They came from the east and from the west; from the north and from the south. Dish washers, cattle rustlers, pencil pushers, street sweepers, ditch diggers, bank tellers, school teachers, moonshiners, coal miners, potato farmers, pan handlers, and every other profession imaginable and at least half a dozen unimaginable ones. They came from mountain top towns and timber-strewn hamlets, from noisy cities with their overcrowded streets, and from meadows and marshes populated more by bugs and beasts than men. A few came from old money or newfound success, but most were privileged only to have come from the type of good fortune that is measured more accurately by homespun happiness than by dollars and cents.
They were all free men, some even carefree, but they came because that hard-won liberty of conscience now constrained them—if not completely enslaved them—to do their duty as free men. They didn’t come because they were made to come, they came because they had to come. Honor called and humility, however imperfectly, swiftly answered.
They were men who loved peace. So they came to fight for it. They understood that peace was a precious but fragile commodity that, if not preserved even at the price of their lives, would be stripped from them just as it had been torn from the hands of so many other men and would leave them to exist in a world not fit for the living. Malice was as far from their hearts as the morning dew is from the evening sun. They didn’t so much hate the enemies before them as much as they loved the men, women, and children behind them. So now they rose to stand in the bitter between.
The world was at war. Their respective worlds, however remote they might have seemed at the time, could not continue forever untouched by the increasing tumult abroad. A plague had settled upon the peoples of the east and was spreading like a wildfire breathed out by the mighty Hephaestus. For these men, that smoke rising on the distant horizon was more than a dark omen; it was a foreshadowing of things to come. Just as it was not invisible to them, they were not invincible to it. So sure and steady were the signs of impending conflict that they may as well have been the thundering hoofbeats of the horsemen of the apocalypse. They knew that they must either rally together—ten million men as one man—and defeat the dread dragon in his lair, or else litter the languid earth like so many embers of Vesuvian ash to be trampled under its serpentine feet.
And so they came. White men, with skin baked and blackened by the perpetual gaze of the relentless sun, left their farms and fields to shoulder this burden with black men whose skin was now ashen and white from wear and many hard winters. Red men joined hands with those who were once their natural-born adversaries in order to defend a shared, native soil. The petty rivalries between their ancestors now halted in pursuit of the mutually enjoyed hope for their descendants. Men of every shade and hue hitched themselves to a common cause, a common code, a common creed—libertas. This multicolored company was not colorblind, but rather colorbound. They stood united in the belief that all men were inextricably tied together by the same crimson cord. When any of their number was struck by the clenched fist of oppression, the same erubescent stream rushed forth. It was the conviction that the Ship of Freedom sails on a ruddy sea into which tributaries from every tongue and tribe issue that compelled them to give their latest breath, and if need be their collective blood, to keep it afloat.
Freedom is such an expensive thing. And we will never know anything of its true value until we understand something of its true cost. Fathers gave sons and sons gave fathers. Even though they were somewhat aware of the potential price that they might be forced to pay they were completely ignorant of the certain cost. Most of them were prepared for death. So few of them were prepared for living in the wake of so much dying. They bore, and still bear, the weight of war upon their shoulders. All of this to lighten the load of their fellows. Men make war. That is the awful reality that exists in our fallen world. Abel is dead and Cain still lives. We have not yet beaten our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. But it is also true that war has made men. Good men. Noble men. Honorable men. Men of whom the world is not worthy. Such men are gracious gifts given in order to make the rest of us better men. Grateful men. Men who know that the least that we can do is say, “thank you.”
*Image credit: Wunderstock