146 years ago this month, a man named Frank Irwin died of wounds he received six weeks earlier while fighting in Virginia as a member of a Union Army regiment from Pennsylvania.  He was described in one record as  a fair-complected man with brown hair and gray eyes. He stood five feet eleven. He was a telegraph operator. He wasn’t married. He was 22 when he died. 

Among the last people to spend time with Corporal Irwin was the great American poet Walt Whitman. Whitman regularly went to military hospitals to visit the wounded and help where he could as a nurse  .  He was inspired to do so by the service of his brother, George, who eventually was a p.o.w. but survived the war. 

 This is the letter Whitman wrote to Irwin’s mother after Irwin died:

“DEAR MADAM: No doubt you and Frank’s friends have heard the sad fact of his death in hospital here, through his uncle, or the lady from Baltimore, who took his things. (I have not seen them, only heard of them visiting Frank.) I will write you a few lines—as a casual friend that sat by his death-bed.

Your son, corporal Frank H. Irwin, was wounded near fort Fisher, Virginia, March 25th, 1865—the wound was in the left knee, pretty bad. He was sent up to Washington, was receiv’d in ward C, Armory-square hospital, March 28th—the wound became worse, and on the 4th of April the leg was amputated a little above the knee—the operation was perform’d by Dr. Bliss, one of the best surgeons in the army—he did the whole operation himself—there was a good deal of bad matter gather’d—the bullet was found in the knee. For a couple of weeks afterwards he was doing pretty well. I visited and sat by him frequently, as he was fond of having me. The last ten or twelve days of April I saw that his case was critical. He previously had some fever, with cold spells. The last week in April he was much of the time flighty—but always mild and gentle. He died first of May. The actual cause of death was pyæmia, (the absorption of the matter in the system instead of its discharge.)

 Frank, as far as I saw, had everything requisite in surgical treatment, nursing, &c. He had watches much of the time. He was so good and well-behaved and affectionate, I myself liked him very much. I was in the habit of coming in afternoons and sitting by him, and soothing him, and he liked to have me—liked to put his arm out and lay his hand on my knee—would keep it so a long while. Toward the last he was more restless and flighty at night—often fancied himself with his regiment—by his talk sometimes seem’d as if his feelings were hurt by being blamed by his officers for something he was entirely innocent of—said, “I never in my life was thought capable of such a thing, and never was.” At other times he would fancy himself talking as it seem’d to children or such like, his relatives I suppose, and giving them good advice; would talk to them a long while. All the time he was out of his head not one single bad word or idea escaped him. It was remark’d that many a man’s conversation in his senses was not half as good as Frank’s delirium.

 He seem’d quite willing to die—he had become very weak and had suffer’d a good deal, and was perfectly resign’d, poor boy. I do not know his past life, but I feel as if it must have been good. At any rate what I saw of him here, under the most trying circumstances, with a painful wound, and among strangers, I can say that he behaved so brave, so composed, and so sweet and affectionate, it could not be surpass’d. And now like many other noble and good men, after serving his country as a soldier, he has yielded up his young life at the very outset in her service. Such things are gloomy—yet there is a text, “God doeth all things well”—the meaning of which, after due time, appears to the soul. 

 I thought perhaps a few words, though from a stranger, about your son, from one who was with him at the last, might be worth while—for I loved the young man, though I but saw him immediately to lose him. I am merely a friend visiting the hospitals occasionally to cheer the wounded and sick.     –W. W.”


I think on Memorial Day, we call up pictures of pristine white monuments and flags waving in the breeze and honor guard gun salutes and concepts of freedom and sacrifice that some or even many of us maybe are guilty of throwing around too glibbly from time to time and on holidays like this. 

 I will never be in combat, so all I can do is imagine — but Im pretty sure death in war is not pristine. Music doesn’t play in the background. Sometimes, they don’t even know who you are when you’re buried. Sometimes, they don’t even find you after you’re dead, like those pilots from WWII who were just identified this year. 

Look at Frank Irwin. This was a  22 year old kid from Pennsylvania. He got shot  in the knee (here’s a kind of gross picture of his leg bone), got his leg amputated by an 186os surgeon and festered in a hospital for six weeks til he died in delirium without his loved ones by his side.   

Now 146 years later, there are these people.   I don’t know their lives, why they enlisted, how they died, whom they left behind. I don’t know anything, except that, whatever their bravery, their willingness to give what they gave, the things their sacrifice may have accomplished,  they are  gone, and there are people who miss them. And that is very sad.  I don’t just want to say “I’m thankful for your sacrifice” on Memorial Day. I want to say “I’m sorry.”   “Im sorry you didnt get to see your kids grow up.”  “Im sorry you didn’t ever get to be a cop or lawyer or parent like you wanted to.” “I’m sorry you had to go through so much pain in the end.”

I’m sorry you didn’t get to turn 23, Frank Irwin. There is nothing poetic or romantic about that.

I also can’t help but think we need to use Memorial Day to remember there is an actual war going on. Two in fact.  Make it a stop-and-reconnect moment. There’s something terribly wrong with honoring military who died in Iraq and Afghanistan one day and then forgetting the next day that these conflicts- which will sadly and inevitably cost more American military lives- are still going on.  This isn’t the same as not knowing the dates of the Civil War or who led the D-Day Invasion, even. This is tuning out a war we’re in. Six soldiers died yesterday. We’re not talking about these things anymore.

We’re not talking about these people anymore. 

And isn’t that one thing we  owe the war dead? Some basic, ongoing concern for the ongoing war(s) they died in?  Saying thank-you isnt enough. We shouldn’t let ourselves off the hook so we can feel better that we’ve said and done the traditional things we say and do around this holiday.. We shouldn’t feel better. There should always be that creeping feeling that something isnt right, you know? Thousands of our soliders, who we claim to respect, are in a third world war zone and in harm’s way. And that should concern us. We don’t honor any dead, do we, by forgetting about their fellow military still fighting? 

And I know it’s a question – what can we do?  I guess one thing is look after their survivors- family and other veterans. And there are organizations for that. (I’ll refer you to a winter blog entry where some of my friends with military connections  hooked us up with some ways to help active duty families. ) These are the important, concrete things.

But I also keep going back to this idea of remembering, of being conscious that this war is going on- or two wars, or a war on two fronts. We should care about that everyday.  And part of caring is being informed.  Can many of us even find Afghanistan on a map?  Do we tune in reports from the frontlines where combat troops talk about what they’re facing even when it’s ugly? Do we know anything about what the chaotic political situation in Afghanistan is and how it effects what our military is doing? Shiias? Sunnis? Bueller?

 Do we think criticially about the options our government has for a “next move” over there, or do we just go with whatever “that guy who I always agree with” says on our favorite comfort zone news?  Do we look for facts, try to be objective, try to look to different sources and know what agendas those sources might have? Do we keep an eye out for casualities in the news to remind ourselves everything isn’t fine? 

I can’t answer enough of those questions “yes” for myself.

It’s normal on Memorial Day to talk about the rights the war dead have given us from the Revolutionary War on down- through their sacrifice. But what about the responsibilities they left us with- to be informed, to think critically, to know what our government is doing and why and how and where and when.  Did people really die so we can be a nation of people who are too busy to consider we’re at war, or too self-involved, or too dependent on being spoon-fed, or too comfortable just saying the right patriotic thing? I don’t think so. I think we owe them better. We’re a democracy afterall, thanks in great part to them, and ultimately, or ideally, our state of war and peace, which effects the military more than anyone else,  is in our hands.  We need to know what we’re doing if we have that kind of power. 

I feel like we’ve tuned out.  They’re still over there in a war, some of them in serious combat, all of them in some kind of harm’s way and, beyond that, a lot is at stake for all of us. We need to tune back in.

Maybe Walt Whitman is a good role model for the civilian who wants to honor our military, dead of living. He got involved, he met with them, he talked to them, asked them how he could help them, and sought out ways to ease their pain. He saw their humanity. He saw their frailty. He saw the good of their service but also, close up, the tragedy of their deaths. And because of all that, he was able to write to Frank Irwin’s mother.

I don’t know if it gave her any comfort, to get that letter, to learn about the details of her son’s  injury, the length of his suffering, the content of his last thoughts and words,  his gentle personality in those days or how he finally died.  Maybe her grief was too big for Whitman’s words to make a dent in it, or maybe it meant a great deal to her to get that last, compassionate report.

But I do know, either way, Mrs. Irwin could have no doubt: someone remembered her son.


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