Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Two Sergeants

My family's history is not where I now live. The family has deep roots in Chester County, Pennsylvania, which used to be a beautiful country place; its dales and hollows grew foxes, then sheep, then milk cows, then, finally, housing developments.

When Memorial Day arrives, my natural place to commemorate it would be the grave of "Cousin" Joe Acker -- he would have been my great-great-grandmother's cousin, but that family seemed to collapse time to an eternal present tense. Joe was a sergeant in the 97th Pennsylvania, which enlisted in the summer of 1861.

One May day in 1864 the 97th was trying to hold the Bermuda Hundred line together in the face of strong probing attacks from Pickett's rebels. A staff officer -- that detested species -- wandered up to the front, and, looking to prove himself worthy of his stripes, told Acker to take a detachment out and see whether there were any rebels in that woods out in front of them.

"I can tell you from here," Cousin Joe said. "It's full of them."

But the staff officer, now having got his authority and ego tangled up in the case, insisted. And with no higher officer in sight to appeal to, Acker took a platoon out and crept toward the woods. When they got to the edge of it, the Confederates shot him dead.

His men dragged the body back, cursing and looking for that staff officer, who had quickly vanished. They never got his name.

That story is known in some detail because the regimental history of the 97th was written by the man who had recruited Acker and a handful of other farm boys from up in the Great Valley near Paoli.

I live now in Lancaster County, only one municipal unit removed from Chester County, but a different world altogether, historically. Chester is Quaker, Lancaster is German; Federalist vs. Democratic; spiritual and otherworldly vs. grubbily commercial. I still tend to see these places in their 19th century garb. That's the effect of doing too much research.

Joe Acker's grave is back in Great Valley Presbyterian cemetery, an hour's drive from here. But some stray branches of the family tree crossed into Lancaster County before me. One is the Passmores. Unlike the Ackers, the Passmores were no sort of gentry, even on the local level. One was a tavern-keeper along the road where the lime wagons dragged their loads to the kilns and the Lancaster farmers took their wheat to Wilmington. His sons sought livings on the Lancaster side of the line in the 1850s, working in stone quarries one year, teaching school the next. A public school teacher could have workman's knuckles back then.

The younger son was Josiah. He was older than the average soldier when the Civil War began, a family man, and he did not go in with the first wave of Northern enlistments. But he seems to have been one of the many men the threat of a draft shook out in 1862. He joined a 9-months regiment from Lancaster County that fought at Antietam and Chancellorsville. When he came home, he enlisted again. He joined the 2nd Pa. Heavy Artillery, which was a cushy "safe" regiment at the time, full of married men with children. Its duty was guarding Fortress Monroe down on the Virginia coast, a place almost immune to rebel attacks.

But when Grant took over the army in the East, he called in all the available manpower, including the "Heavies." Their days of safe duty ended, and they got thrown into the meat grinder of the Petersburg trenches. I have one of his letters home, to his little sister, my great-great-grandmother. He fretted a good deal about how his wife was getting by. Josiah died in the Battle of the Crater, the hideous debacle that was re-enacted at the beginning of the movie "Cold Mountain."

They brought his body back to Lancaster County, and buried it in a hilltop German churchyard outside the little village of New Providence. When I moved out here in 1990, I found the spot. Every year now, we visit his grave on Memorial Day. Sometimes the Boy Scouts have got the flag on it, sometimes they miss it. This year they found it alright. We brought a blossom from our garden.

What can you say about that? You could remind your anti-war friends That he was a not entirely willing participant in a not entirely legal war, in which a lot of basic American rights were overturned by a president elected by a minority of the voters. No, that's wrong. That's turning a dead man into a rhetorical trope. It takes him out of his context and his time, uses him to advance a present-day argument that has nothing to do with him. That's not what Memorial Day means. That's not what honor looks like.

This holiday began as a private affair, among the veterans themselves. In my part of the world, at first, they marched out to the cemeteries together, black and white, a truly remarkable thing in the old segregated North. Then the civilians and the politicians got hold of it and it became about speeches and contemporary matters and the blacks and whites stopped mingling.

Every attempt to use Memorial Day for any purpose but honoring the dead is unseemly. The day belongs to the individual man or boy who went to do a duty, with whatever mix of willingness and fear, and died doing it, as he knew he might. Any thought that goes much beyond that risks desecration.