His name was George. He was fair-haired and blue-eyed, a young farmer whose parents had come to Illinois shortly after it became a state. They’d come from his native Tennessee and settled near Illinois’ southeastern border.
He was married and had five children, the youngest barely 4. He was only 5’7 but had the constitution of an ox, a quality that no doubt came in handy while maintaining the 200 acres of farmland he owned in Pope County.
He joined at least one brother, several cousins, a nephew and brother-in-law to enlist in the US. Army. It was August 1862 and George was 37.
Meanwhile, hundreds of miles north, a dark-haired, dark-eyed Irishman had joined his elder brother and his family in another Illinois town, this one on the southwest border of the state, and a stone’s throw from St. Louis. John, barely 30, had come to the United States a few years earlier, crossing the ocean with a young daughter and son after his young wife had caught her sleeve on fire while cooking on an open hearth, dying of her injuries.
John’s family had railed against the British for centuries, and had managed only recently to escape a potato famine that left the country in starvation. He figured he knew a thing or two about fightin’ so he joined up.
As the boy did not survive the journey, John had only his daughter to kiss goodbye as he left her in the care of his brother and marched off to war. John never came back.
George may – or may not – have come home from the war. Less than half of his regiment did. According to a history of the regiment, before they were officially called into service in 1862, they were kept in a camp for a couple of months -- without tents, uniforms or guns. And in the late fall (this is Illinois, so it's um, cold,) with no tents, an outbreak of measles infected at least 100 of the troops, killing quite a few of them. Was this George's fate? Or, a year later, when the group was sent south and the rainy season caught them while they were deep in the swamps of Louisiana -- killing quite a few more soldiers -- was this where George's life ended? Or, despite a lack of discharge information, did he actually come home from the military and die perhaps of injuries or illness he’d contracted during the war?
One thing is certain: When George’s father drew up a will in September 1867, George was already dead.
George and John likely never met. I can’t swear they didn’t. I wasn’t there. But, a century after the Civil War, their histories would forever converge in the forms of George’s great-grandson and John’s great-great-granddaughter. I would be the product of that union.
Today, as we honor those who valiantly served our country, I hold up these two men. They are among the millions who have died in defense of this nation.
I proudly salute them and all those who, as I type this, are protecting our country today. Let us never forget those who have died, those who have served, and those who serve us still. So many of those who served are among the forgotten today. Too many.
Do whatever you can to support veterans’ causes , not just today but every day.