Memorial Day: Remembering “The Private Soldier”

“A flag at The Angle – Gettysburg” (Bierle)

This Memorial Day is an excellent time to reflect on the common soldiers and make sure they are not forgotten. Some combat fallen soldiers or veterans have their names or initials inscribed in stone. Others are only represented by etched or inked numbers. Who are the fallen whose sacrifices are remembered by battlefield markers or monuments? What were their stories.

Captain Alfred M. Edgar of the 27th Virginia Infantry took several pages in his post-war memoirs to commemorate the experiences and sacrifices of the soldier in the Civil War. He challenges his readers to see the individuals, remember their stories, and not see the armies as “machines” of war.

I must say a few words in behalf of the part of the private soldier takes in this tremendous struggle… In the first place, there are such vast numbers of them, all dressed alike, looking alike, and when in ranks, stepping alike, that they almost lost their identify (except when we get a furlough and go home), so that citizens and perhaps some connected with the army, get in the habit of thinking of the soldiers as a great big machine, made for the purpose of marching, fighting, and obeying orders, forgetting that the majority of them are brave, patriotic men, fighting conscientiously for what they believe to be right, willing to face danger and even death for what they believe to be their duty. The soldier reflects and realizes that “it is not all of death to die.” It is often with quivering hearts that they advance steadily and with firm steps in the very mouth of the cannon, or rush unflinchingly to the bayonet charge. None but a good soldier, one who never thinks, can appreciate the every day suffering from the cold and heat, the hunger and thirst, the anxiety and excitement, the watching and weariness on the march and in the camp. We do not complain, dear citizen reader, but we are very human and we want your sympathy and appreciation….

Now as a matter of course, the history of this war will be written up by many able historians. All due renown will be given to the prominent commanders of the army. Their laurels will never wither. Their fame will increase with age, whilst little will be said or written about the private soldier….[1]

It was the private soldier who charged the wall, who counterattacked with or without orders. The generals and officers oversaw the battles, but the common soldier won or lost them for that commander, for their cause.

The trap of arm-chair generaling is to move the red and blue lines across the literal or imaginative map, to become consumed with this flank and that flank. This unit’s retreat, this regiment’s advance. This headquarters, and that pontoon bridge. But every red and blue line on the map, every strength or loss number in the reports represents a living, breathing person who followed orders, acted with initiative, lived another day, or died on or because of the field of battle.

Any day – but especially today – it is fitting to remember their lives, their stories, and their sacrifices.

[1] Alfred Mallory Edgar, My Reminiscences of the Civil War with the Stonewall Brigade and Immortal 600 (Charleston, 35th Star Publishing, 2011). Pages 67-68.

7 Responses to Memorial Day: Remembering “The Private Soldier”

  1. Yes, well said, any day, but especially Memorial Day, to remember the troops in the ranks

  2. This is why, I think, we write for ECW. We have illuminated these soldiers, their friends and family, their wives and sweethearts, even their dogs and cats. Whether these soldiers are part of a red/blue line, or sitting lonely in a she-bang, we honor them, we love them. When we lose them, we are crushed all over again. They are ours–no matter what war. We honor you, and will continue to do so. Thanks, Sarah–everyone needs to be reminded that a soldier, sailor, marine, or air force member sign up to die for their country. Whether that is demanded–who knows? but they all do, and that means something.

  3. Almost as good as your post, “There Was No Reveille” on January 4th this year. Both are excellent.

  4. It is important to keep this powerful excerpt and aspect of the “private” soldier in mind. This is especially highlighted today to observe a day to remember the service and sacrifice of those soldiers. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Edgar wrote his words at a time when history generally consisted of the study of “great men.” Now, thankfully, history often does consider the experiences of the individual soldier. Nice post. Thanks.

  6. I often think about the old myth of the “third death,” where the first death is the physical death, the second is when you’re finally lowered into the ground, and the third is when there is no one alive who remembers you. In Central American tradition, this is why Dia de Lost Muertos is so important. When we remember the common soldier, we hold off that third and final death just a little longer.

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