Everyone Matters

I had been saving up for a few weeks - this was just a couple years after I'd graduated from college - and finally had the $70 I needed to buy the two-volume set of Tennesseans in the Civil War. This was the 1980s, so instead of logging on to Amazon, I hopped in my car and headed down to the Stones River National Battlefield Park, where I knew they always kept a couple sets in their gift shop. My primary interest was the volume that gave sketches of each unit's formation, as well as officers' listings and details of regimental service and action.

When I got back to my apartment I spent about an hour reading through the regimental histories, especially those from near my hometown. Then I took a moment to look at the second volume - the larger one - that ostensibly listed the names of all the men who served from Tennessee. I looked for my great-great-grandfathers, then began looking for other family names. Caught up in it, I just randomly began looking at the names, the ranks, the regiments. Suddenly, the huge volume became more intimate. A name, another, and another. I began to see these as individuals. I noted a cousin of my great-great-grandfather who served with him in the 17th Tennessee, and my grandmother's telling of their capture in an old barn where she grew up. Her grandfather had barely survived a Federal POW camp, signing the oath of allegiance in March 1865, thinking he was about to die in prison. I went searching for Major Tolbert, KIA at Shiloh, the first husband of one of my great-great-grandmothers. My great-great-grandfather was her second husband, whom she married after the war. In one of those ironic circumstances of war, had he not fallen at Shiloh, I likely would not exist today.

The history of so many families, and likely even their communities and beyond, hinged upon their lives and deaths. Historians have a tendency to talk statistics, but we also do a pretty good job of recognizing the individual, as we should. In the long run, the private may outrank the general.

Tyne Cot Cemetery is a British cemetery in the Ypres Salient of Belgium. and is the largest (by number of burials) Commonwealth cemetery in the world. It’s an incredible place to visit, so when I took my brother on a battlefield tour of Europe a couple years ago, it was a place that I knew I had to take him. I have to compliment the folks who maintain and present this cemetery. It is huge, constantly requiring maintenance people working on the property or the graves, and yet they know how to focus on the individual. As you walk from the car park into the visitors center you slowly become aware of a woman’s voice. And that voice is calmly saying the names of the men who fell in this area - those who are buried at Tyne Cot. It’s almost surreal, and the voice continues inside the building. There, you see the faces. On the day I took this little video (shown above) the hall had suddenly emptied, while outside the tour buses idled, waiting for their passengers to hop back on, and head to the next destination. 

Larger military cemeteries like that almost make you fight back against the thought that so many young men fell in such a brutal way. It's troubling to see so many markers, and more upsetting to read the names as you walk among the rows of stone. But to truly understand the devastation of war, we make a mistake when we don’t recognize the individual in the grave.

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