My May 14

Across the world, mothers everywhere celebrated a day to sleep in, get breakfast and bed, and have their children pay them special homage for doing the hardest but most rewarding job on the planet. Here in central Virginia, temperatures rose to eighty degrees with abundant sunshine. “A Chamber of Commerce day,” a friend of mine would call it.

Students process into the Reilly Center Arena Sunday morning at St. Bonaventure. (photo courtesy St. Bonaventure University)

Meanwhile, in Allegany, New York, more than 800 graduates marched across the stage at the university where I teach, St. Bonaventure, to receive their degrees. It’s the tremendous capstone of a four-year journey for our undergraduates, particularly. Elsewhere across the country, other graduates were taking the culminating walks of their own college experiences to the soundtrack of pomp and circumstance.

It was, by such measures, a day so full of life, of happiness, of accomplishment, of joy.

But a year ago on this date, also in western New York, a gunman walked into a Tops Friendly Market in an East Side neighborhood in Buffalo and opened fire. Ten people were killed and three others injured.

One hundred and fifty-nine years ago, another group of western New Yorkers—the Zouaves of the 140th Volunteer Infantry, mustered from around Rochester—joined the 91st Pennsylvania in an assault up Myer’s Hill at Spotsylvania Court House. Brig. Gen. Emory Upton—likewise a western New Yorker from Batavia—soon led his brigade to the hilltop to further secure it. A Confederate counterattack swept Federals from the hill, but a Union counter-counterattack recaptured it for good and Confederates consolidated their line closer to the village.

Battle of Jackson (image from Library of Congress)

One hundred and sixty years ago today, two corps in Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee speared their way through a torrential downpour into the Mississippi state capital, Jackson. The Confederate commander there, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, had disembarked from a train from Tennessee less than 24 hours earlier and declared, “I am too late” without even inspecting the city’s fortifications. He ordered the abandonment of the capital even as Grant closed in from two directions.

These are the events on my mind today. It’s a day of Civil War anniversaries for me: Myer’s Hill in Spotsylvania, a battlefield near to my heart, and Jackson, Mississippi, a battlefield mostly lost. The first is largely overlooked in the larger story of Spotsy, and the second is largely overlook in the larger story of Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign. I’ve written books about both battles and so feel a degree of stewardship for both stories.

(image courtesy

But Buffalo reminds us that it’s a day of other anniversaries, too—other tragedies. The Civil War was once “current events,” not some far-off historical episode, even as the shooting in Buffalo will fade from being something raw and immediate into something historical. It serves as yet one more reminder that those long-ago events were once raw and immediate, too. We look at them abstractly, removed from the rawness and the pain by more than century and a half of distances. But they were people just like us, just like those same people in the grocery story who had tragedy befall them just a year ago.

People just like those families gathered in colleges and universities across the country today to celebrate the achievements of their graduates. People just like all those moms who want nothing more on Mothers Day than to be surrounded and loved by the children they brought into the world.

Our study of history should remind us of this humanity—this common humanity. And in being so reminded, I cannot help but approach this life with gratitude for the things I have and things I have not lost and the loved ones who surround me.

This is what my May 14 has meant to me.

2 Responses to My May 14

  1. It was one more thing for me: my 62nd birthday. It also fell on Mother’s Day the year I was born.

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