By lex, on May 28th, 2007
On June 17th, 1775, Joseph Warren – a teacher, doctor, President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and the man who sent Paul Revere on his famous “midnight ride” – was killed defending the wall at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Having been recently appointed a major general by the Massachusetts congress but the commission not yet in effect, he had been asked by General Israel Putnam and Colonel William Prescott to take over command of the revolutionary defenses. He declined, serving as a private soldier instead.
The first two British assaults were repulsed, but the third carried the battlements even as the colonial army ran out of ammunition. Warren was killed in the final assault, shot by a British officer who recognized him. The British army won the field that day, but at a terrible price relative to their numbers – British General Henry Clinton wrote in his diary that, “A few more such victories would have surely put an end to British dominion in America.”
Warren was one of 140 Americans that died in battle that day, and one of perhaps 8,000 battle deaths in the Revolution, which lasted 8 years and resulted in at least another 17,000 non-battle deaths. The conflict engaged the efforts of 217,000 met at arms and had begun as an affirmation that American citizens should enjoy the same political freedoms as those of their peers in the metropolitan center. It ended in the birth of a new and sovereign nation founded upon the radical notion of liberty in opposition to tyranny.
For what they did we remember them.
On June 1st, 1813 Captain James Lawrence, commanding officer of the USS Chesapeake fell mortally wounded on the quarterdeck of his frigate, a victim of small arms fire. His ship had sailed from Boston Harbor determined to engage a fighting captain named Philip Broke, commander of the HMS Shannon in blockade off the coast. The war had broken out between the young United States and her old master over sailors’ rights, free trade and the question of who should set limits on the westward expansion of a restless nation. As he was carried below, Lawrence told his surviving officers – all of whom had been wounded by a galling fire directed upon their quarterdeck by guns both great and small – to “fight her ’til she sinks and don’t give up the ship!”
The ship was taken by a British boarding party, but Lawrence’s friend Oliver Hazard Perry would learn from his friend’s sacrifice and stitch those words on the battle standard he wore to victory over the British squadron at Lake Erie in September 1813. We learn them still.
Nearly 500,000 Americans served under arms in some capacity during the War of 1812, 2,260 were killed in action and another 17,000 succumbed to disease and accidents. The war lasted nearly three years and was fought to a strategic draw but nevertheless solidified the national identity of an infant nation even as the vigorous defense of Canada by British regulars and local militias terminally ended its northern aspirations. The warrior ethos of the US Navy was molded there, as single-ship victories by heavy American frigates over adversaries from the world’s oldest and most powerful navy cemented a tradition of honor, courage and commitment. These characteristics would be called upon again and again by an island nation in her time of need.
For what they did we remember them.
Our Indian Wars spat and guttered from before the Revolution all the way up until 1898, taking the life of George Armstrong Custer along the way while opening up the westward frontier all the way to the Pacific Ocean and teaching us a specific lesson on the dangers of hubris on the one hand, and on the other the general lesson that savagery in warfare was by no means a characteristic exclusively limited to our foes. Many tens of thousands died over the years, great warriors in blue and great warriors in buckskin and all too often non-combatants on every side. Nearly all of them fought for the right as they saw it, usually in exceptional circumstances of great hardship. Great bravery and low barbarism were sufficient to share all around even as it became clear over time that the outcome was never seriously in doubt.
But we remember them still. We remember them all.
Major Levi Twiggs, USMC, would fall to enemy fire on 13 September 1847. With him at Chapultepec, 39 Marines – 35 of them officers and NCOs – would lay down their lives and earn the “Blood Stripe” for future non-commissioned officers while memorializing “the halls of Montezuma” in song forever. On the 9th of March, 1847 a combined naval and infantry force conducted the first large-scale amphibious assault in US history at the Battle of Veracruz. Eighteen American soldiers would die in the 20-day campaign, during which such names as Robert E. Lee, George Meade, Ulysses S. Grant and Thomas Jackson – later to be called “Stonewall” Jackson – first entered the ledgers of martial note. They would meet again in time, but not before 1733 soldiers died to hostile fire in the Mexican-American War and another 12,000 died non-battle deaths in a campaign that integrated an independent Texas into the union and defined our southern borders. For the first time – but not the last – domestic politics would divide America even as over 78,000 of her armed forces won victories on a far-flung battlefield.
For the greatness of the country that they deeded us by their sacrifice, we remember them.
On September 17, 1862 generals Robert E. Lee and George McLellan tested strength of arm against American arm on the way to the single bloodiest day in US history at a battlefield called, variously, Sharpsburg or Antietam. The result was twenty-three thousand casualties on both sides and 3,600 killed in return for a battle of very little of tactical consequence that nevertheless marked a significant strategic victory for a Union army that, up until that point, had reeled from disaster to defeat. One of those who fell that day was Private A. Hicks Baker, formerly a newspaper writer from Columbus, Texas.
At age 23, Pvt Baker was fighting for the right of his state to self-determination by serving with Company B of the 5th Texas Infantry – the famous Texas Brigade of General John Bell Hood’s division in the Army of Northern Virginia. Opposite him on the field of battle, in rank and in cause was Union General Joseph Mansfield, a professional soldier from the Old Army. Born in Connecticut, he had risen slowly in the peacetime service, but served honorably in the Mexican campaign. Wounded at Monterrey and breveted to lieutenant colonel for bravery there, he was promoted again to colonel at Buena Vista in 1847.
Fighting against Hood’s Texans at Antietam – and perhaps against Pvt Baker himself – he received a mortal wound to the stomach, dying the next day in the cause of preserving the union. The repulse of the Confederate army from Maryland gave Abraham Lincoln the victory he needed to announce the Emancipation Proclamation, explicitly tying the northern cause for the first time to the liberation of southern slaves – a cause that would in four years’ time claim the lives of over 623,000 American soldiers on both sides, at least 200,000 of them in battle. The work that they began but that we have not yet concluded was the task of wiping away entirely the birth stain and legacy of our country’s original sin. Well over 3 million Americans on both sides contested this, the signal issue of their day.
For the martial legacy bequeathed by southern valor and the moral clarity delivered through northern determination, we remember them. We remember both sides.
On the June 1st, 1898, Corporal William F. Johnson of Troop B, 10th Cavalry fell coming to the desperate need of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Raiders as they charged up San Juan Hill under the withering fire of a determined Spanish defense. Of the 385 battle deaths in the Spanish-American War (and over 2,000 non-battle deaths), he was one of 124 American soldiers to die in battle on that hill alone. He was also a member of the “Buffalo Soldiers,” African American veterans of the Indian Wars and the acknowledged saviors of the day.
Five of his race would win the Medal of Honor for services rendered during the Spanish-American War, which would see America begin to recognize the dignity and courage of its black soldiers even as it bound up the national wounds of the Civil War, freed the Cuban citizenry from an increasingly oppressive imperial yoke, and announced the arrival of a young but energetic nation on the international stage of affairs.
Today we remember Corporal Johnson, Troop B, 10th Cavalry, who fought and died courageously given only second hand gear and under a regime of systemic prejudice. We remember them all.
(Posthumous) Medal of Honor recipient Frank Luke of the Army Air Corps was killed in action on September 29th, 1918. Luke shot down 14 enemy aircraft – including 10 balloons, thought to be a particularly “hard target” at the time – over a space of 8 days. Shot down himself over enemy lines he refused to surrender, continuing to fight with a pistol in hand until killed by German soldiers. He was the second ranking ace behind Eddie Rickenbacker, and his service coincided with the first tactical use of aviation in combat. Strategy was still to come.
Over 4 million US servicemen answered the call to arms when America finally joined the European intramural slaughter in 1917, coming in on the side of western democracy and against eastern militarism and autocracy. By the summer of 1918, 10,000 fresh American troops joined the battle every day, demoralizing a Central Powers alliance that had already bled itself nearly white in years of vicious trench warfare. Over 53,000 Americans died on European battlefields, and another 63,000 died non-battle deaths in the two years we spent engaged in combat. It was to be the war that ended all wars.
We remember them.