Courage: The quality of mind or spirit that enables a person
to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear; bravery.
The definition fails. Oh there is fear. Courage is doing what
you have to do, even in the face of fear.
On June 2nd, 1864, General Grant brought his troops to Gaines Mill, Virginia, or Cold Harbor, as both the site and battle are known
General Lee’s troops were dug in to trenches in the woods back of the open field that Union troops would have to charge across to do battle.
Union sharpshooters across the road trained their long guns on the dug in rebels. If even a rebel head was raised it was likely to be blown off, so even running for a cup of water was paid for with your life.
Grant hoped to roust General Lee, to keep him from retreating to Richmond.
So on the morning of June 2nd, Grant sent his troops charging across that open field. Thousands of the boys in blue fell on that field, re-formed, then charged again throughout that long day….every charge met with hell fire from entrenched rebel troops.
Though better off than Grant’s troops, the Rebs suffered their share as well, confederate blood running like rivers down the trenches.
Darkness at last brought respite, the Union boys recovering as many of the injured and dead as they could. But, still, thousands lay out there on the field, under the June stars, begging for water, or relief from the pain.
Those Union troops that survived that first day licked their wounds and tried to get a little rest, perhaps a little food and water. But when one of Grant’s field generals made a tour of the camp he found those boys in blue, wielding needle and thread to their uniforms. When the general asked a subordinate what the boys were doing the subordinate answered “they’re sewing small pieces of paper to the inside of their uniform, their names inscribed on the paper so that, when they fall and die on the battlefield, they can be identified so that their families will know what happened to them.
In the morning, when the boys in blue answered Grant’s command to charge, they did so. And 7,000 boys in blue died that morning, in less than 20 minutes.
One hundred and forty years later I walked the Cold Harbor battlefield. Lee’s trenches remain, the rivers of blood even now leaving a red ocre in the bottom of those trenches.
I first stood in the rear of those trenches, where General Lee stood, directing fire and issuing orders. Lee could see through a clearing in the trees, to the meadow in front, where an ocean of blue lay dead.
I tread through the trenches, feeling like I was stepping on hallowed ground. Then I stepped onto the vast green meadow where those 7,000 died in less time than it takes to drink a cup of coffee.
And, upon walking that green meadow, soil enriched by the blood and bones of the fallen, I tried to think about the kind of courage those Union boys had to muster as they sewed their names inside their uniforms the night before they died.
To me it is absolutely miraculous that this country has men and women who have, over our entire history, mustered the courage to march to their death for a cause. From Bunker Hill and Trenton and Valley Forge in that first fight for our freedom, to Bull Run and Cold Harbor and a thousand other Civil War battles, to San Juan Hill, to Bastogne, to island hopping across the Pacific, ever toward Japan, to Pork Chop Hill and Khe Sanh, to the craggy cliffs of Afghanistan, that courage has been displayed a million times over.
Until one is confronted with the immediate prospect of certain death, not one American can say how they will perform. And yet, when that ultimate sacrifice has been called for, Americans have responded with a courage that we can scarcely imagine.
Few of our citizens have been asked to sacrifice their life for their country. That is right and proper. But we should all keep the reason for Memorial Day in our hearts…and remember those who gave all so that we might remain free.