From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

That Old Man Down the Street

We can’t all be heroes. Some of us have to stand on the curb and clap as they go by.

Will Rogers

Back in the early 1920s, when I was growing up in Seneca Falls, New York, Memorial Day was known as Decoration Day. It marked the beginning of summer, although its true purpose was to bring the village together to honor the memory of those people who had fought the nation’s battles—in the War to End All Wars, the Spanish-American War and the War Between the States.

The main event of the day for us kids was the midmorning parade, which formed in the park in front of the high school. As the marchers gathered there, so did a swarm of bike-riding small boys to approve the lineup before racing ahead to lead the procession. We pedaled in front of the parade through the heart of Seneca Falls and over the Seneca River via the Ovid Street Bridge. Only then did we pull to the curb and fall in behind the colors with everyone else as the marchers moved toward Restvale Cemetery at the eastern edge of town.

The goings-on at the cemetery always made my spine tingle. Even now, seventy-odd years later, I can still smell the flowers under the morning sun, beat time with the brass band playing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” wince at the crack of the rifles firing the salute and choke up listening to the last mournful note of “Taps.”

Central to my memories of that day is the figure of Abraham Lincoln, which sat in the shadows at the edge of the cemetery, his head bowed in sorrow over the adorned graves. I especially remember Mr. Lincoln because in those parades of my boyhood, the main figures were the town’s surviving veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic.

These few old men—they were fewer every year— spent 364 days rocking on front porches, sitting by windows overlooking the street or shuffling downtown to buy a plug of chewing tobacco at Sullivan’s Cigar Store. Normally, no one paid them any mind.

But come the Decoration Day Parade, in the vestiges of their Union Army uniforms, the old soldiers walking proudly through the streets made me think through the words of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as those of a prayer. Even though I was only a boy, the veterans stirred in me visions of Bull Run, Chickamauga, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness and, especially, Gettysburg. These, I marveled, were the same men who had saved the Republic.

One of them lived on our street, about halfway downtown. He was a friend of my grandfather. Grandpa Billy always spoke of his contemporary as “Old Jimmy Barton.”

Old Jimmy Barton had fought at Gettysburg, and my father, who had heard his war stories many times over the years, decided it would be interesting to take the old man back to that battlefield. So a few weeks after the 1924 Decoration Day parade, he loaded Old Jimmy, Grandpa Billy and me into the car for the day’s drive to the south. The next day, with an official guide leading the way, we set off on a tour, following the day-by-day course of the bloodiest battle ever fought in North America.

The first day, we saw where Confederate strength smashed the Yankees north and south of Gettysburg to take the city, forcing the Union forces to the high ground to the south. On the second day, we followed the flag to the Peach Orchard, the Wheat Field and Devil’s Den. Then we saw where Union troops secured Little Round Top, lost Culp’s Hill and Spangler Springs, and attacked Cemetery Hill, losing at first, and then regaining its crest.

Old Jimmy Barton had little to say as we walked through the sites of the first two days of the bloody battle. He nodded sometimes as the guide read the commemorative plaques aloud, now and then looking puzzled. He would stand facing the Confederate lines, then the Union emplacements, looking around him, then his gaze seemed to go inward and, I figured, backward in time as well.

A change came over him when we moved down Cemetery Ridge to brood over the location of the battle’s third day. From a point opposite Pickett’s position, we looked across to where 138 Confederate cannons had stood wheel-to-wheel blasting the Yankees on the heights before fifteen thousand proud and brave Southerners launched their incredible assault.

Then the old survivor of those three days of carnage walked with all the briskness he could muster, up and down the Union line. Finally, he nodded his head decisively and seated himself on the remains of an old stone fence.

“Right there,” he said, pointing behind the stones on which he sat.

Right there was where he had spent the longest day of his life. There he had lain, fired, loaded, fired, until the muzzle of his rifle was too hot to touch.

There he had trembled, sweated, prayed, laughed, wept, loaded and fired, loaded and fired, over and over again.

“The Rebels kept on a-coming up that slope, right over there,” he said. Then, all of a sudden, they were either sprawled out on the ground or running back down the side of the ridge.

When he saw that, he told us, he climbed up on this stone fence, waving his cap in one hand and his weapon in the other, cheering with his comrades until he had to sit down to be sick between his trembling legs.

The next day—the Fourth of July he said it was—the rain fell on the Yankee and the Rebel dead who were scattered everywhere. The old man recalled how the burial details dug thousands of shallow graves to contain the fallen until a proper cemetery was provided. When he spoke next, his voice was low with reverence. He described how Mr. Lincoln himself came to that very same battlefield only four months later and spoke, inaugurating the cemetery there, and calling this nation to a new birth of freedom under God.

After Cemetery Ridge, he was never Old Jimmy Barton to me again. After seeing him sitting on his very own piece of battlefield, and listening to his account of that terrible day, even now, long after his death, I can only think of him as Mr. James Barton, the fine man who fought at Gettysburg.

Emerson D. Moran

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