Johnny Sisson was only fifteen years old when he marched off to war as a drummer boy for Company I, 51st Ohio Volunteer Infantry. He had twice run away, once from his guardian uncle in Tuscarawas County and once from his employer-farmer. He had joined a traveling band before abandoning that in Columbus to join the Union Army in February 1864 for the duration of the war. He was my great-great-grandfather.
That same year, down in southern Ohio, Aaron Barnhill also enlisted in the infantry. He signed up for one of the new regiments of “Hundred Days Men” that would serve for three months to protect bridges, hospitals, rail lines, and supply depots to free up veteran regiments for front-line combat duty. He marched off in the 141st Ohio. He was my great-great-uncle.
They joined the Chambers boys of the 7th West Virginia, Pvt. John Brown, Lt. Calvin Mingus of the 1st Ohio Heavy Artillery, U. S. cavalryman John Fauley, and several of my other great-great-grandfathers and great-great-uncles in the Federal forces. Their motives were the same — to fight the Rebels and restore the Union. None, to my knowledge, were ardent abolitionists or were fighting for civil rights and human equality (both noble causes). They fought because their country had been torn apart and their government needed them.
And, way down south, ancestors of some of my family members also joined the army, in this case, one that wore gray and butternut. They fought because their state needed them.
I am a product of the 1960s. I grew up in an era of great interest in the Civil War, sparked in part by the ongoing Centennial celebrations. I can vividly recall almost every Kodachrome slide in a lengthy presentation a visiting lecturer showed on a big screen in our assembly room at Newton Elementary School in White Cottage, Ohio. I often passed by the impressive equestrian statue to Phil Sheridan in nearby Somerset as our family visited relatives or took country jaunts. Still farther west on the same road in Lancaster was the home of William Tecumseh Sherman, an Ohio warrior ironically named for an earlier Ohio warrior. The Civil War was all around us — toy soldiers in the SS Kresge and Scott’s 5 & 10. TV shows. Magazine articles. Books and special presentations in the local library. History dioramas we made for school projects. Stories from my relatives of long-ago ancestors. Civil War weapons and relics displayed at the annual gun show at the Muskingum County Fairgrounds.
I was raised with a healthy respect for our military. My Dad was a veteran of World War II, an Air Force sergeant who landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy on June 7, 1944, in one of the support waves after D-Day. His uncle Pvt. Sanford Mingus was gassed in World War I and survived to tell me about it. Dad was a member of the American Legion, as were many of the men in our small lakeside town tucked in the hill country. A cousin fought in Korea. Other cousins were in Vietnam. A neighbor died there.
I was also raised to respect our flag, country, churches, and veterans, all of them, including former Confederates. I still respect their memory as American fighting men, whether or not they ever formally received the legal right to be called U. S. veterans (their widows later received the same right to military pensions as their former enemies).
Recently, I was in New Orleans the same day that Robert E. Lee’s statue was hauled down in that city. As a Northerner whose ancestors fought against the very man that statue honored, I joined with my Southern Civil War Round Table members in my dismay that the statue came down. Yes, I know Lee and his government had rebelled against the U. S. (my own 5th great-grandfather had rebelled against the English government and fought in the 1st New York in the American Revolution while some of his neighbors stayed loyal). Yes, I know the Klan and others used the Confederate eastern army battle flag for years to terrorize their victims and perpetuate their aims. Yes, I know as a former resident of southeastern Ohio that it also became associated with rebels, hillbillies, and good ole’ boys. Yes, I know the Confederate flag symbolizes terror, pain, and deep heartache for a good portion of our population.
I am not black, nor can I ever fully understand that deeply personal aspect of the passionate arguments against the Confederate statues and flags. I do not share their life experiences or their ancestors’ heritage, nor am I a civil rights expert. I am a chronicler of the local Underground Railroad, and deeply believe that in God’s all-knowing view, all men are created equal. No man has the right to own or mistreat another man.
I am the proud descendant of several patriotic Northern men who fought against those Rebel soldiers and their emblems on the battlefields of America at places like Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Kennesaw Mountain, Atlanta, Franklin, and Nashville. They served under commanders such as McClellan, Meade, Grant, Sherman, and Thomas. They left a legacy that their vanquished enemies were still Americans, soldiers who had resumed their lives and tried to assimilate back into society as best they could.
I am not a trained historian. My two boys are that, both holding master’s degrees in history and both being college professors. They are the professional historians. What I am is a long-time writer and story teller who enjoys chronicling Civil War history (on both sides; my particular specialty is the Confederate division of Jubal Early during the Gettysburg Campaign). As such, I abhor the taking down of Civil War statues without a firm plan in place to reinstall them honorably on battlefields and in museums. As a scientist, it reminds me of mixing chemicals blindly without a plan and without knowing the consequences, which can be explosive and deadly.
And that’s just has happened and is happening in modern America — a poorly thought out explosive mixture of personal emotions, severe criticisms, and blind loyalty to one’s own cause without any attempts to compromise or try to see each other’s viewpoints. There is a place and time to honor our American veterans’ memories — all of them. Blue and gray alike. White and black and brown and red and yellow. All of them.
If Confederate statues in public parks in Southern cities must come down because of public pressure, let’s have a solid plan to move them to suitable environments. There are plenty of battlefields in America that might be a fitting place for Lee, Jackson, Stuart, Beauregard, and the like if city councils bow to public pressure and insist on taking down their images. There are plenty of museums where they also might fit, and plenty of places to display the flag properly.
Let’s not wipe out the memory of the Civil War / War Between the States / War of the Rebellion / War of Northern Aggression / The Late Unpleasantness / War for the Union or whatever you want to call this American tragedy that cost more than 700,000 lives, many of them in the flower of their youth. Let’s never forget that men laid down their lives on blood-stained fields for causes in which they believed. American soldiers. The veteran of Gettysburg deserves the same respect as the veteran of Saratoga, the veteran of Fallen Timbers, the veteran of Belleau Wood, the veteran of D-Day, the veterans of Korea, and the veterans of Vietnam (my ancestors or relatives were at all of them). All.
Rise up, oh Civil War community. Yes, rise up! Don’t sit idly or bemoan the fact our heritage is being stripped. Find a solution. Fast. Work with the anti-Confederate, anti-Civil War opponents to formulate plans — good plans, useful plans– that if more statues and emblems must come down, they will be taken and replaced with honor on the fields where the men fought and bled, where they cried and screamed, where they swore and prayed as the bullets whizzed past or through them and the cannon roared.
We owe that generation respect, not hatred. We owe the current generation respect, not hatred. We must find common ground that will preserve the history for our grandchildren and interpret it properly, not bury it and forget it.
Johnny Sisson, Aaron Barnhill, Calvin Mingus, the Chambers boys, and all the American combat veterans’ DNA that courses through my own body, including my late father’s, demand that.