Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Lest we forget ... Veteran's Day ...

Veterans Day 2014. Remembering our veterans and their sacrifices. 

On the first Saturday in December, an army of volunteers - Boy Scouts, history buffs, local residents - descends on the Antietam battlefield in Maryland, and spends the whole day setting up luminaries in perfect lines simulating a military cemetery. How many? One for each casualty of the bloodiest single day in American military history: 23,000 men were killed, wounded, missing by the end of the day on September 17, 1862.

The park is closed in the afternoon - cars line up for hours, and then at 6:00 p.m. you are allowed to drive through. Waiting in a line of cars several miles long, it took us several hours to get to the park entrance - but once inside, you are overwhelmed by what 23,000 lives look like on the field in which they made their sacrifice.

Barb and I visited in 2012. And discovered some special significance for us. My GG Grandfather Samuel Humes was there that day, wearing blue. His regiment, the 1st Pa. Light Artillery was kept in reserve on the hillside behind the Union line that was ordered to cross at Burnside's Bridge.

Samuel Humes
Quartermaster Sergeant
1st Pa. Light Artillery

And Barb's GG Grandfather Henry Virginius Moore? He was there too - wearing gray - on the heights opposite the Union position at Burnside's bridge.

Henry Virginius Moore
6th Virginia infantry

Burnside's Bridge, viewed from the Confederate side. 

Both men survived the day, and served through the end of the war. And then went home, tried to forget all of the horrors that they had seen for five years, and re-joined their communities, and raised their families.

Later we returned to our B&B - up on South Mountain overlooking the glowing fields. Very moving from that vantage point as well - 23,000 lives lost or forever changed that day. And the ripple effect on their loved ones - families left to deal with the loss. And this was just the cost of one bloody day in one extended bloody war. The loss that day was staggering. Multiply that loss by all of the battles of that war, and all of the battles of each war in our history. And the ripples that spread out over millions and millions of families throughout history.

It is good to remember these men (and women) and to honor them on Veterans Day, and every day. And it is also good to see the immense scale of loss with your own eyes, to try to comprehend so many lives changed, shattered bodies, shattered minds, shattered families, widows, orphans, and communities devastated when war descends on them and demands its payment.

When we appreciate the full cost of war, we may be less inclined to rush into it. 
So why is this something that is right with the world?

We went there to see the luminaries, and tour the battlefield and cemetery, that day and the next. At night, we were in a beautiful B&B, the Antietam Overlook Farm. My wife was tuckered out from the day. But I wanted to check out the hot tub, outdoors and overlooking the battlefield. Sitting there by myself, warming my insides with a glass of brandy made available by the B&B, I was awash in thoughts - feeling a bit guilty looking down and knowing that Samuel Humes had been down there under much less pleasant conditions. And I knew Barb's ancestor had been a Southern soldier, but at that point I did not know where he had served. But I knew he was a Virginian - and figured he had to be with Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia - and so he would very likely have been there at Antietam. And whether it was the brandy or not, I sensed that we four were all connected to this place.

It had not been my idea to come down here - it had been Barbs. And she did not know of her connection to it or mine. She had simply read about the luminaries and suggested it to me. But at home that Sunday I went right to my research, dug out my notes on Henry Virginius Moore, found his regiment, the 6th Virginia, and found out where he was on the Antietam battlefield: on the right wing facing off at Burnside's Bridge opposite Samuel Humes.

The weekend would have been a wonderful moving experience, even without the personal connections. But knowing the genealogy, and knowing the history, it becomes a much more meaningful moment for us. The payoff for hundreds of hours of genealogy research. Making those connections to place, and through that, having a better understanding of the lives of those ancestors who passed through that same space, gives more meaning to both. That's what is right about the world.

Thank you to the men and women of our military, for their sacrifices that enable us to enjoy our freedoms.

For more info on the annual Antietam luminaries, go here: