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The Bell Curve: Harvest of hope, memory lives on

June 04, 2010|Joseph N. Bell

Editor's note: Due to an editing error, The Bell Curve failed to appear in Thursday's Daily Pilot. It appears in full below.

Memorial Day — we called it Decoration Day when I was growing up in Indiana — has come and gone, and seemed more full of urgent memories and intensity this year than ever before. Maybe that's because I feel closer to the Civil War as I grow older. There is an increasing awareness as I distance myself from it that I was only two generations away from the violent remnants of slavery in this country, a sobering thought whenever I allow it in.

My grandfather, Robert Patterson, was a colonel in Gen. William Rosecrans' Army of the Cumberland. He was wounded in fierce fighting around Murfreesboro, Tenn., and I have a letter he wrote from his hospital bed to the woman back in Decatur, Ind., who became my grandmother. And I never fail to marvel that I shared this Earth for five years with Robert Todd Lincoln, the oldest son of Abraham Lincoln, and the only one to live into maturity.

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Decoration Day was created to honor the memory of those who fought to preserve the American Union and — not incidentally — to free the three million men and women trapped in a system that allowed and supported their enslavement as property to be owned and used. Although Decoration Day has acquired a different name and now includes the casualties of all our wars, the Civil War carnage continues to dwarf all the others combined in its carnage.

There were 610,000 soldiers — 2% of the U.S. population at that time — killed in action, as compared with 0.3% in its nearest competitor, World War II. Many Civil War veterans and their families are — like my grandfather — buried in the Decatur cemetery. My parents are there and I will be, too, so that anyone who comes to visit me will find themselves on a Midwestern hillside overlooking my extended family and my beloved Indiana.

These were the sort of connections that brought us together on Decoration Day in my youth. There was always a family picnic in a local park, followed by the same speech, year-after-year, called "Our Flag." It was delivered by my uncle, French Quinn, who had never been in a war. Then we would repair to the cemetery, loaded down with flowers to plant on the appropriate grave sites.

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