This Memorial Day will be celebrated in many different ways than years past. The typical gatherings at monuments and cemeteries have given way to virtual remembrances of America’s fallen. Be it on Facebook, YouTube, or countless other streaming services, Americans will gather in different ways to remember those who gave their last in the defense of flag and country.
For many years, one Memorial Day weekend service has set a high standard for remembering the sacrifice of our nation’s soldiers. The Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park annual luminaria program brings together a community in respect and remembrance. Since 1996, the park along with local partners such as the Boy Scouts of America, have placed flags beside the headstones in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, which serves as the final resting place for more than 15,000 soldiers. And of these soldiers, some 80% are unknown. And on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, the park, its partners, and a small army of volunteers place more than 15,000 candles in and around the cemetery in remembrance of the fallen. This year they, “ask that you join us by lighting a candle at your home at 8:00 pm on Monday and take a moment to remember those who have died in the service of our country.”
Having been a part of this event in the past, and other events at the park just like it, I am often drawn back to an account of a soldier from the 27th Connecticut. Private Erskine M. Church served with the 27th Connecticut at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Being a nine-month regiment formed in the late summer and early fall of 1862, Fredericksburg was the first taste of battle for the men of the Nutmeg State. During their nine months of service, the 27th saw some of the worst actions in the Eastern Theater. They stormed Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg. Tangled with Lafayette McLaws division at Chancellorsville-where roughly eight companies of the unit were captured by the 10th Georgia Infantry. At Gettysburg, the unit charged into the Wheatfield on July 2nd.*
In a letter written to his mother on March 15, 1863, Church describes the action at Fredericksburg. By now, Church was serving in the 12th Connecticut Infantry stationed in Louisiana.
While the battle narrative contained within the document is interesting, what struck me about the letter was the passage about the aftermath of the Battle of Fredericksburg. While many soldiers during the war or in the postwar years wrote flowery accounts of the war, or gave orations of the valor of the unit upon the field of battle while dedicating monuments, these accounts are often sanitized for the audience, and they many times leave out the emotions that the soldiers felt at the time. Or they fail to show how the men attempted to cope with what they had experienced or witnessed.
On the other hand, Church’s letter illustrates the horror and sadness of what he witnessed, while grappling with his own mortality. It is an account that I have read and used many times and felt that it might be appropriate to share his thoughts on this day of remembrance. For the purposes of this post, I have edited the letter for length and simple spelling errors.
“March 15, 1863
My Dear Mother,
It is a pleasant summers eve in this Southern clime and as I sit in my lonely tent memory recalls to me the happy home I once left but it [line scratched out] But thinking that my poor broken hearted Mother would like to hear from her son who has been the means of shortening her days and causing gray hairs to sprout upon her head who has embittered her past life by his bad deeds but who in the future will endeavor to make her happy, or at least make himself worthy of being called a man who no one would be ashamed to own for a son. When I look back upon my past life it seems that the evil one has led me where he chose, and I made no resistance But done his bidding. I sinned not willfully. But was forced to do it by some unseen power that I could not resist
Dear Mother. Forgive the past and pray God to forgive me which I know you do each day and have since I have been a wanderer in this wide world I sometimes feel blessings that I know I did not deserve I feel my unworthiness but my heart Is too perverse to acknowledge it before God and ask his forgiveness yet I read the Sacred Scriptures and sometimes attempt to pray but my heart is so hardened that my prayers are not heard. I have sinned against god too long. Forgive to [sic: me] my dear Mother, if Mother I may be allowed to call you forgive the promise I made you that I would go to war no more I would not be elsewhere it is the place for every man that loves his country I thought different at first I could not Endure the hardships and privations of a soldier’s life at fortress monroe, nor would I now if soldiers were used as they were then but It is a great deal different now I see things in their true light nor could i stand Idle and see our Once happy country suffer for the want of men although I add but one to the already countless thousands yet it will never be said Erskine M. Church flinched in the hour of danger I have already been in two engagements fierce And terrible where comrades fell on every side and I escaped the deadly missiles which flew like hailstones about our ears There can be nothing more puzzleing than to describe the feelings of a man in the battle field you cannot describe it satisfactorily to yourself or others to march steadily up to the mouths of a hundred cannon while they pour out fire and smoke shot and shell in a storm that mows the men like grass is horrible beyond description. Appalling it is…
Those who say they would like to visit a battlefield seldom know what they are talking about. After darkness has put an end to the struggle a hush settles over the field. Such a contrast to the roar of the fight. Never is silence more oppressive, more eloquent. You hear the cries of the wounded which is never distinguished in the roar of battle. A stray shot hurdles through the darkness overhead. You hear the ambulance wheels . . . grinding through the soil with a sullen muffled sound like some monster crunching the bones of his victims. You see the outlines of forms gliding through the gloom carrying on litters pale bloody men. Or perhaps your friend with his hair matted with blood over his white face and his dead eyes starring blindly up to the sky. You are startled by the yells of those lifted about after becoming cold and stiff in their blood. Follow to the hospital and see those dissected alive and butchered. They writhe a few hours or days, are rudely tumbled into a trench half filled with water their graves unknown. With the hoot Owl to sing their requiem, with no kind friend to shed a parting tear . . . their funeral rites are attended by a few hard hearted soldiers. A volley fired over their grave if grave it can be called, unknown forgotten, forgotten forever…
Dear Mother I am now a member of the 12 Connecticut Regt. Nearly one year ago this Regt Composed of the best and bravest sons of New England landed on the barren shores of ship island and pitched their tents in the sand. A year has passed away and with it many of the brave men who left their homes and all they held dear to go forth into a Southern clime to fight for the Cause of liberty and Union. Their graves are scattered from Ship Island to New Orleans And Carrollton and along the banks of Bayou Lafouche they are buried in the muddy Soil of Louisiana with but a simple wooden slab to mark their last resting places but they are not forgotten their histories will one day be written and marble monuments be raised over them with the inscription Here sleeps a patriot.”
In 2005, I was approached by a Marine after a tour of the Sunken Road at Fredericksburg. He had many questions about the street fighting during the battle, and it was clear that he was grappling with demons of his own. After a long conversation, I politely asked where he was off to after the tour, and he mentioned that he had to head north. After a few more minutes, he told me that he was driving north to Arlington Cemetery the next day for the funeral service of three of his men. They were killed by a sniper while under his command during combat operations in Fallujah. He stopped at Fredericksburg to specifically learn about the street fighting phase, as he pondered what he could have done differently. Towards the end of the conversation, while thinking out loud, he told me that he did not know what he was going to say to the families of his men and to their widows. It was a heartbreaking conversation of a modern Marine looking to the past for answers, to some of life’s hardest questions. Every time I write about or lead a tour of Fredericksburg, I think of this Marine captain. His anguish, his pain, and his search for answers, as he went to Arlington to remember and bury his men. It draws me to the words of Private Church, and his ongoing struggle to cope with war, and to cope with the death of his fellow soldiers.
Each of these soldiers must cope in their own way. I have witnessed the coping on many staff rides and in conversations with our modern and retired military through tears and laughter. Through dirty jokes, heartfelt stories, silent reflection, archaeology projects, and asking the hard questions out loud. Including, why would any soldier want to return to a battlefield with their family to relive the horrors of what they witnessed? As time passed for the Civil War generation, the Greatest Generation, and others, these battlefields morphed from a place of sadness to a place of remembrance, as they returned to cope with the loss of friends and comrades. To remember the good times and the bad. And today, battlefields of the past serve as an outdoor classroom for those who head into harm’s way, and as a place for healing for those that have been there, through Memorial Day services, through the American Veterans Archaeological Recovery program, art recovery programs, and more.
Never forget that Memorial Day is about the nations fallen, but, it is, too, a time when those who lost comrades in arms cope with the ultimate sacrifice laid down by their brothers and sisters in arms. A struggle that lasts 365 days a year.
*To learn more about the 27th Connecticut see our Gettysburg Off the Beaten Path Series.