People gather together for all kinds of reasons. Book clubs. Bowling leagues. Birthday parties. Sometimes they come together regularly year after year, sometimes just for a short period of time. Family reunions. Girls’ nights out. House parties. We all find reasons to hang out with other people.
Usually these gatherings are based on either pre-existing relationships (like families) or common interests (like reading or bowling). But occasionally the impetus for being together is a shared experience, often one that has deeply affected those who gather.
High school or college reunions probably fall into the category of shared-experience-based. At those pivotal periods of life–when our personalities are being formed and our futures still splay out before us, full of hopeful possibilities–at these moments, our experiences are so deeply felt that relationships seem to set more firmly. The bonds of friendship are stronger and more durable when they are formed in the intensity of adolescent and post-adolescent anxieties.
For the young men who came of age when Lincoln was president and the nation was ripped apart by war, the intensity of experience must have been unimaginably complex and profound.
The average age of the Civil War soldier was between 18 and 29, probably around 26. My great-great grandfather L.K. Harris was 22 when he volunteered for the war in April of 1861. My great-great-great uncle William Jarvis was no more than 18.
Traveling far from home, away from family, in the company of other young men must have been a heady experience. Competing with comrades for promotions and fighting to the death with opponents had to heighten all the masculine tendencies that a frontier society engendered in young men.
As much as war was filled with times of great pride of achievement and success in competition, it was also permeated by moments of incomprehensible vulnerability. Fear couldn’t be far away when the incessant rumbling of artillery and whistling of bullets filled the air. But even if a young man could steel himself against the danger of death by weapon, the ever-present specter of disease had to eat away at the psyche of the strongest. The young are notoriously oblivious to their own mortality, but denial was surely not an option when so many friends and compatriots fell to horrific injuries and diseases.
These young men shared the most profound of experiences. They watched each other cry in fear, quake in uncertainty and die in agony. Some of the things they had to experience as adolescents and post-adolescents were things no man should ever have to see.
It’s no wonder that in the last two decades of the nineteenth century and the first two of the twentieth–after these men had returned from the war, worked their jobs, provided for their families and raised their children–they gathered together every year to share the experiences of youth once again.
I recently discovered that my great-great grandfather L.K. Harris attended half to three-quarters of the annual reunions of the 69th Indiana Infantry that were held from 1888 to 1918. There must have been something that compelled him to gather with his friends and fellow veterans. Somehow the shared experiences and the sharing of the stories must have provided a connection that lent meaning and brought comfort.
Often painful memories are the ones we try to avoid or bury, but for some reason these men chose to gather year after year and tell the wonderful and terrible stories of war.