"The trouble with Jeff is that he lacks the power of conversation but not the power of speech."

The Common Soldier

Yesterday at the living history at Cambridge, one of the selections read in the poetry program was one I discovered in a period book– Anecdotes, Poetry and Incidents of the War, North and South 1861-1865, edited by Frank Moore in 1882. So many stories told of this war– and of all wars– deal with the perceived glory of war, the deeds of the generals and their staff, and wreath them in a jingoistic, machismo-driven bravado.  General William Tecumseh Sherman saw more clearly than many of his contemporaries when he stated:

I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation.

The poem shared below, and read to perfection by Patrick Browne, skewers the other side of the myth– the perception that the war is fought by generals on horseback, moving their armies like pieces on the chessboard, until one is finally held in checkmate. The truth of the matter is very different. The American Civil War was fought by hundreds of thousands of men from the farms and the cities who rose to the call in the first flush of volunteers, or for pay when bounties were offered. Others still were pressed into service when they were drafted and– unlike the wealthy that usually formed the officer class– were unable to pay the $300 to exempt themselves, or purchase a replacement in their stead. These hundreds of thousands today are largely nothing more than anonymous faces in a crowd; a mere statistic in the footnotes of the generals’ war.

As we approach Veteran’s Day this November 11, I feel it is absolutely critical to honor the memories of those people– for that is what they truly were– people, with families, friends and loved ones, all left behind as some gave that last full measure. Each and every one of them was a unique, distinct individual; with an equally unique, distinct life and story that should be told. Theirs is the true story of the war, written in legion. The memoirs of politicians and generals, along with the analysis of historians are merely their footnotes, in the truth.

THE COMMON SOLDIER

Nobody cared, when he went to war,
But the woman who cried on his shoulder;
Nobody decked him with immortelles:
He was only a common soldier.

Nobody packed in a dainty trunk
Folded raiment and officer’s fare:
A knapsack held all the new recruit
Might own, or love, or eat, or wear.

Nobody gave him a good-by fete,
With sparkling jest and flower-crowned wine:
Two or three friends on the sidewalk stood
Watching for Jones, the fourth in line.

Nobody cared how the battle went
With the man who fought till the bullet sped
Through the coat undecked with leaf or star
On a common soldier left for dead.

The cool rain bathed the fevered wound,
And the kind clouds wept the livelong night:
A pitying lotion Nature gave,
Till help might come with morning light—

Such help as the knife of the surgeon gives,
Cleaving the gallant arm from shoulder;
And another name swells the pension list
For the meager pay of a common soldier.

See, over yonder all day he stands—
And empty sleeve in the soft wind sways,
As he holds his lonely left hand out
For charity at the crossing ways.

And this is how, with bitter shame,
He begs his bread and hardly lives;
So wearily ekes out the sum
A proud and grateful country gives.

What matter how he served the guns
When plume and sash were over yonder?
What matter though he bore the flag
Through blinding smoke and battle thunder?

What matter that a wife and child
Cry softly for that good arm rent?
And wonder why that random shot
To him, their own beloved, was sent?

O patriot hearts, wipe out this stain;
Give jeweled cup and sword no more;
But let no common soldier blush
To own the loyal blue he wore.

Shout long and loud for victory won
By chief and leader staunch and true;
But don’t forget the boys that fought—
Shout for the common soldier too.

 

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