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James Brown, seated left, and Harold Becker, seated right, attend the graveside service for an unknown Civil War soldier in Franklin, Tenn., Saturday, Oct. 10, 2009. Brown, 97, of Knoxville, Tenn., is the son of a Confederate soldier who fought at Shiloh and Gettysburg, and Becker, 91, of Grand Rapids, Mich., is the son of a Union soldier who fought in the Battle of Franklin. The unknown soldier’s body was accidentally unearthed from a shallow grave by construction workers. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Civil War sons Harold Becker and James Brown, Sr., meet for first time.
My wife and I hosted a dinner tonight with Mr and Mrs Harold Becker (married 68 years) – Harold is a true living Union veteran’s son; and Mr James Brown, Sr., and escort Mary Cushman. Mr Brown is a true living Confederate veteran’s son.
Mr Becker got to our home several hours before Mr Brown did. I asked Mr Becker if he had ever met a living son of a Confederate veteran before. He said, “No.” I then asked, “What are you going to do when you meet Mr Brown tonight?” Mr Becker threw out a big smile and said, “I’m going to give him a big hug!”
Well . . . . a Confederate-son and a Union-son met in my living room around 6:00 pm tonight. All in attendance stood speechless with our eyes glued to the two men – both in their nineties – as they greeted one another. You could have heard a pin drop.
It seemed like these two men bonded in seconds as they immediately started sharing stories about their fathers – who literally fought on opposite sides in the Civil War.
What did they say first? They both immediately talked abut how their fathers did not hold grudges after the war.
As I have been involved in the past couple of weeks communicating with and learning about the two living sons of Civil War soldiers coming to visit Franklin for our reburial event this weekend I have been struck by the graciousness of the two sons and especially their fathers (who actually fought ‘against’ one another).
James Brown, Sr’s father – James H.H. Brown – did not hold ill-will against his Northern neighbors after the war:
“He was not bitter. He did not have the least bit of bitterness toward the Yankees,” Brown said about his father, who was wounded twice in fighting. (Tennessean, Oct 4th, 2009)
And Charles Conrad Becker’s magnanimous spirit equaled Brown’s:
“He saw those Confederates coming at him and in his estimation they were brave souls,” Becker said. (Tennessean, Oct 4th, 2009)
We can learn a lot from these fathers-sons today.
These primary participants, men who spilled one another’s blood, and watched it spilled on American soil, found the generosity of spirit to look past sectarian interests, geographic-myopia, and just plain hate as they looked one another in the eyes in the reunions for many years after the Civil War ended and saw a real human being who was caught up in an absurd nightmare of unconscionable proportions between 1861-1865.
In short, many if not most of the actual participants in the Civil War buried the hatchet in the immediate years after the war ended.
Where is that same spirit of reconciliation and generosity today?
I’m haunted frequently by the words of Franklin’s resident-novelist Robert Hicks who seems to never miss an opportunity to ask this question, “What is the relevance of the Civil War today?”
Though some today might believe the American Civil War is NOT over, the real relevance today regarding the Civil War is how have we healed as a nation since that great divide almost 150 years ago, and perhaps there still is some reconciliation that needs to take place?
Some would still prefer to cling to symbols (on either side) that inflame, divide, and express our differences. People do this today through the flags they still wave or fly outside their walls, the stodgy arguments they still make, the uniforms they still wear, and the hidden-agendas they bring to another board meeting.
Discussions have been taking place all over the community in Franklin regarding the identity of the unknown soldier we are reburying this Saturday. ”He was Union!” ”He was Confederate!” And the arguments take off. There are solid cases for each side.
I suggest we all find the magnanimous spirit imbued in the very hearts of Charles Conrad Becker and James H.H. Brown – men who spilled their own blood during the Civil War – and as we welcome their sons to our community this weekend we do so with open arms from a community that continues to seek reconciliation and healing because when we rebury that unknown soldier on Saturday we first and foremost acknowledge him as an American soldier who died for a vision that he thought would make America better 150 later.
Are we a better America today?