Yesterday was Remembrance Day in Gettysburg.
Yesterday was Remembrance Day in Gettysburg.
In his insightful Wall Street Journal review of “Rin Tin Tin” by Susan Orlean, Scott Eyman mentions the “sense of loss that permeates” the book. The sense of loss that Mr. Eyman describes is, I believe, a hallmark of memoirs about beloved dogs.
A poignant example is a memoir of the American Civil War by Col. Richard Coulter, commanding officer of the 11th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. In 1867 Col. Coulter wrote about the loyalty of the regiment’s canine mascot, a bull terrier named Sallie Ann Jarrett. “Soldier Sallie,” as the men often called her, had faithfully followed the regiment from May 1861 until almost the end of the war. At Gettysburg she guarded her wounded and dead companions on the battlefield for five days, refusing to leave them.
Col. Coulter reminisced about Sallie sharing the soldiers’ hardships and earning their admiration and affection. But there too, along with the praise, is the inevitable loss–not only the loss of Sallie’s companionship but a deeper, existential loss, and it is with this loss that Col. Coulter ended his tribute. Sallie was killed in February 1865 in the fighting at Hatcher’s Run in Virginia. Col. Coulter’s memoir laments that “There is nothing now to mark the spot where she fell, no stone or tablet to her memory . . . ” That omission he and his men would later correct, though not at Hatcher’s Run but at Gettysburg. His final lines quote Byron’s epitaph for his dog Boatswain, which observes that history gloriously honors men not as they were “but [as] they should have been,” while “the poor dog, in life the firmest friend, whose honest heart is still his master’s own . . . unhonor’d falls, unnoticed all his worth, Denied in Heaven the soul he held on Earth . . . .”
My father had many wonderful qualities: patience, humility, courage, fortitude, and a strong sense of duty and loyalty to his country, community, family, and friends, to name a few. He also had the gift of empathy, which we children somehow knew but perhaps did not appreciate fully until we discovered his Class of 1937 high school yearbook after his death. Beneath his name the yearbook editors had printed this brief and telling description: “A heart big enough for everybody.” For all his virtues, though, Dad was not a dog person. He did not dislike dogs but claimed to be ambivalent about them. Yet, because he so keenly felt and understood his children’s love for dogs, we always had a dog while we were growing up. Of course, this was possible only because Dad willingly took on the multitude of responsibilities of dog ownership that young children (or forgetful and distracted teens) cannot quite handle. And in the years after we became adults with our own families–including dogs–Dad always welcomed a succession of dogs as holiday visitors to our family home. As a father who understood well the nature of devotion, he had no doubt come to admire the model of loyalty that is the essence of a dog’s life. Call it inspiration: he had become devoted to them because of his–and their–devotion to us.
The photo looks, in many respects, like any other picture of old soldiers reuniting on the fields where they fought so many years before. There they stand or recline on the grass around their regiment’s monument at Gettysburg. But an empty space interrupts their line, as if left for someone missing. It’s easy to imagine the photographer calling, Gentlemen! Close ranks, please! and gesturing for them to move in closer. But no, they say, heads shaking, hands pointing just behind them at the small figure of a dog lying at the base of their monument. They must leave room for Sallie! The year is 1910, some 47 years after the Battle of Gettysburg, but the men still remember their gallant “Soldier Sallie.”
Atop the 11th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry monument on the Gettysburg Battlefield stands a soldier, rifle at the ready, prepared to defend against a Rebel assault. He’s one of many bronze figures reenacting across the centuries the small victories and tragedies played out on those three days at Gettysburg. This seemingly solitary figure is not alone. On the front of the monument, facing away from the road, lies the small bronze figure of a dog. Vigilant in repose, she looks over the fields, an enduring symbol of the loyalty between soldiers and their dogs. Today’s soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq also know the companionship and affection of dogs, as our soldiers have known in all our wars. But when America’s own Civil War wrenched apart families and communities, devastated cities, towns and countryside, and nearly destroyed the nation, the dogs helped to support the soldiers’ morale in the bleakest of times, strengthening their resolve and inspiring the soldiers by their own courage and faithfulness. In this 150th anniversary year of the war, as we remember the soldiers’ sacrifices, let us also remember these loyal dogs of war.