Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Commentary: The Malevolent Dark Shadow

When I was young and found myself with extra change, I often scurried downtown to visit Grants 5 & 10 Cent Store. Although a frequent visitor, a renewed joy always accompanied each jaunt into the old store, sustained by the oddly comforting creaks of the worn, uneven wooden floors. My eyes darted in constant search of some small treasure hidden inside an old ragged box somewhere on those magical shelves. Eventually emerging from the store and heading home, I passed a small unremarkable, seemingly abandoned, stone building. The dirty façade held a curious sign with initials whose meaning remained foreign to me. Despite the familiarity of its simple lettering, with each passing, I re-read the sign and wondered.

Decades later, long after Grant’s store lived only in memory, I would learn the significance of the three letters on that nearby building that told of the structure’s past importance. At the time, “GAR Post” only lent a vague sense that this building and those who entered under that banner held an importance that had long since, perhaps unjustly, faded. Each glance at the timeworn façade evoked a curious feeling of mournful loss, a sense whose validity I never doubted but whose origins I could not discern. The dirty windows, chipped paint, and worn door handle whispered yet of a past glory increasingly suppressed by present decay.

Not many years ago, when touched by a passion for the American Civil War, I would learn what I should have known then. Union veterans of the War of the Rebellion had joined the popular fraternal organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, and met in this place or countless other like it. The men of so many terrible campaigns past, and later their successive generations, would speak of the conflict, politics, the fallen, and of how to honor those taken by the war.

As a youth, I had seen those three letters elsewhere during my many exploratory excursions around my then small world. In the local church cemeteries, intermittent gravesites had as an added adornment a small bronze star with the letters GAR hovering above the numbers 1861 and 1865. On occasions progressively less frequent, that star also held a small American flag. Like the old building, most of these modestly sized stars had succumbed to the relentless effects of weather and neglect as the decades inevitably marched past. Few if any held any remnant of their original luster. Like many of the old cannons in surrounding town squares, oxidation had painted the markers with splashes of discoloring green, the remaining bronze now a deep brown.

A new sadness accompanies the full understanding of the significance of these stars and of that old building now gone. Sprinkled throughout northern cemeteries, each tiny shield silently marks the grave of a man who fought in the war that most defined our country. Each man had given a piece of himself, sometimes literally, to shape this nation. The piece the nation gave in return now struggles against decay. The realization that these men drift further into obscurity, all but forgotten, sustains the sadness.

Alongside the remaining stars, many gravestones lay broken or covered with weeds, their letters worn into illegibility. These men gave of themselves to build what we now have. They earned in return indifference and neglect.

"Not true!" some may indignantly protest. "We have beautiful grand memorials such as Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, Manassas, Harpers Ferry, and other parks serving as permanent reminders of brave deeds past." However, as we have left many a veteran’s grave to decay, so now this preventable tragedy spreads as we ignore the fate of even our most majestic monuments and battlefields. The Chancellorsville Battlefield and those who love their grounds continue their battle against disfiguring, explosive development. Harpers Ferry has joined this fight struggling to hold an encroaching 3,400-unit development at bay. Manassas Battlefield suffers from ever-expanding traffic and the constant threat of the loss of park grounds to widened highways. Perhaps as tragic as any of these, Gettysburg now rests in the malevolent dark shadow of a looming casino, positioned to exploit the deeds of the men North and South who died in unheard of numbers on those scarred, threatened grounds.

Much of Fredericksburg Battlefield is gone. The same fate has befallen Franklin Tennessee and many other fields. The Civil War Preservation Trust, the largest and perhaps most respected American Civil War preservation organization, lists Gettysburg, the Wilderness, and the Shenandoah Valley in the top 10 of the most endangered battlefields in the country. They also mention continuing serious threats to Chancellorsville, Manassas, Kennesaw Mountain, and Cedar Mountain, among others.

The 620,000 men who died during this war, and the hundreds of thousands more who emerged from battle no longer whole, deserve a better fate. So do the men who gathered in the GAR hall whose door I can never again pass. I ask with all possible respect that each person do what they can to preserve these historic grounds and not allow the continued indifference displayed towards the deaths and sacrifices of so many of our country’s veterans to threaten that which we must preserve.

In a cemetery near to my home, local people have volunteered their time to restore some of the former luster and dignity to the old stones and GAR markers. New flags ripple in the breeze that gently caresses the old soldiers’ graves. Placards note the names of the deceased where gravestone lettering has surrendered to time. In that same northern cemetery, a Confederate veteran’s grave now bears a new star revealing a shared respect for all life lost. So too can we work to preserve and maintain the fields where our ancestors fought, bled, and died, while laying the stones in the foundation upon which we now live. So too can we preserve and honor their contributions and their memory. Perhaps by doing as much, one less youngster walking through town will wonder at the mysterious meaning of the lives now past and the sacrifices all too often forgotten.



Please visit my primary site at www.brotherswar.com

All original material Copyright © 2006. All Rights Reserved

For more information concerning the proposed Gettysburg casino:

More Opposition to Proposed Casino

A Casino in Gettysburg - The Danger, The Truth


auntibeck said...

Thank you for this beautiful treatise on the subject so close to your heart. It makes me want to be there and see the sights and smells you've described so eloquently, and touch the worn and forgotten stones. Keep up the good work. --a Wallace descendant

jeff fioravanti said...

The 5 and 10 cent store; my friend you are showing your age. As always, your words are eloquent and welcoming to this reader's eyes. Another excellent post. Well done my friend; well done indeed!

Judi said...

Those creaking wood floors...you put me right back there. The dime store was a wonderland to me. I emailed this to several people and I see my sister already left a comment. I'm passing the word on the casino issue and so far no one I've spoken to has heard about it. Your blog is a great reference. And beautiful.

Randy said...

Thank you everyone for your generous comments. I feel very strongly about the need to remember the lessons of our past, preserve our history, and honor those who came before us. Once the bulldozer has leveled the land, I believe that our ability to ponder and truly understand the importance of what happened on that land diminishes dramatically. To profit from such destruction is an even greater tragedy.

If I may be so bold as to speak a little for someone else who feels as I do, you may want to click on the name Jeff Fioravanti in the second comment above. He is a modest but immensely talented man whose artwork has served to both honor and preserve our shared past.