Americana: Memorial Day: Remembering
Those Who Died for Our Freedom
By Bill Fitzpatrick
The author's father, William Fitzpatrick, Sr. (center),
while stationed in Italy. These World War II men
have been described by journalist Tom Brokaw as
“The Greatest Generation.”
In the spring of 1972, I walked across the University
of South Carolina campus, pushed a quarter into a
machine, and pulled out a copy of the State
newspaper. I scanned the paper, looking for my
birthday and associated “draft number.” I was lucky.
The draft number associated with my birthday was a
high one, meaning that I would not serve in what is
now remembered as the first American
“quagmire”—the Vietnam War.
I wish I could write I would have fought like a Rajput in Vietnam, but in truth, I am not so
sure—mainly because the war was so unpopular and because many of us failed to understand
what we would be sacrificing ourselves for. Some of my generation fled to Canada to avoid the
draft, others participated in the many anti-war protest movements that were popular on college
campuses. The great American boxer, Muhammad Ali, refused to fight in the war, and lost
nearly four years of his sporting career arguing his case in our judicial system.
Our parents’ generation didn’t understand our disinterest in fighting this war. To them it was
clear: As a citizen you have an obligation to serve your country when called, just like they did in
World War II. To many of us though it was equally clear: The Vietnam War was a mindless
mess with no clear purpose. So we Baby Boomers clogged city streets and protested it by
chanting the now iconic words, “Hell no, we won’t go, hell no, we won’t go!” or held signs that
said, “Make Love, Not War.”
Even as controversial as the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars have been, they are no match for the
divisiveness caused by the Vietnam War. My friends who did serve in Vietnam made it a point to
not wear their uniforms while in this county, so unpopular was the war.
Though we like to fancy ourselves a peace-loving people, this nation has been at one way or
another for nearly 100 consecutive years—including the decades long Cold War with the
Soviets. No matter our individual positions on wars, even as ugly as the Vietnam, it is pleasing to
see that as a country we recognize and appreciate our military men and women’s strength and
courage. On May 28th, Memorial Day, we will honor the men and women who have fought in
our wars. With this approaching holiday, it’s a good time to review a couple of other wars that
have had a lasting impact on American culture and psyche.
The Revolutionary War: The birth of “We the people…”
Any country worth its salt has had to deal with those “pesky British,” and so it was with our
fledgling country during the Revolutionary War, fought from 1775-1783.
Sure, there were many factors leading to the first shots of the war being fired at Concord,
Massachusetts, but contemporary America remembers the iconic “Boston Tea Party.” The
British, eager for new revenues, placed taxes on certain goods, including tea. Fed up with the
notion of “taxation without representation,” a group of Patriots snuck onto the British ships and
flung the tea into the waters.
In another noteworthy incident Paul Revere, upon learning the British army was poised to attack,
jumped on his horse and rode through the night in order to warn our local militias. One of the
most famous American poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, tells of this great journey in “Paul
Revere’s Ride,” a poem that was “required reading” in school, at least in the lower 48 states.
The most epic figure of the Revolutionary War was our eventual first president, General George
Washington. When all appeared lost, he personally led Patriot troops across the frigid waters of
the Delaware River to attack and defeat unsuspecting British troops. His heroics and leadership
were to our cause as Gandhi’s were to India.
Great men like Washington and intriguing narratives like the Boston Tea Party dominate
Revolutionary War history, but the birth of our country also belongs to otherwise ordinary
people, many of whom lived in the Carolinas and Georgia. Few Americans know that more
Revolutionary War battles were fought in South Carolina than any of the other original thirteen
Recently, I visited one of these otherwise forgotten places. After traveling five miles down a
single lane dirt road, I found a long-abandoned church and overgrown cemetery. Also on the
property was an historical marker, informing me that the Britishers were defeated in the nearby
Battle of Hull. The grounds were rich, the moment special. Such places are the birthplace of our
American heritage, a heritage of self determination, optimism, a “can-do” attitude, and the
incredible promise of founding documents that begin, not with “We the government,” or “As
your king…” but “We the people…”
The Civil War: “The Recent Unpleasantness!”
The staggering promise of a land “With liberty and justice for all…” was nearly lost in the Civil
War, fought from 1861-1865.
The issue, according to Abraham Lincoln and the Northern states, was slavery. The
president wanted to abolish it, the Southern states, citing “state’s rights,” didn’t. The South
seceded from the Union, appointed Jefferson Davis as president and established Richmond as
their capital. In the interest of brevity I have simplified—some in the North owned slaves, the
Western states were divided, and some in the South were against slavery. When the Confederate
army finally surrendered, around 700,000 men had been killed, a number that exceeds by as
much as 200,000 the combined losses in the Revolutionary War, World War I and World War II.
As a Northern school kid, when the topic of the Civil War was taught, like the rest of our class, I
was happy to learn that “our side,” the North, won the war. I gave no more thought to the losing
side until my family moved to the South. Ahem, even in progressive Raleigh, “damn” often
precedes Yankee! But it wasn’t until the mid-1980s, when I met Neil Trask, or “Gran,” to his
family, that I felt the bitter emotions of the past. I was dating Gran’s granddaughter at the time.
“Are you related to the Kennedys?” he asked me after I introduced myself, referring to the one-
time President John Kennedy, and his brothers, Bobby and Ted.
“Huh? No!” I replied, wondering why he would ever arrive at that strange conclusion.
“That’s good. I thought with an Irish-American name like Fitzpatrick, and the fact you’re from
the North, that you might be related to the damn Kennedys.”
Gran then shared his memories.
“When I was a young boy, my Grandfather would tell me about the awful things the North did to
the South. Told me how that no-good Union General Sherman burned most of our cities. Told
me how we fought hard, but the North had more money and better weapons. Told me that when
the family heard Union soldiers were on their way, he helped bury our silver in the ground so we
could retrieve it after the war.”
I listened, astonished at the intensity of Gran’s feelings.
The resentments in the South still linger. Today, some in the South won’t even call it the Civil
War, preferring instead the “War Between the States,” or “The War of Northern Aggression,”
or—and this sounds so “polite” I feel like slipping into a rocking chair and sipping on a mint
julep—“The Recent Unpleasantness.”
On a happier note, we will honor our World War II veterans on Memorial Day. These aging men,
called “The Greatest Generation” by the esteemed journalist, Tom Brokaw, lived through the
Great Depression of the 1930s and volunteered to fight in World War II during the 1940s. They
served well, the enemies were defeated and national pride hit its zenith. The Memorial Day
parades will be fun, the stories from the past bittersweet. The long weekend is also a fine time to
visit one of the many memorials or battleground sites. But all of us native born citizens who
didn’t necessarily fight in the wars have our stories, too, so ask us to share our views and
experiences. The stories will be rich and they will be different, and all are part of our American
Published by Khabar Magazine, Features section May 2012 issue.