Today is the 77th anniversary of Operation Overlord, D-Day, the Invasion of Normandy during World War II. As I followed my annual habit of reading accounts or speeches connected to the event, similar themes between 1944 and 1861 appeared. Volunteerism and patriotism has long been at the heart of forming American military units, though in some conflicts (Civil War and World War II included) the draft has been controversially used.
Comparing excerpts from James K. Evan’s history of the 3rd Massachusetts Cavalry with excerpts from Ronald Reagan’s remarks at the 40th anniversary of D-Day commemoration pulled together some interesting themes and motives that have led to the recruitment of American soldiers across the generations.
From The Third Massachusetts Cavalry in the War for the Union, published in 1903:
There are certain distinguishing characteristics of the American soldier in the war for the Union, which mark him and make him to stand forth illustrious.
He was characterized by a most remarkable patriotism. His patriotism was not passive, but active. Daniel Webster once said that there are times when the most eloquent thing in the world is action. He tells us when those times occur. They come to a man when the life of his family or the nation hangs trembling in the balance. “Then patriotism is eloquent, then self-devotion is eloquent.” That time came when the gathering storm of disunion burst upon the country. The nation’s life hung trembling in the balance. Treason was in the air. Sumter had fallen. The flag had been insulted. Washington was menaced, and the streets of Baltimore ran red with Massachusetts blood. Then, flashing along the wires, there came the call for troops. How it thrilled the pulse of the loyal North, as it had rarely been thrilled before! How the cry went round, “Whom shall we send, and who will go for us?”
Then out spoke the volunteer soldier. His response was hearty and sincere. His patriotism had the right ring. From city, town and hamlet there came back a cry like the voice of many waters, “Here am I; send me, send me!” And so they marched, as Homer makes his heroes march, with silence for their guide, through Boston, Baltimore and Washington, down to the Potomac, down to the Rappahannock, down to the Mississippi, down to the Rio Grande; and Bull Run, and Yorktown, and Antietam, and Fredericksburg, and Vicksburg, and Gettysburg, and Port Hudson, and the Wilderness, and Spottsylvania, and Petersburg, and Winchester, and Cedar Creek, and Appomattox, and a hundred other well-fought fields of battle told all the world that freemen’s hearts are made of sterner stuff than that of cowards , and that their thought of liberty they could make emphatic, if need be, amid the rattle of the musketry and “the cannon’s opening roar.”
The Volunteer soldier was also distinguished by a remarkable courage and intrepidity, displayed upon the field of battle. He was no shirk. He had a strong conviction that something must be done. He obeyed orders….
The venture of a brave man has accomplished wonders for the good of man. The history of the war for the Union, is bright with illustrations of this colossal truth.
From Ronald Reagan’s “Remarks at a Ceremony Commemorating the 40th Anniversary of the Normandy Invasion, D-day” (1984):
Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look at you, and somehow we know the answer. It was faith and belief; it was loyalty and love.
The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or on the next. It was the deep knowledge — and pray God we have not lost it — that there is a profound, moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.
You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty. All of you were willing to fight tyranny, and you knew the people of your countries were behind you.
James Kendall Evans. The Third Massachusetts Cavalry in the War for the Union. (1903). Accessed via Google Books: https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=NMgTAAAAYAAJ&pg=GBS.PA15-IA1 (Quote is found in the Introduction section)
Reagan Foundation. “Remarks at a Ceremony Commemorating the 40th Anniversary of the Normandy Invasion, D-day.” Accessed: https://www.reaganfoundation.org/ronald-reagan/reagan-quotes-speeches/remarks-at-a-ceremony-commemorating-the-40th-anniversary-of-the-normandy-invasion-d-day/