Memorial Day, the last Monday in May and a US Holiday, began as a day to remember those soldiers lost in the Civil War. It was later expanded to include all men and women who died in the service to their country, and many people use this day to remember all their departed loved ones. Every day we are heart-wrenchingly reminded of the sacrifice our brave soldiers make for the rest of us when we hear the names of the latest soldiers lost in Iraq or Afghanistan. Those aches are too raw, so I’m looking back to “our” era, the Napoleonic War and the War of 1812.
The Napoleonic Series has an article about one Battalion in 1809, listing the names of the officers and the biographical data they were able to piece together on as many of them as possible, lest they be entirely forgotten. (look under Biographies) They include men like Captain Joseph Bradbey, who among other things, was wounded when a general ordered his company of 470 men to attack French forces of over 2500. Bradbey was lucky. Most of his company died that day. Another was Lt. Charles Ward, unique among the biographies because no information existed of him before or after his military service. It is as if he existed only as a soldier.
The Napoleonic Series article quotes a lyric from a Stan Rogers song, “Macdonell on the Heights:”
So you know what it is to scale the Heights and fall just short of fame
And have not one in ten thousand know your name.
Stan Rogers, a Canadian folk singer, wrote this song of an officer who fought valiantly in the war of 1812. Canadian Lt. Col. John Macdonell lost his life during the Battle of Queenstown Heights. Seeing his name engraved on a plague on a rock near where he fell inspired Rogers to compose this song. Rogers lost his own life tragically at the age of 33, in a fire aboard Air Canada Flight 797 at Cincinnati airport. Here’s a YouTube tribute for both Macdonell and Rogers:
About 4,000 soldiers died in action in the War of 1812 (another 20,000 died from disease). Estimates of soldiers lost in the Napoleonic War are about 2.5 million, a staggering figure. When lists of casualties were printed, only the officers were listed. Can you imagine how many mothers, sisters, sweethearts, waited and hoped and ultimately despaired of ever knowing the fate of their private or sergeant?
The US Military honors those soldiers who previously (now with DNA testing almost all can be identified) could not be identified, at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington Cemetery. Today, as on every Memorial Day, a wreath will be placed at the Tomb, to honor all soldiers.
I’ll bet each of us have lost someone tragically, maybe not to war, but someone who “falls short of fame,” someone who led an ordinary life and who lives on only in the memories of those who loved him or her in life.
My choice is my cousin, Jimmy Getman, a graduate of the US Coast Guard Academy, who died of a sudden heart attack in his 30s while working long hours to ready the boat he commanded for service during a very frigid winter in the 1970s. I just searched the internet and found nothing about him except a citation of an article he co-wrote in 1976. But I remember him from long before. I remember him as older and smarter than me and clever enough to fix my doll’s shoe. He was a hero to me that day and ever since.
Who do you want to remember this Memorial Day?