They are all gone now

The speech below was written by Dr. Joseph L. Harsh, who taught Civil War courses at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. This was his final address to his students to emphasize what he wanted them to take with them from his classes and teachings. We wanted to share this with you. Vic and Tom

The Last Lecture, By Dr. Joseph Harsh

They are all gone now.

The dewy cheeked boys, who left home before their first shave, their older brothers, who marched away from young wives clutching infants in their arms; and their grizzled fathers, whose gray steaked hair and beards belied arms as stout as their hearts.

They are all gone.

The men who discovered at Bull Run that war was not a lark, but a vulture; who crept through the bloody corn field and knelt in the bloody lane; who crawled through the snows on Marye’s Heights, who would not yield on Little Round Top and who climbed the post- and-rail fence on the Emmitsburg Pike amidst a hail of bullets; they who lay among the burning trees of the Wilderness; and who endured the dark, stinking trenches of Petersburg. They who surrendered at Appomattox, and they who did not jeer the vanquished there.

They are all gone.

The men who lost a leg, an arm, an eye, a career, a farm, a fortune. Also gone are the women, who gave up a husband, a son, a brother, a sweetheart.

They are all gone.

They who learned that life is passionate, precarious and precious. They whose generation was touched with fire.

They are all gone.

We who are their great, and great-great, and great-great-great grandchildren can never know them now. We can never see them, or hear them, or touch them.

Said one of them, who was not a soldier but who also forfeited his life in the war, while standing among the freshly dug graves of Gettysburg, “the world can never forget what they did here.” 

But he was wrong, we can forget. We have too often forgotten. We forgot when we built cookie-cutter town-houses on the fields of Chantilly, and pricey, pseudo-chateaux on Longstreet’s Wilderness, and motels and t-shirt shops on Cemetery Ridge. And, it cannot be that we were remembering, when we contemplated building a race track at Brandy Station.

Yes, they are all gone now.

And the least we can do – and, sadly, the most that we can do – to reach back through fast receding years and thank them for the pain, the suffering, the sacrifice, to thank them for our United States, is to preserve, to protect, and to defend the ground they hallowed.

But our obligation is much greater than to thank them. Our most sacred duty, our ultimate loyalty, is to remember, to keep alive, and to pass on their willingness to sacrifice, their love of country, their devotion to freedom.

We are the future , that they fought for, but ultimately we are only a link between the past and the future. This generation may never be called upon to make huge, soul wrenching sacrifices of life and fortune.

But someday, and it is inevitable as the rising sun – a future generation will again be touched by fire and will be summoned to defend our country and our freedom.

If our children, or grandchildren, or great-grandchildren, when that call comes, are too soft, too lazy, too uncaring to meet the challenge, not only will they fail, but we fail also, and so will fail every generation which has preceded us.

Antietam, Gettysburg, and Appomattox will have been in vain.

Yes they are all gone now.

And soon – in a blink of the cosmic eye of time – we also will all be gone. But we are all connected. The Civil War is not a closed book. It is a continuing story that never ends.

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