There’s a part of me that feels cheated.
Long is the list of men in my family who have served in the military of the United States and, for a brief time in the 1860s, the Confederate States. In that sense, my family history is quintessentially American, the same proud story told for generations in this nation. Men in my family have seen combat, they’ve been wounded, they’ve suffered from dysentery and other miserable camp ailments, more than one went AWOL, they’ve convalesced in military hospitals, and they’ve been captured (a few were released, one escaped).
Best to my knowledge, all of them returned home — which means Memorial Day, when we honor America’s fallen soldiers, isn’t as personally poignant for me as it is for families touched by the realities of war.
Perhaps “cheated” isn’t the correct word. “Fortunate” is more appropriate.
In another sense, consider America fortunate, as well. The death tolls from many of the U.S.’s wars aren’t swelled to unfathomable proportions. Of course, few would be crass enough to suggest that America’s soldiers haven’t performed their duty time and again.
Among the U.S.’s wars are a handful with overwhelming death tolls by American standards. The 600,000-plus (U.S. and Confederate) who died in the Civil War make that conflict the nation’s bloodiest. More than 100,000 Americans died in World War I, a number that would have been higher had the United States joined the fighting prior to 1917. Those numbers overshadow the low casualty figures on record from the Revolutionary War (4,435 battle deaths), the War of 1812 (2,260 battle deaths) and the Spanish-American War (2,446 total deaths) — wars whose scope and technology didn’t create six-figure death tolls.
None of that, however, lessens the need to honor those who died in service of our country.
Word Tutor is my paternal grandfather. He died the year before I was born; in some ways, he was the same man at his death in 1965 as he was in every decade prior: a Mississippi farmer who had little, and what he did have was meager. He was one of the fortunate: He went to war and came home.
In recent years, funerals and the coming of middle age have piqued my curiosity about my family’s military history, of which there is much to digest. It’s turned me into an inefficient and unprofessional genealogist who often seeks advice from those who are experts about Census records and military pension rolls. Without them, I’d be lost.
Most of the men I’ve researched I have never met. All but one are names on a family tree or gravestone, not faces I remember from childhood. In some ways, that seems best since the dusty information I occasionally unearth isn’t entirely flattering. They’re family facts, not emotional distresses.
I knew my father enlisted in the Army during World War II. I knew he was in Chicago at the time, and that he served in the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency. In recent years before his death, I could occasionally get him to talk about his time as a behind-the-lines operative and radio man in China and Burma. I now have his declassified OSS files, which contain no revelations but are interesting to have, nonetheless.
What I didn’t know until recently was how many of my descendents fought in the Civil War. It shouldn’t be a surprise, really: more than 2.75 million Americans fought for the U.S. and Confederate armies. My family, I’ve learned, had a lot of sons, and all of them lived in the counties of north Mississippi when that war broke out.
So they enlisted.
John Harris Tutor was a private in the 8th Regiment of the Mississippi Cavalry. J.W. Tutor was a private in Duff’s Regiment of the Mississippi Cavalry. John Allen Tutor joined the 1st Regiment of the Mississippi Partisan Rangers. Allen Henderson Tutor and Hendon Tutor joined the Confederate Army on the same day and were assigned to the 17th Regiment of the Mississippi Volunteers. Henwell Tutor served in the 2nd Regiment of the Mississippi Volunteers.
All survived the war.
Yet, a few of them tired of war — too much killing, too much disease. Confederate records list them as “missing,” “absent” or “AWOL,” with some who left the Rebel army later joining Union forces in Memphis or other places. Henwell Tutor, who eventually was promoted to corporal in the U.S. Army, mustered out of the service in 1865 at age 20.
On his military papers, he wrote that the reason he switched sides is because he’d seen how “the negroes were treated” when they were beaten and tortured, author Barbara T. Dane wrote in 2005.
My amateur sleuthing has turned up little on Word Tutor, my father’s father. His World War I service was but a blip on his life story. He kept meticulous records, so I have official documents from his enlistment and discharge, among other things. What I’ve found gives dates and basic facts: when and where he enlisted, where he had boot camp, when he left for France and the name of the ships that took him to Europe and returned him to the United States.
His records say he served in several units — though, in military fashion, they’re listed in jargon hard for laymen to decipher. If I’m correct, he served in a machine-gun battalion, a quartermaster unit and a casualty-recovery unit.
On his papers, it says he served in England and France, was not wounded, fought in no battles and received no citations. But it did say he was of good character. He was discharged honorably in 1919.
When he returned to Mississippi in his early 20s, his health faltered and he couldn’t resume farming full-time.
He spent the rest of his life on partial military disability.
I assume Memorial Day is for him, nevertheless.
There are no living World War I veterans. America’s last WWI veteran, Frank Buckles, died in February 2011. The Department of Veterans Affairs says there are approximately 1.7 million U.S. World War II veterans still alive, though on average 850 of them die each day.
At that rate, the last World War II veteran will die in 2038, military officials suggest.
None of that, however, effects how America commemorates its war dead, whether they’re hallowed names on the Vietnam War memorial in Washington or the names of Alabama soldiers engraved on the memorial wall at Centennial Memorial Park on Quintard Avenue. In Montgomery, Gov. Robert Bentley unveiled last Thursday the newest additions to the Alabama Fallen Soldier Memorial, which honors Alabamians who have died in the “War on Terror” since Sept. 11, 2001. The memorial now lists 133 names.
Though the nation is wracked with party-line division in this election year, its overwhelming desire to honor those who die in uniform makes the Memorial Day holiday among the calendar’s most poignant. Firmly do I believe that it’s acceptable to hate war for reasons personal and political yet have the utmost esteem for soldiers who die in uniform and for the families who mourn them.
I’m thankful that I’ve never experienced that reality. Remembering those who have, however, is something we all should do.
Phillip Tutor is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.