This Memorial Day, I will do as I have on many previous Memorial Days, with the exception of last year when I was on the Greek island of Crete. I will leave my home early Monday morning, carrying with me four small American flags and one Confederate flag. I will travel toward the western edge of Montgomery County, Tennessee, to an area known as the Dotsonville Community. When I arrive at the Mount Pleasant United Methodist Church Cemetery on Gip Manning Road, I will leave my van, taking with me one of the tiny American flags, and walk across the grounds toward an imposing granite obelisk which stands about nine feet tall. On the front of that monument is the following inscription: “Robert Armistead – A Revolutionary War Soldier – Born: June 29, 1761. Died: September 8, 1853”. This is the grave of my Great, great, great, great Grandfather. He and I share the same name. I will stand at the foot of his grave in awe of a man, who, at the young age of fifteen, joined the Colonies’ Continental Army. I will wonder and speculate, as I have many times before, what could possibly cause a teenager...just a kid, to defy the Crown of England by taking up arms against the King. My wonderment and speculation is always answered by the cry of, “Freedom”! There is nothing more than the burning quest for Liberty that causes men (and boys) to accomplish the impossible against insurmountable odds! His was nothing short of an act of treason, and he must have been aware of the consequences, should the Colonies lose the war. As I stand at the foot of his grave, I will probably shed a tear...I always do. I will plant the small American flag alongside his monument, and in a quiet, reverent voice...one that only God Almighty can hear, I will whisper, “Thank you.”
I will return to my van and travel a little further westward to neighboring Stewart County, Tennessee. There, I will drive to the small village of Indian Mound. Driving along unnamed, dusty back roads, I will stop at the edge of a gravel road, where, about one-hundred yards from the edge of the road, a single stone chimney towers over the burned out ruins of a log home. The old homeplace is overgrown with decades of briars and weeds, and the only inhabitants are the snakes and other vermin which have claimed it as their own. With a snakebite kit in my pocket, my machete in hand, and a handgun worn on my belt, I will hack my way through briars and vines as I follow a dry creek bed until I reach a small hillside which ascends to the right. I will climb the hillside, and in a small clearing, the sunlight will expose several headstones, bleached white by more than a hundred years of sunshine. There, nestled amongst the stones, is the grave of my Great, great Grandfather, Henry Addison Armistead. He served with the 14th Tennessee Infantry of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War (War Between the States; the War of Northern Aggression). I have never looked upon the Civil War as the war that divided us as a nation, but rather as the war which defined us, matured us, and inexplicably united us. After the War, he returned to his native Tennessee to farm, and to serve as both a Justice of the Peace and as a Magistrate. I will place both a Confederate flag and an American flag on his grave. I think he would smile.
From there I will drive into the City of Dover, the county seat of Stewart County, Tennessee. I will proceed to the Fort Donelson National Military Cemetery and follow the stone wall as it winds around toward the back side of the cemetery. I will park my van and walk through an iron gate, and there I will stand in the midst of identical, neatly arranged row upon row of white gravestones. I will proceed toward a stone which sits beneath the shade of a giant oak tree. It is the gravestone of my Grandfather, Gilbert Smith Armistead. He served in the U.S. Army with an artillery unit during World War I. I have his dog tag from his military service - I will wear it around my neck as I stand before his grave. I was just under three years of age when he died. Sometimes, I think that I have a memory of him holding me, along with a black, stuffed kitty cat which he had given me. But, then, I wonder if they are not my memories, but rather the memories that others had of him, and have shared with me. I have photographs of him as a young man in his Army uniform - he has a thick head of medium brown hair, and the smile of a movie star! I will mark his grave with another of the tiny American flags that I have brought with me.
I will leave Dover...Stewart County...and drive back to Clarksville. I will have one final stop to make. I’ll drive to Greenwood Cemetery, and it is here that I will shed the most tears. From the entrance of the cemetery, I will follow the narrow, winding road that bears to the left, and follow it as it makes a wide, sweeping circle around a section of gravestones. I will park my van and walk to the center of this section. There is a brass headstone which reads, “Bernard Boswell Armistead – U.S. Navy – World War II”. This is the grave of my Father. Even though he didn’t see any combat action during World War II, I still have an immense amount of pride for him, and all those who gave so unselfishly of themselves during that war. I have heard it said that those who served during World War II were the “greatest generation”. Sometimes I think that is almost an understatement! He and his generation literally saved the world from a conspiracy of madmen who were driven by an egotistical desire to dominate all of mankind! As I stand at the foot of his grave, I will cry. I used to think the shedding of tears was a sign of weakness...now I think it is a sign of character. After placing the last of the tiny American flags on his grave, I will rise, stand at attention and slowly raise my right hand to my temple in a military salute. It is the last, and the least, that I can do as a show of profound respect and admiration for my Dad. Perhaps, one day after I am gone, a descendent of mine might one day pause briefly at my grave and place a small American flag there in appreciation for my service to our Country.
I am grateful, honored and also humbled that I was born into a family whose lineage has offered so many sons before the altar of Freedom. I hope that my son, and his sons and daughters after him, and your sons, and their sons and daughters after them, will never have to go off to war. That is my hope...that is my dream.
So, on this Memorial Day, what does all of this mean? Well, if I were born a pauper, lived in complete poverty, and died penniless, I would still count myself among the richest of men on this Memorial Day! God Bless the United States, and may God Bless Us All!
Your Friend and Fellow “Silent Warrior”,