Online Exhibits@Yale

"The Memory of a Soldier": Reconciliation Continued

Joseph Holt to Mrs. V.G. Armistead (10 July 1913)

“Under a most careful searching, early after the battle, the United States Government disinterred the slain, and assembled all not claimed by relatives, in the Na- tional [sic] Cemetery,” proclaimed Joseph Holt to Gage’s sister Mrs. V.G. Armistead. 

Importantly, in a later letter to Mrs. V.G. Armistead, Holt emphasized that Jeremiah Gage had been laid to rest amongst the “Unknown Dead” at the National Cemetery at Gettysburg. “Under a most careful searching, early after the battle, the United States Government disinterred the slain, and assembled all not claimed by relatives, in the Na- tional [sic] Cemetery,” proclaimed Holt. Holt was entranced by the beauty of the National Cemetery, and decreed that the cemetery’s monument demonstrated “the nation's recognition of the sacrifice and valor of the ‘Unknown Dead.’” Like Whitman, Holt trembled at “the significant word ‘Unknown,’” bringing all the dead into a collective that aimed to turn them into brothers. “I am clear-ly [sic] satisfied,” concluded Holt, “that Jere Gage rests in one of these cir-cles [sic], for his body with many others was in a con-spicuous [sic] part of the battlefield." 

However, Holt’s declarations are problematicJeremiah Gage, as a son of the Confederacy, was most likely not buried in the Gettysburg National Cemetery. Rather, his body was probably reinterred in a Confederate cemetery, for the reinternment program created by the national government at the close of the war generally honored Union soldiers in national cemeteries. A small number Confederates are buried at the Gettysburg National Cemetery, but the likelihood of Jeremiah Gage being one those few is so small that Holt’s certainty in his letter is imprudent. Thus in death and through his likely final resting place, Jeremiah Gage lay separate from the Union, reflecting his lifetime allegiance to the Confederacy. Holt’s perspective in 1913 groups all the dead together no matter where they were actually buried.

Furthermore, Holt’s opinion represents the perspective of the war supported by the American government, as evidenced by the national postcard Holt enclosed in his letter to Armistead. The postcard served as a 50-year commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg, and shows a border colored equally in blue and grey. The text of the card pushes Reconciliation indiscreetly, stating, “After the lapse of half a century, the North and South meet with the east and west, under the nation’s flag, to do honor to the soldiers still living and to pay loving and respectful homage to those who are asleep in the stillest of slumbers.” With the aid of time, the deceased soldiers were easily grouped and thrown into a theoretical mass grave that denied their actual partisanship in order to advance an advantageous political myth.

At the Decoration Day celebrations of May 30th 1877, General Isaac Caitlin spoke of the sacrifice and valor displayed by the soldiers during the Civil War. “‘I love the memory of a soldier,’” proclaimed Caitlin, “‘I love the very dust that covers his mouldering body.’”At this veteran’s day celebration, Caitlin eagerly pronounced any “true soldier” his “brother.” By doing so, Caitlin attempted to peacefully bring together Northern and Southern veterans, but his eulogy ultimately forsook the war’s true partisan nature. Caitlin claimed he loved the soldier’s body, but when he said “mouldering body,” he did not mean Samuel Graybill’s “mouldering body” of which Levi S. Graybill wrote.

Caitlin, Holt, and others loved the Body—the corpus composed of grand ideas linking together Northerner and Southerner by virtue of their deaths. In death, the men ultimately became blurred, the bodies they so carefully posed and prepared in their photographs collected into one indistinguishable form for the sake of a national myth. The dead, silent in their graves, would only be recognized as a mass. 

"The Memory of a Soldier": Reconciliation Continued