Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A Simple Act

It was a cold, rainy, winter day in 1891, and the weather in New York was quite appropriate for the occasion. The occasion was a funeral. The occasion was also the culmination of two great lives intricately intertwined into one great story.

As he stood in the frigid rain, waiting for the funeral procession of his old friend to pass, Joe, now 84 years old, could not help but think back through the years, remembering other funerals and other friends who had already passed ahead; too many, really, to keep track of. He recalled names and tried to put them together with faces that were, for the most part, clouded over by time.

But Bill - the friend who Joe now came to pay his last respects to - was different. Joe would never forget Bill. He could not forget Bill. There was too much respect between the two friends. They had been through so much together.

Joe was in the railroad business. As a matter of fact, the last six years of his life were spent as the federal railroad commissioner. Prior to that, he was an insurance man. But before any of that, Joe was in the army. This is where Joe and Bill met and started their friendship of fifty-plus years. Both had been graduates of West Point. Both men had fought against Santa Anna in the war with Mexico.

Joe continued in the military after the war and eventually became quartermaster general of the U.S. army. Bill resigned from the army in 1853 and worked as a banker and as a lawyer. In 1859, he became superintendent of a military academy in Louisiana. Then came the Civil War. From the first battle of Bull Run to the very end of the war, both Bill and Joe were there. They were there at Bentonville and Vicksburg, New Hope Church, Kennesaw Mountain and Resaca. Even though both men had been wounded during the war, they both believed that it had been the hand of providence that had seen them to the end of the bloodiest war our nation had ever seen. It was a war that had set brother against brother, father against son, and friend against friend.

Oh yes. Did I mention that Joe and Bill were on opposite sides of that war? And not just two soldiers with opposing loyalties and ideologies, but two generals - two commanders of two different armies! You may or may not remember Joe – Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston, Commander of the Army of the Tennessee. But you will most certainly remember Bill. Even today, if you are from the deep south, the mere mention of his name – William Tecumseh Sherman - can get you tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail.

But that was some twenty five years ago, thought Joe, as he watched the procession wind its way down the rainy New York thoroughfare. That's when it happened. For you see, the story is not quite over with yet. That's when it happened. That's when Joe did a simple, but a remarkable thing.

As the carriage baring Sherman's casket approached the spot where Joe stood, Joe removed his hat. It was a simple act of respect and honor for a departed friend and a fallen comrade. A friend, who had accompanied Joe to Sherman's funeral, asked whether it was a wise thing to do considering the rain and the cold. "He would do the same thing for me," was all that Joe replied.

Joe was a survivor. He survived a long and distinguished military career. He survived two wars, including the Civil war – the bloodiest war our country had ever seen with over 620,000 battlefield casualties. He survived most of his old friends and battlefield companions.

But not even Joe was invincible. And it was that simple act of respect and honor that proved more fatal than any bullet or bayonet charge; more lethal than any mortar round or cannon ball. You see, in removing his hat to honor his friend Sherman, Joe caught pneumonia and died ten days later.