Yesterday was the day set aside by the US federal government for us to remember our war dead.
We turn our thoughts back to Vicksburg, Mississippi…which gave the country enough corpses to remember…and from where we’ve just returned.
We were born south of the Mason-Dixon line. More importantly, we were born south of Pratt Street in Baltimore, giving us Southern tendencies from the start.
Even as a child, we felt a sentimental attachment to the Old South and a romantic softness for the underdog. We rooted for General Lee at Gettysburg and General Jackson at the Wilderness. We wanted to sign up for Jeb Stuart’s cavalry, but we were a century too late.
The Mason-Dixon line is the official boundary separating North from South. It runs between Maryland and Pennsylvania. But the real dividing line — in terms of attitudes, culture and topography — runs right through the heart of Baltimore.
North of Pratt Street, the land rises under hills of granite. It was settled by Germans, mainly — farmers who raised cattle and wheat, traders who used their Baltimore clippers to move goods all over the world and entrepreneurs who built factories on the upland rivers.
South of Pratt Street, the land immediately flattens into tidewater. There…stretching all the way from the sidewalk to Florida in the south and to the Appalachians in the west…the land is rich, mostly level and good for tobacco and cotton.
It is also warmer…and more suitable for slave labour. The English and Scotch-Irish settlers who built their houses in Maryland in the late 17th century (my ancestors included) were used to slavery. They knew they would have to give it up some day, but they didn’t want the Yankees to tell them when.
We wondered: Does Memorial Day apply south of Pratt Street…that is, to the people the Union Army tried to kill? To be more precise, does it apply to those who fought for the Confederacy against the United States of America? If not, we will have to stop remembering half of our ancestors — those who fought under Lee and Jackson.
We consulted the Wikipedia for guidance:
‘Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. Formerly known as Decoration Day, it originated after the American Civil War to commemorate the Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War. By the 20th century, Memorial Day had been extended to honor all Americans who have died while in the military service. It typically marks the start of the summer vacation season, while Labor Day marks its end.’
There you have it. We can remember all our ancestors — even those from south of Pratt Street. Years ago, our grandmother recalled:
‘Yes… Uncles Rufus and Zacharia McCeney used to live here. My grandmother told me about them. She raised me. I never knew my mother; she died when I was still a baby. Rufus and Zacharia were her uncles. I never met them. My grandmother, Mary Agnes McCeney, told me they left the farm and never came back. They rode with Jeb Stuart’s cavalry in the Army of Virginia. Presumed dead. But who knows?’
And now, with the permission of the federales, we wonder if Rufus or Zacharia made his way to join poor General John Pemberton in the defence of Vicksburg.
It was a lost cause from the get-go. By March 1863, ‘Fighting Joe’ Johnston, commander of the Southern forces in the West, had already given it up for lost. Vicksburg couldn’t be resupplied. The Yankees controlled the river…and the overland routes.
Seeing the handwriting on the wall, he recommended to Pemberton that he take his army and skedaddle. Vicksburg would be lost. But at least the army would be saved. But Pemberton was either stubborn or stupid. He stayed put with his army. He gave the worms plenty of meat; nearly 10,000 of his soldiers were planted there.
Many Southerners remember the Siege of Vicksburg as heroic. It is said the city didn’t forget what had been done to it until 1910 — when it first permitted public festivities for the Fourth of July. And now, more than 100 years later, it flies the Stars and Stripes every day of the year.
One of the features of a successful empire is it is able to build on its successes and turn its victims into loyal supporters. The Romans brought in soldiers from all over the Empire. The English followed the same program.
First, they conquered Scotland — making the Scots the backbone of the British Army. Later, the Irish — another conquered people — were easily enlisted, partly because they had so few other career options. (The British prevented Irish Catholics from owning land.) Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Indians, Malaysians — all served the British cause.
The Yankees did the same thing. After the Southern states were conquered, their young men became the most enthusiastic soldiers in the Union Army. Later, the Union signed up Hispanics from Texas and Navajos from the reservations in Arizona.
Today, New Yorkers may have doubts about signing up for military service, but among middle-class Southerners, it is a family tradition. They have served their conquerors for generations.
We remember the dead. What do we think of them? We wonder. We remember both sides of the War Between the States equally.
But if both sides were equal, what was the point? You may as well have died for one side as for the other. It seems hardly worth dying for a cause that didn’t matter.
One side wanted to tell the other side how to run its affairs. But the other side was running its affairs in an abominable way. One side held black people in slavery. The other side wanted to boss around white people. We’re all going to die, but neither cause seems worth advancing the schedule.
And what do the dead think of us? Those 10,000 boys at Vicksburg. Uncle Rufus and Uncle Zacharia. What would they think of their descendants?
At least they were fighting in a real war. At least they had a cause that they thought was worth fighting for…and at least they died at the hands of the enemy or from disease while waiting for the enemy to kill them.
Today’s soldiers are more likely to die by suicide than to be felled by disease or by an enemy. Our soldiers’ most lethal enemies are themselves.
Our ancestors. They must pity us.
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