Irish Philadelphia

The Web guide to Irish music and culture in and around the Quaker City

Monday, November 21, 2005

War and Remembrance

I see dead people. They're eating hot dogs and shopping for tacky souvenirs.

I see dead people. They're eating hot dogs and buying tacky souvenirs.

I am in Gettysburg for Remembrance Day, commemorating the 142nd anniversary of Lincoln's dedication of the Soldiers National Cemetery. Held each year in November, Remembrance Day is one of the most popular events in the town of Gettysburg and at the national military park. Along with the tourists and Civil War buffs, there are soldiers everywhere. The place is awash in blue and gray, re-enactors from all over the country who converge on this small Pennsylvania town every year to do just what the day recommends: remember.

It's disconcerting at first to see someone who looks like Robert E. Lee diving into the short stack at the Perkin's Pancake House or to share an elevator ride at the Day's Inn with a rowdy band of rebel sharpshooters.

But I can hardly throw stones. First of all, I have been known to wear what some people rudely refer to as a "skirt." Far be it from me to criticize people who dress funny. Second, on this day I am wearing the blue tunic and cap of a Union Army drummer boy. I have just got to be the oldest little drummer boy in town.

I am here with my friend Joe Cassidy and his wife Christina. Joe is a bagpiper. He and I are in the same band. Christina is a re-enactor and member of the W.S. Hancock Society, dedicated to honoring the memory of Union Major General Winfield Scott Hancock. Every year for the past few years, Joe has escorted the Hancock Society contingent down Baltimore Street through the center of town to the national cemetery in the big parade. This year, Joe, who knows I can be persuaded to march in just about any parade, any time, has asked me to accompany him.

The Hancock Society happily provides me with a ferociously itchy flannel uniform (note to self: next year, wear long johns) and a replica of an old-fashioned rope-tension drum. With my cheesy little goatee, I look pretty authentic. Among re-enactors, authenticity is essential.

So there we are, Joe and me, marching through town, sounding pretty good. We're playing "Minstrel Boy" and "The Wearing of the Green," and about every three minutes, someone runs out to snap our picture. I'm starting to groove on this whole Civil War thing.

Finally, we turn left off Baltimore into the park. And as I drag my drum off to the side of the road and watch the rest of the parade roll by, it hits me. Somewhere along the line, it probably hits everyone. That is, it suddenly becomes difficult to tell the difference between the live people and the ghosts.

It's not the first time today I've sensed the presence of those long-forgotten heroes. Early that morning, Joe and I had paused briefly to visit the Irish Brigade Memorial, an imposing green granite cross nestled among a small stand of trees. It was easy to imagine that all those spirits were still out there somewhere, resting easy now and just watching. We touched the base of the monument, as so many people seem to do. It's a kind of pat on the back for an almost unbelieveably selfless job well done. And there in the glade, before we hopped back into Joe's van, we stopped and played "Boys of the Old Brigade."

It's the end of the day's festivities now. Re-enactors are streaming into the park. A troop of Confederate riflemen strolls past, followed by a Yankee fife and drum corps. They turn off into the field where, not all that long ago, men in similar uniforms fought a bloody pitched battle. Nothing less than the future of a nation was at stake. Between the two sides, 51,000 were killed, wounded or declared missing.

Today, wave upon wave of soldiers -- and some sailors -- marches past, boots hitting the blacktop in an age-old cadence, banners fluttering in a light afternoon breeze, brass buttons glittering in the fading sunlight.

And suddenly, there's Lincoln, and he's reciting the words that most of us were forced to memorize in elementary school. Here and now, the words strike a chord.

Lincoln's words seem every bit as relevant today. Soldiers in the year 2005 are engaged in an unpopular war. Regardless of my personal feelings about that war, admiration does not begin to describe the feelings I have for those who continue to offer "the last full measure of devotion."

So while at first blush it might seem vaguely ridiculous to commemorate a war that ended nearly 150 years ago, in a sense, this is not about the Civil War, or any war in particular. It's about all wars, and all soldiers.

And nothing seems more "fitting and proper," as Lincoln advises, than to remember.

- J.M.