NEW WEEK NEW FACE – 31 October 2016 – GUEST POST by SCOTT R. REZER
On the Altar of My Country
By: Scott R. Rezer
Next month, our nation, as it should, will once more take time to honor the veterans of our military, so it is appropriate to take a moment of reflection and look back at the idea of sacrificial duty as seen through the eyes of the Civil War soldier. In my novel, Love Abideth Still, I wrote a plain, unvarnished story of the sacrifice the soldiers of the Civil War endured, using actual letters as a model for the fictional letters between the two main characters. The letters, diaries, and personal accounts of the soldiers, and their loved ones back home, tell a far different, far more intimate story than history affords us.
Although primarily about love and forgiveness, the subtle, though constant, the themes of duty and sacrifice run deep throughout the story, providing tension not just between a husband and a wife, but between families and friends as well. In a letter to his wife Sarah, Taylor writes from the battlefield, “we have all been called to this duty. I am prepared to die if need be, though I pray it does not come to such a sacrifice for anyone of us”. These were not just empty words of a soldier trying to convince his loved ones at home of his beliefs and the necessity of his duty. It was quite common for soldiers on both sides of the Civil War to describe their deaths in the line of duty using such poetic terms as a sacrifice upon the altar of their country.
In his book, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999), James M. McPherson examines the values that motivated the soldiers of both the Union and Confederate armies during the war based on hundreds of letters and diaries still in existence. For the soldiers of the Civil War, the conflict was unlike any other, before or after. Until recently, historians often stated that Billy Yank and Johnnie Reb fought in the war simply out of duty with little understanding or regard for the reasons why he fought. Nothing could be further from the truth. No one statement can accurately describe the thoughts and motives of every soldier who fought in the Civil War. In general terms, the Confederates fought to achieve independence based on a set of values they held dear, particularly in regards to states’ rights and the continued institution of slavery, while the Union soldiers fought to preserve all they, and their forefathers, had fought to secure in the last eighty and seven years in creating a unified nation.
When President Lincoln initially called for 75,000 men to quell the uprising, the response was overwhelming. The South witnessed a similar reaction to their call to arms in defense of their newly established Confederacy. As McPherson writes, “How could it be otherwise? This was, after all, a civil war. Its outcome would determine the fate of the nation—of two nations, if the Confederacy won. It would shape the future of American society and of every person in that society. Civil War soldiers lived in the world’s most politicized and democratic country in the mid-nineteenth century. They had come of age in the 1850s when highly charged partisan and ideological debates consumed the American polity. A majority of them had voted in the election of 1860, the most heated and momentous election in American history. When they enlisted, many of them did so for patriotic and ideological reasons—to shoot as they had voted, so to speak… “.
As McPherson relates, one young Union soldier in 1863 summarized his duty as, “first my God, second my country, third my mother. Oh my country, how my heart bleeds for your welfare. If this poor life of mine could save you, how willingly would I make the sacrifice”. Another, older Union officer likewise wrote his wife in the same year, “If I never get home you will not say my life has been thrown away for naught. My country, glorious country, if we have only made it truly the land of the free… I count not my life dear to me if only I can help that glorious cause along”.
Perhaps, it was the romantic, Victorian mentality of mid-19th century America—people certainly do not write with such passion these days—a time we little understand or grasp today, which permitted these brave men to see their deaths as sacrifices upon the altar of their nation—they could see it as little else. “Theirs was an age of romanticism… a sentimental age when strong men were not afraid to cry (or weep, as they would say)… They were not posturing for public show. They were not looking back from years later through a haze of memory and myth about the Civil War. They were writing during the immediacy of their experiences…” (McPherson).
Now, let us not think for a moment that these valiant volunteers simply went off to war whispering a death wish on their grinning lips. Every soldier, every wife, mother, father, sister, brother, son and daughter, every cousin, aunt and uncle, every grandparent, friend and neighbor, knew they had little chance of returning home. As the war dragged on, that knowledge grew with every day spent on the lines, fighting the enemy. Despite the necessity of the war, not everyone took comfort in knowing their soldier risked life and limb for a cause that some found hard to understand. For too many, the eloquent statements of sacrifice the soldiers’ wrote became a reality. In the four years of the war, historians estimate that well more than 620,000 men were killed in action. To put that number in perspective, the combined total of losses in the eleven other conflicts in American history since is 648, 000, not to mention the more than 475, 000 wounded soldiers who returned home. In the North, one out every ten men lost their life, while in the South the ratio is three out of ten.
The list of casualties from the war is staggering even today. Despite the tremendous loss of life, though, the most tragic sacrifice upon the altar of the country may have been President Lincoln’s own at the close of the war. It was as if God had loaned him to the nation for just a short while and then took him back again, leaving the nation to grieve. Some believe that his death united the country more than anything he accomplished in life.
In Love Abideth Still, Sarah’s reaction to Taylor’s bold statement of duty and sacrifice is not well received in the story, at least at first, but Taylor continually tries to convince her of his reasons for fighting in the war. His words are eloquent, perhaps romantic, in the grand vein of the mid-19th century mindset. His words, however, ring true, echoing the sentiment of soldiers in countless letters of the war. “It is not lightly,” he wrote,” that we have resolved to take on our duty, nor is it some flight of fancy that has taken hold of us to join the war and fight. We do so because we believe the survival of our nation, our very way of life, hangs in the balance. We do so knowing well that many of us through injury or sickness or mortal blows will not return home. It is a great struggle that runs far deeper than the seeming political issues that many say divide us. I firmly believe either it is a testing of God to unify our resolve to be one nation or a terrible plague birthed in the fires of Hell meant to destroy the bastion of freedom our grandfathers fought so valiantly to create… It is to this cause we have been called forth to serve; it is for this just cause we must emerge victorious, however terrible the cost to each one of us. I pray only you will understand my actions, not that you would accept them… To what calamitous purpose God has allowed this war with its sacrifice and ruin of so many precious souls upon the altar of our country’s unity, is yet to be seen; but I have seen far too much of the evil men can do to one another, and it has affected me far more deeply than I would like… I have been through the worse a man can endure and still survive. Still, even with the loss of so much life, I would not abandon my duty to protect our bleeding country… I have committed myself anew to my sworn duty. I dare not break my oath to our regiment, or to our country…”
Love Abideth Still is far more than a simple story of a tragic war; it is a fictional novel of my own 3rd great-grandparents, Taylor Brant and Sarah Ann Rezer. Taylor died as a paroled prisoner of war, offering up his life on the altar of his country—the last full measure of duty. I may have put fictitious words into the mouth of my Civil War ancestor in his letters, but I am certain that he, as well as his comrades, would have felt and lived every word he wrote. Remembering the sacrifice of those who have paid the ultimate price for their duty is the least we can do to honor our veterans.
Scott R. Rezer was born in Doylestown, Pennsylvania in 1963. He met his wife and best friend while serving in the U.S. Air Force. They have two grown children and live in the Southwest. He is an indie published author of five historical fiction novels ranging from the Civil War to the Crusades to ancient Biblical history. Two of his books have garnered Editor’s Choice selections by the Historical Novel Society (The Leper King and Shadow of the Mountain). He is currently at work on a second Civil War novel.
As a maintenance technician in the U.S. Air Force, he worked on an aging, outdated nuclear missile system of questionable safety. He believes he may have been unwittingly exposed to radioactive material that altered his DNA and gave him his writing ability—well, maybe not. It could be he simply acquired his ability from his grandmother who was a local historian and writer. He could never ask her a simple question without hearing her say with a wink, “Go look it up.” In so doing, she managed to instill in him a love of history and a wonderful sense of discovery that have stuck with him ever since.
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Scott R. Rezer, New Week New Face, #NWNF, Guest Post, On the Altar of my Country, Love Abideth Still
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