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Opinion :: A tribute to soldiers on a monumental 150th anniversary
· 11:04pm August 31st, 2014
Yeah, I know: It’s Labor Day Weekend.
But this week is the 150th anniversary of one of the most significant events in American military history – and event in which many area soldiers with names familiar to our community died.
The men mentioned below fought in the Iowa Brigade with Sherman during the last year of the Civil War.
First, they deserve for you to know their names, and how they died. The following are words from an August 1864 issue of the Vinton Eagle (newspapers were more graphic in their descriptions a century and a half ago, so be warned that some of the next few words may be painful to read):
Major William A. Walker, shot through the head;
Robert Durand, 1st Sergeant, shot through the head;
Hiram Halleck, 2nd Sergeant, unknown;
Julius Jackson, head blown off by shell;
Benton Hoover, shot in the breast;
Josepth A. Roberts and James Green died the same way.
David D. Merchant was shot through the bowels.
The article continued to list several men who were injured in that same battle in Georgia: John Ridge, James E. White, E.P. Forsyth, H.N. Palmer, William Amburn, C.C. La Rue, A.H. Brown, L. A. Marine, G. W. Sells, W.W. Buck, John Ritchey, Jerome Hall, James Wallace and Ozro Small.
And the missing included: R. Worthen, Thomas Brown, Thomas Day, T. Amburn, William Merchant, M. Utley, Lewis Lord, David Robertson, John Cuer, John Gipe, William Fawcett and Thomas Smock.
Every battle of every war in American history includes names like this. For Iowa, that began in 1846, the year of statehood, when we lost some men in the war with Mexico.
But For Major Walker and the rest of the men who were wounded, KIA or MIA 150 Augusts ago, their sacrifice made the difference in a national crisis that perhaps they were not even aware was in progress.
Most modern Americans think of Abraham Lincoln as one of our best, most-loved Presidents.
But that was not always the case.
In the summer of 1864, after three torturous years of a war that would claim nearly 1 million American lives, even the people of the north were tired of the killing and maiming.
While in some areas (Iowa among them), the pro-Lincoln, pro-war sentiment remained strong throughout the war, there were several places where powerful people wanted Lincoln out of the White House, or at least expected him to lose in November of 1864..
“Lincoln is already beaten,” wrote Horace Greeley, the influential (although fickle) editor of the New York Tribune. Greeley recalled painfully, just a year earlier, and a week after the Union victory at Gettysburg, the New York draft riots, in which 1,000 people, including many police officers and blacks, were killed. He knew that pro-Union sentiment was not nearly as strong in parts of the country as it seemed to be in our state.
Greeley and several other newspaper editors and political leaders had begun organizing a convention to call for the removal of Lincoln from the Republican ticket – less than two months before the election.
“The people regard Mr. Lincoln’s candidacy as a misfortune. His apparent strength when nominated was fictitious, and now the fiction has disappeared, and instead of confidence there is distrust. I do not know a Lincoln man…” wrote Richard Smith of the Cincinatti Gazette.
The Iowa soldiers named at the top of this column all died in the battle for Atlanta, when William Sherman besieged the city for several weeks, and a long-grinding campaign claimed thousands of men on both sides.
But on this day, 150 years ago, Sherman moved into Atlanta. Two days later, he sent a telegram to Washington, saying “Atlanta is fairly won.”
The Union victory in Atlanta was a major milestone, both in terms of military strategy and national morale. Taking that city virtually sealed the deal; when Atlanta fell, most Americans could clearly, for the first time, see the demise of the Confederacy; the war was obviously nearly over.
“Opposition to Lincoln within his party melted in the bonfires of celebration,” wrote historian William Harper.
Lincoln easily won re-election two months later; the war ended five months later.
But if the North had lost the Battle for Atlanta – or even if the South could have held on to that city until the 1864 election – history could have turned out very, very differently.
The thousands of men who died in that war, while their sacrifice was no more meaningful than any other soldier of any other war, gave their lives in a battle that had an immediate effect on their country. Their deaths made possible the election of Lincoln, and all he helped accomplish over the next few months. Who knows how long America may have been divided, or how long slavery would have remained legal, if the weariness of war and the lost hope for victory would have led to the election of anyone else.
So, when you hear a speech on Memorial Day, or Veterans Day – or when you read a column like this on Labor Day – and some veteran talks about how soldiers “saved” America with their sacrifice, it’s not just a cliché. A century and a half ago, when the fate of the nation – both on the battlefield and at the ballot box – was in jeopardy, our ancestors did their part to preserve the United States.
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