Thursday, May 29, 2008

Memorial Day, remembered

Monday was Memorial Day. Let me begin by saying "Thank you" (inadequate as that is) to all of the Servicemen and women. Oh, I know, I've been your hippie anti-war protesting sort; I was always quick to say "Fighting for Peace is like F***ing for Virginity" and other assorted colorful phrases. I'm no less anti-war now than I was then -- but I'm NOT anti-soldier, and I was very troubled by the fact that my friends and college-mates who went off to Viet Nam were not feted upon their return but often encountered idiots asking them why they were so stupid as to go. So I DO honor soldiers, and I do most earnestly mourn the loss of those men and women whose faces I see on the teevee, who are at this point more than ten years younger than my youngest child, and whose losses make the back of my eyes hurt.

I'm in love with a guy. Mr Dearling knows this, and not only condones it but brags about it. The guy I'm in love with is a Dead Civil War Guy, Lucius Fairchild , seen here as a young man returned to Madison from the Civil War. The photo is from 1865; the next year he was elected 10th Governor of the State of Wisconsin, in which position he served three terms.

Here's how it came about: in 1995 I "met" a fellow named Tim Fairchild on line, in a Living History chat room, and when he learned I was in Madison, he asked me to look up his ancestor, Lucius. (Tim was a Civil War reenactor living in NJ at the time.) I did, and found his family plot at Forest Hill Cemetery, the municipal cemetery dating back to the earliest days of the city. This is the obelisk marking the family plot. In the immediate plot are buried Lucius; his wife Frances (he called her, affectionately, "Frank"); his parents, Sally and Jairus (Jairus was the first Mayor of Madison); Lucius' older sister, Sarah Conover; and his older brother Cassius, another Civil War soldier who ultimately died from a wound sustained in battle.

Now, I've said more than once that I'm totally terrible at math. However, when I found the family plot I was able to figure out that - the next year (1996) would mark the centennial anniversary of Lucius' death. And Tim and I began to plan a small memorial service. As it turned out, Lucius had died on May 23, 1896, which falls on or close to Memorial Day each year.

In a word, a year of planning resulted in the following: We held a small service at the graveside for the reenactors of the Iron Brigade, which Fairchild led into battle at Gettysburg. I found a picture of Lucius and had it enlarged and framed (we leaned it against his headstone), I was able to arrange for a small group of reenactors of a Civil War band to come and play, in their Union uniforms, and I wrote a small booklet and had it printed to serve as a program.

I was aided in this by Mr. Thomas Johnson, president at the time of the local chapter of the Sons of the Union Veterans. Tim arranged to fly out for it, and for a brief visit.

The result, in spite of the fact that it was cool and rainy, was a very nice ceremony. We remarked, in fact, that Fairchild had died during a fierce thunderstorm, described in the newspaper of the time as a fitting tribute to a great soldier.....

During Tim's visit I had the privilege of accompanying him to the State Historical Society headquarters on campus where the head Curator took us down into the labyrinthine bowels of the building and showed us, all white-gloved and silent, the vest Lucius was wearing - which had been cut off - to facilitate the amputation of his left arm. We also went to the Wisconsin Veterans' Museum on the Square and the Curator there showed us, again white-gloved and awestruck, some of his uniforms and sashes and so on.

Editor's note: come visit Madison some time; I'll show you the Vets' Museum, our historical Museum (including the best little Fur Post in Wisconsin) and other Very Cool stuff!

During the time between our initial decision and the ceremony itself, I found that there are over 90 boxes of personal correspondence and papers, gathered and saved by sister Sarah...and I began transcribing them. I need to find my notes and resume - I'd like to write an article (or perhaps more) about the Fairchild family. To say simply that they were "Madison's First Family" doesn't do it - they were truly known for their great hospitality, and their letters reveal a warm, loving, educated and interesting family; the truth is, I fell in love with the whole lot of them. Reading people's letters is an introduction, and I felt like those movies where you see someone reading and then you hear the voice of the writer.....

Anyway, since 1996 I have gone every year to the cemetery and planted something nice at the stones before Memorial Day. May I add: on the occasion of our ceremony we had the extraordinary pleasure of meeting Mrs Sally Fairchild Reuter, who is in fact Lucius' great-great-granddaughter. She was near 80 at the time, and an absolute hoot! She comes every Memorial Day too, often before her afternoon golf game. She's very active in the Colonial Dames who are responsible for maintaining and exhibiting the Indian Agency at Portage, Wisconsin, a true gem of an historical site. She explained that she sleeps in the bed Jairus Fairchild brought here from Ohio when the family moved to Madison in 1846! (She invited me over for tea one day and showed me not only the bed but other furniture and paintings and heirlooms of the family, and I just love seeing her. God willing I'll be just like her in fifteen years! I don't see her often, but she always comes out on Memorial Day.)

There's a very nice ceremony here on Memorial Day: at Forest Hill there are two areas designated "Soldiers' Rest", on each side of the main Mausoleum. On the left is found Union Rest, and on the right Confederate Rest. There are 100 stones marking the graves of men who died in the Civil War. (The Confederate soldiers buried here died at Camp Randall, the prison camp here in town, and I find their graves very poignant indeed, as the truth is, they were probably very young, very frightened, homesick and lonely, and likely many died from dysentary and other wretchednesses, far from home and cold.)
At each site there is a small service; there is a small representative group of reenactors of the Iron Brigade, a squad of Veterans to fire a salute (this year I think might have been the first that did not have any veterans of World War II included) and a Color Guard. There are speeches, a prayer and concluding remarks at the Union Rest - and then everyone marches down to Confederate Rest where a similar service is held. There are Confederate reenactors present as well. It's actually very moving indeed....OK, I admit it, I cry my eyes out every year. I usually make it until the playing of "Taps", but then it's all over for me.

For the occasion, small American flags are placed at each Union grave - and small Confederate state flags at Confederate Rest. (See above right.)

Here is the Color Guard forming up - again, this year there were no representatives from WW II, I believe. There was an additional bit this year: the ashes of a very old flag were carried by The Widow (a woman present every year wearing the "high mourning" of the Civil War) and her escort, an Eagle Scout. At the appropriate time, they proceeded to the base of the large flagpole in the center of Union Soldiers' Rest and there scattered the ashes of the flag. Comments were made about those men who "carried the colors" in the Civil War, and how many tales of bravery...from both sides...of boys falling, only to have the flag taken up by another soldier and carried forward again.

Following these very moving ceremonies - since our day in 1996 - the Iron Brigade reenactors form up and march up to the Fairchild plot. This is not part of the "public ceremony" as advertised in the paper, and the only "public" attendees are usually two or three folks who follow along out of curiosity. At the gravesite the leader of the Brigade makes a few patriotic comments about Fairchild and a volley is fired in his honor under the watchful eye of myself and Sally and Mr Dearling - then they march back down to the Union Rest to disband and enjoy the rest of their day.

I like to think that Sally's ancestral family is gathered, watching us all: Sally and Jairus observing their wonderful descendant, sister Sarah nodding approvingly at me, and Lucius, bride Frances and brother Cassius exchanging bemused looks. The last couple of years the leader asks his soldier-reenactors if anyone has any comments before he begins...they never have. NEXT year, I'm going to step up and say, "May I?" and deliver a shortened version of the speech I delivered on our Centennial Memorial Day; it is my earnest hope that I can end by saying something about our own soldiers coming home, but that's just the old hippie talking.

Note: Mr Johnson passed away in 2005; after seeing him on Memorial Day for nine years I arrived that year to see the tripod of muzzle-loaders with his kepi on top and his shoes. I was invited, to join his predecessor and others at a small memorial in the mausoleum. I visit him every year, mindful of his enthusiastic assistance to some ol' lady from Madison who wanted to honor a "dead Civil War guy" on the 100th anniversary of his death. Mr. Johnson was a man of dignity and elegance not seen so much any more, and I really do miss him every Memorial Day.


Kitty Mommy said...

Wow. Just wow.

And I have to say that I completely agree with the anti-war, but not anti-soldier mindset. In fact, most of my anti-war sentiment comes from the fact that so many of the soldiers that are killing and being killed are just kids, technically only the employees of the ones with the beef in the first place. If the dudes that declared war were in the actual battle, things would probably look a lot different.

Alwen said...

The anti-war, not anti-soldier, sentiment seems to be the prevailing one my husband encounters when he is in uniform.

He's in the Michigan National Guard, and a lot more of his fellow Guard members are anti-war than you might think.

Marty52 said...

This is a wonderful post... thank you so much from a Vietnam era veteran. It must be rewarding (and fun!), for both you and the family, to go through and sort, catalogue, and celebrate a family such as this. Very cool.

Grandma Connie said...

Dale Harriet,
I read a historically based novel called I *think* "Widow of the South". This story sounds familiar as she described the battlefield and the terrible death and carnage and it seems to me, the story of the fellow who lost his arm was in that. Do you know of this book? Is it in fact the same story? It was a real eye-opener for me, a Canadian that doesn't know much Canadian History never mind US History. In fact, I should be more knowledgeable, since we have one of the best re-enactiment forts of the fur trade in Canada. I've been there many, many times. I have 4 daughters and they went on countless school trips there. Plus, everytime a relative visits us, we take them there to see the fort. We have a LOT of relatives from Scotland and southern Ontario that we have toured (dragged?) around the site. And I still learn so many new things every time I visit.

dale-harriet said...

Grandma Connie - oh you do INDEED have the bestest fur posts; which one in particular were you referring to? Our closest one (of which we are HUGELY fond) is Old Ft. William in Thunder Bay. We also ADORE the Fortress at Louisbourg in Nova Scotia - in fact, we MIGHT be going there again in July, although it's a bit dicey, what with gasoline being cheaper by us than French perfume. We also visited Ste Marie Among the Huron and liked it very much, though I don't think they have reenactments there. Mr Dearling and I are shameless "New France-o-philes", what can I say?

Grandma Connie said...

Dale Harriet,
We do live near your bestest fav Old Fort William. In fact, we live 5 minutes away from the *real* site of the Fort which is now a run down railway yard with one small monument commemorating the Fort that once was there. And we are maybe 10 minutes from the *new* fort.
I had a friend years ago from my LLL days whose husband was the head of the History dept. at the University of Toronto. When they came here, I took them to the Fort thinking they would see every small inaccuracy and find it too touristy. Well was I wrongity wrong wrong wrong! He was in heaven and in fact, was arrested and thrown in the jail as a coconspirator in a reenactment with the partner who *was* in fact thrown in jail in of a famous incident (which I can't recall right now). Best of all, when we arrived at the fort, we were greeted by one of the children's program guides, who asked if all the children (we had 7 in total with us) would like to take the special childrens tour where they taught them some of the games that the voyageurs played to pass the time and let them do some hands on work in the canoe shed and the foundry. Tim so wanted to explore without the kids dragging us this way and that and I thought he was going to kiss the girl when she walked off with the kids for 2 whole hours. My only regret was that he wasn't there for the Great Rendevous on July 1st.
P.S. Do you know the book I mentioned "Widow of the South"??

dale-harriet said...

grandma connie - (feel free to e-mail me, if you like!) See now, way we see it, if you live an exemplary life, when you die you go to Ft. William {grin}. We DID go to the Encampment there, and it was nothing short of HEAVENLY. In fact, a small bunch o' sheep were lolling around in the meadow right behind our lodge. I eyeballed the situation, but figured they probably DID know how many sheep they had, so I turned it loose....and no, not familiar with the book, but I'm looking it up and will report back!