Memento Mori Revisited

On this Memorial Day weekend, I decided to look back at some of the things I’ve written in the past. This brings me to a favored veteran of mine: Captain Henry Metcalf. When looking up the post I wrote about him, I came upon something that caught me completely off guard. Something, in fact, I never thought I would see: Henry’s face.

I’ve known about Capt. Metcalf for many years now, but the only image I’ve had of him is one I’ve made up in my mind’s eye and that of his head stone. Today however, I found this…

It’s great to see you at last, Henry. Very, very good indeed.

And now… Here’s the post from May, 2008 where I introduced him to the rest of you. I hope you’ll help me remember him on this Memorial Day weekend.

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, Pennsylvania. 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.

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.

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Tomorrow’s History

(Written on the morning of November the 4th 2008)

While I could hardly call this morning an “Indian Summer” day, it is pleasant for November. Mild in temperature with bright sun forcing its way through a thin haze while a chilly, light breeze keeps you aware that winter is not far away. This morning, I have taken the opportunity given me by the warm weather to do some writing out of doors. The shamanism of technology, giving me a wireless connection as I sit on a rock ledge that emerged form the ground, who knows how long ago.

It’s a historical day today. Not just because it’s November 4th and an election year, but I mean that for me, it’s one of those days when I can feel history flow. It’s strong in the air and I feel its weight. The little park I’m sitting in is like so many that you’ll find scattered around the world. It’s pleasantly green, dogs run freely through it, peeing on anything that doesn’t move and the pigeons have designs on the half a doughnut that I’ve set down next to my coffee mug.

As I look up and to my left, a massive piece of steel looms overhead and points out over the shipping channel that leads south, in the direction it came from where it found it’s way, from it’s temporary tomb. It’s a piece of high powered ordinance from a long gone era, now perched atop a cement pedestal, never to fire again. Once, it was the height of war making technology, now it rusts away and collects bird droppings. This is no ordinary piece of artillery, however. This is a naval gun that, though never fired in battle in the heat of battle, set the fire for one of our countries most questionable wars. This is one of the deck guns from the USS Maine.

On the night of February 15, 1898, the USS Maine was sitting quietly at anchor in Havana harbor. She had been sent there to guard U.S. interests during a time of political upheaval in Cuba, as a revolution brewed, threatening the Spanish colonial hold in the Caribbean. The Warship was, in short, there as a show of force.

uss-maine

At 21:40, a massive explosion ripped the ship apart killing much of her crew as they slept in their berths. To this day, and after three different investigations spanning more than a century, no one knows for sure what happened. What we do know is that her destruction was quickly and expertly blamed on Spain and was the match that ignited the Spanish-American war. A piece of mostly forgotten history that only made America the dominant power in the western hemisphere. “Remember the Maine and to Hell with Spain”, was a cry that would resonate with an American public fed on at best, dubious and at worst, out right fabrications of what was happening in the world.

Without descending into a long and detailed history lesson, the destruction of the USS Maine was blamed on a Spanish mine. An “infernal device”, as it was described in the day. The Spanish government denied any doing and rather, blamed it on the ship’s coalbunkers igniting. Not an unheard of occurrence, back then. This possibility didn’t stop the race to battle that was unforgivably whipped along by The Hurst and Pulitzer news services. A massive distortion of the available facts in an effort to boost sales of their papers and extend their circulation would later be graced with a special moniker; yellow journalism.

In the end, the war went well for the U.S. and very badly indeed for Spain. They lost Puerto Rico, their hold on Cuba and all their holdings in the Pacific. In only about a year, America had successfully beaten an aging colonial power and completed a land grab that, for the most part, we still hold a good chunk of to this day. It was a different time. It could never happen again. Well, perhaps it could never end like that again.

As I look over my right shoulder from my quiet, moss-speckled perch, I can see a newer monument. A black and highly polished memorial, wrapped in a stone American Flag. No weaponry is displayed here. It’s more about the lives lost than the moment made in history. “In Memory of those who died in the rescue efforts on September, 11 2001”

As I cast my eyes around the park, I see a World War II memorial looming in the distance, flags lazily sauntering in the early morning breeze and at the top of the hill to my back, two field cannons, engineered in the time of the American Civil War, but just missing their day in the sun by one year, being cast in 1866. These cannons, like the deck gun from the USS Maine, likely never fired a shot in battle.

I am not a pacifist, and do not make the argument that war is unnecessary. The Monuments that are scattered around where I sit are, in my mind, are testament to wars both unavoidable and reprehensible. Causes of righteous indignation and blatant manipulation for alternate goals. Within each war, with its lives lost and deeds done, both good and bad erupted from each tumult. That can not be refuted. There is no black. There is no white. Life, so far as I have been able to discern, doesn’t work that way. We work with what we are dealt and hopefully, work towards the good of all.

Today is a historic day, no matter what the outcome. Every day is. The weight of decisions made now will have ramifications that we cannot accurately guess until we wait to see the cards turned over. Tomorrow’s history is yesterday’s future. I wonder what it will bring.

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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