Sunday, May 27, 2018
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Marilou Johanek

Civil War monuments reach across the ages


Soldiers and Sailors Monument


The names bring it home in a personal way. The years have worn away some of the lettering, carved in sandstone and limestone, but plenty of the inscriptions are still legible and still demand recognition.

Under "Register of Deaths," on the prominent Civil War monument guarded by an iron fence in my northern Ohio village, the list of local boys is long. The dead are acknowledged in no particular order, mostly by company, regiment, battle site, date of death.

Along the entire length of the simple, four-sided obelisk, topped with an eagle with fully extended wings, a multitude of engravings displays the essentials.

J. Sivers, Co. G 24, Shiloh, died April 7, 1862.

Cor. W. Bellamy, Co. G 55, Bull Run, died August 31, 1862.

A. Melville, Co. D 8, Antietam, died Sept. 17, 1862.

J.R. Myer, Co. C 55, Gettysburg, died July 3, 1863.

W. Burrell, Co. B 101, Nashville, died Jan. 28, 1863.

G. Chase, Co. E 7, Marietta Ga., died Oct. 3, 1864.

J. Vansise, Co. E 9, Athens, Ala. died May 12, 1864.

Row after row of young soldiers. They died as officers and infantrymen in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland. But once they were small-town Ohioans as far removed from war as you and I.

Above the litany of the lost on the gray marker, a chiseled "Register of Living" heralds hometown soldiers who survived.

They came back to resume their mid-19th century lives from Lookout Mountain, Mission Ridge, Cold Harbor, Hatches Run, Fort Fisher, Fort Pillow, Knoxville, Richmond, Atlanta , Nashville, and other places best forgotten.

Many of Ohio's sons returned broken. All rejoined their families changed by what they saw and suffered. Blurry period photos show several Civil War veterans from my community attending the dedication ceremonies of the monument in their honor.

On July 4, 1867, they stood where I stand today, in what used to be a hitching lot for horses during the town's heyday. After the war, the land was transformed into a quaint public square with grass and trees that still tower near a 28- foot shrine to the personal sacrifices of the nation's bloodiest conflict.

As our Union, forged in unimaginable horror and torment, begins an observance of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, I studied the old landmark in the square and reflected on the hard history it represents. The specter of a painful past beckoned me to a time no American wants to revisit.

It was a time when a polarized nation tore itself in two on a scale of savagery that a combination of future wars has never come close to surpassing. The staggering numbers behind the names on countless Civil War monuments from Ohio to Texas don't square with the sanitized view we prefer to wrap around our freedom-loving heritage.

But only a few generations ago, it was reality. Ohio contributed 319,189 volunteers to the cause of crushing rebellious countrymen and 35,475 sons of the state paid for it with their lives.

After four years of monumental fighting between the North and South, 620,000 Americans were dead, killed by gunshot, disease, starvation, or massacre. The agony and destruction we inflicted upon ourselves were impossible to grasp then and now.

We try to suppress or detach ourselves from what we cannot comprehend, but like a "childhood traumatic event," as filmmaker Ken Burns put it in his documentary series, the singular disaster of the Civil War always invades our consciousness. It was and still is a defining moment in our collective narrative.

In countless public squares and city parks, Civil War-era statues and monuments rise as testaments to the scourge of brother turning against brother, of civility turning into unspeakable carnage. The surnames of the fallen have faded in the weathered facades, but the lesson of their struggle recedes from relevance at our peril.

God help us if our modern- day affinity to divide and conquer instead of debate and compromise dooms us to repeat an intolerant-to-the-death history. I gaze again at the names of Ohioans from my village whose lives were cut tragically short in a wretched standoff that couldn't be resolved without mortar fire.

From Shiloh to Gettysburg, they reach across the ages to remind modern society about the sad fate of countrymen caught up in a combative quest for power at any cost.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.

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