Art Callaham: When we forget history, it can repeat itself

September 25, 2011|By ART CALLAHAM

I’ve written a fair amount recently concerning a vision and prospects for a rejuvenation of Hagerstown’s downtown. While I was doing that, a very important date in history passed me by. Sept. 17, 2011, was the 149th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam fought during America’s Civil War. Although this year’s date is not a usual time for commemoration — next year is the sesquicentennial, or 150th anniversary — a mention of it is worth doing each and every year so that we, as Americans, don’t forget.

If this sounds a little like a reprise of my column concerning 9/11, you are correct. We, as Americans, often tend to forget those things that are deemed as wrongful or hurtful. Memories about slavery, or the Korean and Vietnam wars, or the Great Depression, or the Holocaust move quickly to the “back burners” of our minds only to stay there until those memories are lost to obscure references in some dusty old history book or to our own demise.

When the flames of remembrance go out and our corporate memory is purged, that is when the old adage “history repeats itself” comes into play. When we forget the evils of slavery, we close our eyes to the new slaveholders — drugs, alcohol, financial greed and more. When we forget the “unpopular wars,” we find it harder to relate to our national will that values freedom for all humankind. When we forget the hard times of the Depression or the terrorism of humans that was the Holocaust, we will fail to be vigilant about our financial future and the fact that terrorism might be no further away than the purchase of an airline ticket.

Many have said that “today the world is a scary place.” I say it is only scary if we forget. So, a week late, let’s remember the “bloodiest day in the history of American warfare.” The number I always use is 23,465 American casualties (killed, wounded or missing) that day. Others have different numbers.  

The bottom line is we just don’t know. The carnage that day was so horrific that there is no exact count. But we haven’t forgotten that inexactness. Today, our military goes to great lengths to account for all casualties. This is the value of not forgetting. Imagine the grief in Civil War-era families caused by simply not knowing the fate of a loved one.

Also worth remembering are the character traits of tenacity and courage. Both were displayed many times that day along Antietam Creek in September 1862. Take for example Brig. Gen. Thomas Meagher and the famed Irish Brigade. What amount of courage is necessary to stand in straight lines, 50 to 70 yards from others lying in a sunken road behind a split rail fence and fire volley after volley, all the while having volley after volley fired back?

Or to stand up in “Bloody Lane” like Col. John Gordon?  Gordon was commanding a regiment of Alabamians firing back into Meagher’s straight lines. Gordon was wounded four times, the fourth producing a hole in his kepi (hat), when a miniball struck him in the face, knocking him down and rendering him unconscious. When he fell, Gordon landed facefirst in his hat. If not for the hole in Gordon’s hat made by his fourth wounding, he would have drowned in his own blood.

Gordon had promised Gen. Robert E. Lee that he would “hold his position until the sun went down or victory was achieved.”  It took five wounds to overcome Gordon’s tenacity to make good on a promise.

Certainly, today, some would call Meagher’s show of courage stupidity. Others would contend that Meagher’s propensity for drink manifested itself as “liquid courage” rather than a personal value statement. And was Gordon’s tenacity in trying valiantly to keep his promise just stubbornness? I don’t think so. Both men displayed character values that are important to remember today.

It might be trite to say “we will no longer be the land of the free if we are not the home of the brave,” but forgetting bravery and courage will most certainly have an impact on our freedom.  Thomas Edison failed hundreds of times while inventing the electric light bulb, yet his tenacity for success has helped light the world. These are lessons in character values displayed by many including Meagher and Gordon along Antietam Creek on Sept. 17, 1862. May there always be Americans who emulate those values.

Art Callaham is a community activist and president of the Washington County Free Library Board of Trustees.

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