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A salute to all of America’s Greatest Generations

It was the early 1860s and the United States of America was in the process of tearing itself apart in a great national crisis. But in the midst of that there was a series of small news stories that appeared in newspapers from time to time that captured a common emotion in both the Confederacy and the Union. It was the passing of the very last of America’s original greatest generation, the veterans of the American Revolution.

Make no mistake, by any generation’s standard, these were very old men. They had fought in a war that had ended 80 years before and as they died, no matter where they were from, newspapers in the North and the South dutifully noted their passing.

 
This began a recurrent pattern in our history. An honored generation of veterans finishes their service, moves into the life of the nation, makes their mark, and then as they age, begins to fade away. It’s in that fading away, as America lets go of a part of its past, often remembering a period of its greatness, when many of us feel the saddest. It’s like a bit of our history, something we could touch and talk to, is leaving us forever.

One of the largest populations of veterans, that is, up until the 20th century were those from the American Civil War. They numbered almost 2 million and when the war was over, they went home to their farms, factories, and offices, and got on with their lives. During the course of the next half-century, this generation would dominate every aspect of American life. Three would be elected to the White House, dozens more would serve as governors, senators, and congressmen and thousands more were prominent in business and civic life. Their veterans’ organizations had memberships in the hundreds of thousands. But, in a pattern that ominously repeats itself, as we moved into the 20th century, their numbers, with age, began to decline.

Such famous organizations as the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a union veterans group, found itself in the early 20th century losing its members so fast that individual chapters rapidly had to close. They officially disbanded in the early 1930’s. From Ohio to New York many towns still have a GAR Hall. The same was true for their Confederate counterparts in the United Confederate Veterans Organization. But a telltale sign occurred in 1944 at the annual ceremonies marking the anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. This event, which in years past had been well-attended, had only two, very, very old veterans present.

As the last handful of these men began to die, the whole country took an interest. In North Carolina and in Virginia, for example, the passing of the states’ last Civil War veterans in the early 1950s was front-page news.

The same thing has happened to veterans of the First World War. Four and a half million Americans were mobilized. But last year, the last surviving American from that war, Frank Buckles, passed on at the age of 110. He was the last “Dough Boy.”

Even the World War II generation: our fathers and mothers, grandparents, and for some of us, great-grandparents: one that originally had 16 million in its number, now has about 5 million, and that figure is dropping fast.

Each time this pattern repeats itself, each time we say goodbye to a great generation of veterans, the emotions are surprisingly similar. We’re remembering these veterans as individuals, people we knew and cared for, who for some period of time, whether it was the Civil War, the First World War, the Second World War, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf, Iraq, or Afghanistan, rose above their status as average men and women and did something special for the cause of freedom.

You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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