War II. Clearly, the conflict which ended in 1918 had not been the finale to “end all wars” and make the world everlastingly “safe for democracy.” In 1941, the United States would rouse again, rising to defend the ideal of freedom. Generation to generation has had its war or conflict and told their verbal or silent stories.

During this anniversary season, I think about the men and boys who put on the khakis and went to war, remembering their ancestors who had fought in blue and gray. I think about the blossoms in the Peach Orchard, the red poppies in Europe. I think about bullets fired from different types of guns and still fatal in either century. I think about flags stitched from red, white, and blue materials – different patterns, different meanings during one conflict and united pattern and unified meaning in the other conflict. Two wars – half a century apart. So different, so tragically the same.

4 Responses to Musings on the Civil War & World War I

  1. When people talk about how awful war is–and it is awful–I try to politely say that, in fact, there are worse things than war. Rights need to be protected, as do the weak and poor. To continue is oversimplification. but rather than just never again fight, we need to take time to remember those who did, those who are, and those who will in the future.

    1. Certainly. And I’d emphasize that Veterans Day is for the veterans regardless of the good and bad of wars – all of which are different. Most of the US casualties in WWI resulted from the ineptly-planned and -conducted Meuse-Argonne offensive, but regardless of whether we should honor Pershing, et al we must honor the guys who did the fighting. Same with Korea. Regardless of whether we should honor MacArthur and the arrogant incompetence which led to the horrific fighting at Chosin Reservoir, we must honor the Marines who fought and died there. Ditto Vietnam. It’s why we have a ceremony at Arlington Nat’l Cemetery every year.

  2. Your comment about “Yanks” reminded me of a story when a Texas National Guard artillery unit landed in Brisbane in late 1941. A couple of them saw some Australians and greeted them, “Hey, ANZACs!” “Hey Yank!” one of them responded. “But we’re not ANZACs, we’re Australian.” “That’s OK,” responded an American. “We’re not Yanks, we’re Texans!” Then they all went for a beer.

    The power of an enduring nickname . . .

  3. Sadly, the schools don’t emphasize the love of country and of our history anymore. Flag burnings, stomping on the flag…..many of the younger generation don’t know the meaning of respect.

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