Gratitude to our veterans

Although he died before the first World War marked history – from which “Veterans Day” would evolve – Richard Watson Gilder was all too familiar with the claims placed on the lives of those who set foot on a battlefield.

Remembered as a man who took an active interest in all public affairs, especially those which tend towards reform and good government, Gilder, at the age of 19, enlisted in Pennsylvania’s Emergency Volunteer Militia as a private in Captain Henry D. Landis’s Philadelphia Battery.

Organized in response to the Confederate invasion of his state in June 1863, at the crossroads town of Gettysburg, Gilder was among those who, for three consecutive pitiless days, were assailed by iconic Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s forces in what would become the most renowned battle of the entire Civil War: the Battle of Gettysburg.

The First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment, led by Colonel William Colvill (for whom the community of Colvill is named) played a pivotal role in the 1863 struggle at Gettysburg.

Two months after the Confederates were defeated in the Battle of Gettysburg, Gilder and his unit were discharged from service.

Eighteen years would pass before Gilder found himself editor of The Century Illustrated Magazine – hailed as one of the nation’s most esteemed periodicals. Under Gilder’s editorial leadership, The Century Illustrated Magazine thrived. As its editor, Gilder was acknowledged as one of the most influential men in American literature. In fact, the 1880s were referred to by his biographer, Herbert Smith, as ‘the Gilder Age.’ ”

The Century Illustrated Magazine became noted for its short stories, poems, and documentation of historical events. As recorded in the historical notes from the New York Public Library Digital Library Collections, Century Company Records, 1871–1924: “The Century’s greatest success was its series of articles on the history of the Civil War. The ‘War Series’ began in November 1884 and continued for more than three years. The series consisted of first-hand remembrances of events written by Union and Confederate combatants; 230 participants, from privates to generals (including Grant and Sherman), contributed. The series also included nearly 2,000 engravings, often based on the photographs of Mathew B. Brady and Alexander Gardner.”

Gilder’s intimacy with war extended beyond his brief personal experience at Gettysburg. In his position as editor of The Century Magazine, he found himself immersed in the personal stories and the stark unrelenting images depicted in the lives of those who were forever configured by the ravages of war.

Gilder, as poet, synthesized these indelible impressions when he penned these words, “Better than honor and glory, and History’s iron pen, was the thought of duty done and the love of his fellow-men.”

To honor the losses of both Union and Confederate soldiers, “Decoration Day” was founded following the Civil War. “Decoration Day” would later become known as “Memorial Day,” which commemorates the loss of men and women who proudly have served our country. On the first “Decoration Day,” which followed General Lee’s surrender to General Grant – some three years after the conflict (1865) – General James Garfield delivered a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, after which 5,000 participants helped to decorate the graves of the more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there.

Gilder died November 19, 1909, at the age of 65, a decade before World War I –which, at the time, became known as “The Great War.”

Although the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, in the Palace of Versailles outside the town of Versailles, France, fighting ceased seven months earlier when an armistice, or temporary cessation of hostilities, between the Allied nations and Germany went into effect –concurrently– on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. For that reason, November 11, 1918, is generally regarded as the end of World War I –“the war to end all wars.”

The day became known as “Armistice Day.” (In 1954, the holiday was renamed “Veterans Day” to commemorate veterans of all wars.)

Three years after the initial “Armistice Day” celebration, in 1921, an unknown World War I American soldier was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Similarly, unknown soldiers have been buried in England at Westminster Abbey and at France at the Arc de Triomphe. All of these memorials took place on November 11th to commemorate the end of the “war to end all wars.”

But . . . war didn’t end. World War II would erupt with a vengeance two decades later, requiring the greatest mobilization of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen in our nation’s history.

In researching my own father’s World War II experience as a Merchant Marine, I came across a compelling quote from Tom Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation which jolts one’s often veiled perspective on war: “At a time in their lives when their days and nights should have been filled with innocent adventure, love, and the lessons of the workaday world, they were fighting, often hand to hand, in the most primitive conditions possible, across the bloodied landscape of France, Belgium, Italy, Austria. They fought their way up a necklace of South Pacific islands few had ever heard of before and made them a fixed part of American history – islands with names like Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, Okinawa. They were in the air every day, in skies filled with terror, and they went to sea on hostile waters far removed from the shores of their homeland.”

Bill Tatro, president and CEO of GPSforLife, offers, “Regardless of why men and women went to battle, they all arrived at a moment when the veneer of duty and obligation were shed and they found themselves face-to-face with their own mortality. A few shirked and cowered, but many responded in a way that was reflected by François de La Rochefoucauld (a 17th century French classical author) who said, ‘Perfect valor is to behave, without witnesses, as one would act were all the world watching.’ At that moment, most were deathly afraid. They were human, with real flesh and blood. In fact, if you asked any of them, from the Congressional Medal of Honor winner to the private that cleaned the latrine (and history has shown that sometimes there were one and the same) about being a hero, they would blush at the word and the idea. Yet, how loosely we use that word today and how cavalierly we throw the idea of a hero around.”

There exists a deep-seated desire to penetrate beyond the percussive nature of war into the very fragile human element of war. In all probability to avoid future conflict or to ensure more resiliency to its degrading effects. Yet it remains: those who leave family and friends, and then too often taken for granted “normalcy” of everyday life, to serve their fellow human beings with strength of mind – that quality which enables a man or woman to be resolutely courageous in the face of danger – are to be both respected and appreciated.

Another man who entered our country’s history during a defining event of war, counseled: “The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the Veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.” – General George Washington

I’ll close with the words of George Canning, a man whom history records as his greatest success was out-maneuvering Napoleon at Copenhagen by seizing the Danish navy; a man who would eventually become prime minister of the United Kingdom in 1827. The words are taken from a stanza in his poem, “The Pilot That Weath’D The Storm”:

“When our perils are past, shall our gratitude sleep?”

An appropriate question this Veterans Day.

Former Cook County Commissioner Garry Gamble is writing this ongoing column about the various ways government works.

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