Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 40 Issue 4 • May 27-June 2, 2010
now in our 40th season

We Who Never Fought Will Never Know

by Robert P.Barsanti

Memorial Day is upon us.  In much of America, this holiday will be met with parades and politicians.  Old soldiers will march in solemn procession and "Taps" will be played.  This year in particular, with the War in Iraq claiming lives and limbs, Memorial Day will be a particularly sober holiday.

But not for us.  For us, the Figawi will descend.  As they have every year, the drunks will come racing across the Sound, slip around Brant Point in a flutter of beer cans and sail cloth, then pull into the slips and get to the tent.  From that point on, it will be classic rock and Buffett tunes, Mt. Gay hats and deck shoes, oysters, clams, and $200 sunglasses.  Open hearts, open minds, and open bar.  In  the deep, dark graves, the soldiers will sleep on.

Corners of Nantucket will still feel the full awful weight of the holiday.  Vietnam, Korean War, and World War II vets will think back on old times and fallen comrades.  A few Nantucket houses will wait for the phone to ring from Iraq.  The barbecue will be subdued at the Ranney house.  Will Ranney, honor student at Nantucket High School, is deep in Baghdad and doing that horrible and dull work of war.

One hundred and forty years ago, another Nantucket High School honor student went to war.  George Nelson Macy enlisted in the 20th Massachusetts in 1860.  He went on to spend the entire war and see almost every key battle with this regiment in the Army of the Potomac.  The 20th has become known as the “Harvard Regiment.”  Most of the officers came from the school in Cambridge, including the son of Oliver Wendell Holmes and the grandson of Paul Revere.  Over the course of the war, Macy rose from lieutenant to major general.  He lost his left arm at Cemetery Ridge, got his legs shot in the Battle of the Wilderness, and finally left the war and returned to Nantucket on a stretcher.  Macy recovered and was promoted to brigadier general in 1865.  He was 27.

It was a different time and a different war.  Out of 3,000 year-round residents left on the island, 400 men left to join the war.  Macy recruited 23 men to leave the island and join him in a regiment that would lose 75% of its soldiers.  We don't know what they heard from Macy that made them join up.  Perhaps they wanted adventure and a paycheck.  More likely, they went with the cause of abolition in their hearts.  They believed that it was a just war.

Macy earned his share of glory.  He swam the Potomac to get boats to rescue his men at the Battle of Ball's Bluff.  He stood at the front lines with Hancock's men at Cemetery Ridge and repulsed Pickett's Charge.  He protected the Union line of defense in the Wilderness.

He also saw the criminal stupidity of war. At Fredericksburg, he was part of a "useless slaughter of gallant men."  The Union army had to cross the Rappahannock in order to take the town.  The 20th came in as reinforcements and, in formation, marched up Caroline Street into a hail of Confederate sniper fire.  He lost 40 men in order to gain 50 yards.  In brutal house-to-house fighting, the gained control of the street and held it through the night while a bridge was built for the rest of the army.
I don't think war has changed all that much over the years.  The soldiers have new weapons and different training, but the defense of Fallujah probably looks a lot like the defense of Fredericksburg.  Give Macarthur's army digital cameras and we would have pictures that would be as inhuman and depraved as any from Abu Ghraib.  Children die in all wars, whether from bombs in the night or from Greeks throwing them from walls.  Our Nantucket soldiers have seen things they won't commit to words, just as George Nelson Macy did. Whatever war they were in, they all share the "incommunicable experience of war."  We, who never fought, will never know.

After the war, Macy came back to Boston and worked at a bank.  He fathered three daughters.  He walked up streets very much like Caroline Street for the rest of his life.  I can imagine that he stood on Tremont Street, waiting in line and for a moment, remembered the sound of case-shot whistling by.  It is part of a soldier's faith, however, to keep silent.  I doubt if Macy ever really shared the horrors of war with his daughters.  They didn't need to know.

To be forgotten is the triumph of the victorious soldier.  Through his efforts, the depraved fire of war was kept far away from his home.   After the fire is out and the medals awarded, his reward is to go back home and set interest rates.  The tank commander comes back to a forklift and a front-end loader.  If he or his children never get inside a tank again, he won the war.   I hope Will Ranney comes home soon to sell real estate, play golf, and catch bluefish with his kids.  I even hope he sails in the Figawi.

Figawi is a fitting memorial to all of those American soldiers.  They didn't die so that yachties could sing "Volcano" and dance in a conga line.  But they did die so that the awful sword of war could be kept as far from their homes as possible.  The last thing that Memorial Day should be is a recruitment opportunity.  If George Nelson Macy had to choose between watching Nantucket High School seniors die on Marye's Heights or see them sneaking into the tent with red hats and fake I.D.'s, I am sure that he would smile on Figawi.

(Writer’s Note: This article owes a debt to Robert F. Mooney and his article on General Macy for the Nantucket Historical Association.)


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