In Honor of Proud Old Men

May 11, 1995|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- In July of 1913, 50 years after Gettysburg, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain mounted a horse and led a parade of old Civil War veterans through the streets of New York.

Film of that event survives. Though grainy and jerky, it shows a proud old man with a bushy white mustache riding gracefully on a blaze-faced horse through streets crowded with awestruck people. Flags wave and surely there was music, but the film is silent and we have to imagine the sound.

As we are finding again this spring and summer, there is no anniversary of a war quite like its 50th. Most who were there are gone, but a sturdy corps of veterans remains. Many of them, though old men, are still vital enough to don their uniforms and march, or mount a warhorse, or perhaps even parachute one more time from a plane.

At 50th-anniversary parades and celebrations, attended by their children and grandchildren, they hug one another, pose for pictures, and tell what they remember. They look at pictures of themselves as youths, and of the many friends who didn't return. It is all poignant beyond description, and few who look on fail to find themselves moved to tears.

It is also humbling. Young people in the yet-untested prime of their lives, young men especially, watch the old veterans pass and wonder if they themselves will ever have to face such challenges, and whether, if they do, they'll face them with the kind of courage and honor that might be still venerated after 50 years.

Such wondering is necessarily private. The sophisticated young of every generation practice a ritual condescension toward those who prate about such things as courage and honor. But what's in their hearts is likely to be more complex and less cynical, especially as they watch old soldiers from a long-ago war marching together one last time.

History doesn't allow all wars a proper 50th anniversary. Sometimes circumstances encourage such celebrations, but not always. At times the attention of those who might be celebrating the past is distracted by intense concern about the present.

Fifty years after Gettysburg the United States was at peace, as it is 50 years after VE Day. Peace allows a nation the luxury of letting its attention focus for a little while on old wars. But without peace there is neither the time nor the inclination for such nostalgia.

It's a matter of historical record that in the war which ended on November 11, 1918, more than 4.7 million Americans served, and more than 50,000 died. But 50 years after the armistice the nation was in no mood to celebrate anything.

In late 1968 two political leaders had just been assassinated. American soldiers were dying in places called Khe Sanh and Hue. There had been a vicious presidential election. Totalitarianism was on the march around the world. In that terrible time, the end of World War I seemed as far away as the end of the Wars of the Roses.

World war probably seemed far away in 1913, too. It isn't hard to imagine a young man that summer watching old General Chamberlain ride by, reflecting on his extraordinary valor and richly successful life, and perhaps briefly regretting that the modern era was so lacking in excitement. In a few years, from a trench on the Western Front, the imaginary young man's perspective would be somewhat different.

Chamberlain, who ended the Civil War a major general in the Union Army, was one of his generation's authentic heroes. He won the Medal of Honor for his heroism at Little Round Top, where in hand-to-hand fighting he and his men from the 20th Maine repulsed a massive Confederate assault.

He was wounded six times in the war, and when he was shot through both hips in the late summer of 1863 he was expected to die. But he survived, and in 1865 was the officer designated by Grant to receive the Confederate surrender at Appamattox. Then he returned to civilian life.

He was three times elected as governor of Maine, and then served as president of Bowdoin College, where he had been a professor of rhetoric at the time of his enlistment in the army. While president he continued to teach, modernized the curriculum, and found himself involved in the usual controversies, such as student demonstrations concerning military training on the campus.

He didn't live to observe the 50th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. He died at 83, less than a year after riding in the New York parade. His death was attributed to his wounds.

Those who saw General Chamberlain ride in his last parade surely felt themselves privileged, though not more so than those of us do who in the current interval of peace are honoring the veterans of another war.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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