Memento Mori

Nothing fun or or humorous today, I’m afraid. Just a post about a day and a man, very important to me.

Memorial day, in my mind is second only to Armistice day. What ever your feeling are on the topic of war and regardless of what ever war you are thinking about, this is a day to remember those who, as Mr. Lincoln put it, “Gave the last full measure of devotion“.

What ever your thoughts are about the conflicts this nation has seen, this is the time to remember them and their passing.

And so, I will tell you the briefest story of a man whom I never met and know only a little about.

His name is Henry Metcalf and he was born in Keene, New Hampshire, in 1833. At the out break of the Civil War, he signed up with a volunteer outfit that was assembled in Cheshire County and left his trade as a printer to fight for the North. He rose to the rank of Captain and was one of the thousands who found him self on the fateful battle field at Gettysburg. On the second day of the battle, he was ordered down into the Peach Orchard with his men, far from the union lines. It was a foolish order from a glory grabbing general that got them there. It was an exposed position with little cover, but those were the orders and so that’s where he was.

As Captain Metcalf and his men came under heavy fire from the Confederates, the battle line became disjointed and broken. A lower ranking General than the one who sent them down there, ordered Captain Metcalf to straighten up his line. Henry moved along and through his men and repositioned them to better hold their ground. Once the men were where he wanted them, he turned to his commander and spoke these words: “How’s that, General?”

It was the last thing he said. A moment later, a bullet struck him in the head, killing him instantly. Soon after, the Peach Orchard position was abandoned as unholdable and the remaining men retreated back to the Union lines.

Captain Metcalf’s body was returned to Keene and he was buried in the Washington Street Cemetery. His resting place is marked with a stone made of white marble. If you go there looking for it, you could easily miss it. Time and acid rain has scrubbed at his name and most markings on its surface. Many are blurred into total obscurity. Some are still just legible.

[Photos added a couple of days later]

I know what it says though. When I was younger, it was easily readable and my father and I found it one day. My Dad spent a lot of time researching Henry, and found out everything I just told you. Later, we went to the Peach Orchard in Gettysburg and stood near the spot where he spoke his last words.

He was a soldier, doing his duty. He never came home to live a happy life. His work went on with out him, as did his family. He wasn’t anyone of real historic note. Just a man doing what he felt was his duty.

I feel that it’s my duty to remember him. So today, I’ll talk about you, Henry. I never knew you. You are not kin to me, but you are not forgotten. I’ll visit your resting place and make sure that you have a flag on your marker this Monday. We owe you that much. Requiscat in Pace.

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3 Responses

  1. Memorial Day Sonnet

    If Liberty means anything to me,
    I will remember what my freedom cost,
    By those who gave their all to keep me free,
    Whose lives were sacrificed, but never lost.
    I will remind myself of what they did,
    And keep them dearly cherished in my heart;
    Their honor never from me shall be hid
    And I will know they always did their part
    To save our nation and its people here,
    To pledge their lives in defense of our ways,
    To show that freedom always outlives fear,
    And sacrifice is hallowed all our days.
    If Liberty means anything to me,
    I will remember those who kept me free.

    © John Stuart 2008
    Pastor at Erin Presbyterian Church,
    Knoxville, Tennessee

    Audio at:
    [audio src="http://media.libsyn.com/media/stushie/Memorial_Day.mp3" /]

  2. For me, “Liberty” and “Country” is not especially what today is about, but the individuals who lost their lives in conflict.

    It is easy, too easy I fear, to let ourselves be moved to battle over ideas and ideals and as always, there are different viewpoints about those ideas and ideals. Is the death of a soldier in the Peloponnesian Wars any less of a loss of life? No. His identity may be obscured by time and our ability to empathize with his situation made difficult if not impossible, thus we tend to discount his heroic last acts, if we know of them at all.

    In my mind, today is about remembering and feeling the loss.

    I have a project for everyone out there who cares to take part. Find a lost looking name of a veteran on a roster or headstone. Find out what you can about that man or woman and then, remember them at least once a year and tell someone else about what you know. Countries and rationales for war come and go. History books note them and explain in detail the big pictures, but it is up to individuals to try and remember the ones who died fighting for what they felt was right and good and I believe that we should carry them in our heart.

  3. I agree with Turkish Prawn.

    If you ever go to Belgium and visit a beautiful little city called Bruges/Brugges, there is a WW1/WW2 tour by Quasimodo Tours (the tour guide’s name is Notre Dame) which is amazing. Actually seeing the sites, hearing the stories, and visiting the places where so many lost their lives is heartbreaking and thought provoking at the same time.
    I’ve gone on that tour twice.

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