Known and Unknown
….we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow – this ground….. This words, spoken by Abraham Lincoln at the dedication of the cemetery on the Gettysburg battlefield, ring true at every gravesite honoring the memory of those who gave the “last full measure of devotion”.
Memorial Day comes upon us each year with dual personalities. Yes, it marks the “official” beginning of summer. Pools are opened. The traffic pattern changes dramatically for the weekends as people travel to their favorite beach destination. “Comfort food eating” becomes what comes off the grill. And of course there are the ubiquitous sales. We revel in red, white and blue patriotism.
The other side of Memorial Day is far more somber. Rolling Thunder rides into Washington, D.C. to remind us all that there are still those who went to serve our country and never returned. A wreath is laid at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A large television audience will tune into PBS on Sunday night for the Memorial Day Concert on the Washington Mall. Memorial Day is a time to remember those who died in service to their country.
We know the iconic image of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery and the ever-faithful, ever-vigilant sentinels of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (Old Guard). This picture is the monument to the Unknown Soldiers at Antietam. There are also the nameless small headstones placed there according to state designation.
Those two words, “unknown” and “known”, have a personal connection to me and to my immediate family, as do the two cemeteries, Antietam and Arlington.
My great-uncle, Pvt. Henry Twichell, Co. B., 145th Reg’t, PA Vol. Inf, was a farm boy from a VERY rural area of northwest Pennsylvania. He, along with other boys from Crawford County, volunteered to serve in the Union Army. They enlisted in Erie, PA, and were at Harper’s Ferry when the battle of Antietam was raging. My great-uncle’s first duty of war, September 1862, was to dig mass graves for the dead from a battle that has the sad distinction of being the “bloodiest day (Sept. 17) in the Civil War” and “bloodiest day of battle in our American history”.
“Known and unknown” coming together as these young men from a rural county miles away labored in the hot sun amid the devastation of a fresh field of battle to bury the dead – other young men whom they did not know. It must have been horrific. Yet they did their duty and in so doing honored those who had given the last full measure of devotion. Memorial Day is more than a “thank you for your service” and then off to a picnic. Memorial Day is and must be a witness to the cost of our political and societal decisions.
Pvt. Charles Ross Neilon, 57th Engineers, (and yes, the gravestone has a “B” not a “R”) died just days before end of World War I. He is an uncle through marriage. His grave is one of many in the World War I section of Arlington National Cemetery.
Again I think of “known and unknown” as I walk through the sacred grounds of Arlington National Cemetery. We know about the family stories of Ross Neilon. His sister, my husband’s grandmother, kept the letter the family received in a purse that has always remained in a rosewood chest now residing in my living room. What is unknown is what Uncle Ross would have done with his life had he returned to California. What kind of person would he have become? How might he have contributed to the well-being of his community? We can speculate knowing the values of his family, but it will always be unknown.
Each tombstone that honors one who gave his or her life in service to their county is a tombstone that honors the unknown even if the name of the person is known. For each person’s potential for the future was cut short because of the decisions of others to escalate into war. Even if the last full measure was not required, the very participation in this form of “problem-solving” changes a person.
Peacemaking has to begin with each of us if we are going to change the course of history’s penchant to resolve differences with violence. Memorial Day must be a yearly time of reflection about what each of us, individually, can do to lesson acts of hate, increase places where differences can be explored and resolved, refuse to sanction discrimination and oppression, and speak out against evil intent to dehumanize or eliminate our sisters and brothers. Peacemaking is hard work but the alternative is more rows of grave sites.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Matthew 5:9)
Grace and Peace