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Stories from the Road: The Known and the Unknown of Gettysburg

In a field in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, rows upon rows of names are carved into marble, remembering the men who endured hellish carnage there in July 1863.

The marker of Lt. Wesley F. Miller and an Unknown, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (photo by Mark Parker)

The name Lt. Wesley F. Miller is there. He and his father Stephen Miller of St. Cloud, Minnesota enlisted after the first shots were fired at Ft. Sumter. After serving in the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment, where his dad was named the Lieutenant Colonel, Wesley received a commission as a Lieutenant in the 7th U.S. Infantry in December, 1861.

The 7th was engaged at Gettysburg and on July 2, 1863, Wesley F. Miller lost his life. The Lieutenant was only 20 years old.

At the time of his death, Miller was engaged to be married to a young woman named Mary. It fell to his father to tell her of Wesley's death in a letter.

"...I suppose that the relations between you and he (Wesley's) were quite intimate. I did not think that they had so fully matured. I need not say that you would have been very dear to me as a daughter, and that had Wesley lived I should always have said that he was unworthy of you; and you shall be none the less dear to me now that he has departed. Poor lad! He had his failings but was a youth of noble impulses. It is hard to find substantial comfort for such a terrible loss; but we have this consolation at least that he died battling for the best government upon Earth, and in the holiest causes ever vindicated by warriors upon the field of slaughter. Better that all my children and their father too -- should fall, than that the old flag should trail in the dust, or one star be erased from its field of light." A letter from Steven Miller to Mary

Next to the marker for Wesley is the engraving of the word "Unknown". A look around that field of names shows marker upon marker with that word.

Two Unknowns at Gettysburg, PA (photo by Mark Parker)

Unlike the Tomb of the Unknowns, that shrine of marble at Arlington Cemetery, there are no well-trained sentry with bayoneted rifle smartly marching back and forth in 21 steps across the matted pathway. There are no salutes held for 21 seconds. It is only "unknown".

Arlington National Cemetery (photo by Mark Parker

I see the markers and I wonder about the men who lie there. What were their lives like? What dreams did they have about love and marriage and family and farming or another line of work they would never return to?

Did their wives receive letters of condolences? Did their mothers wait in vain for a returning son? Did a father write a letter for them to a betrothed?

Did the men live vicariously for the causes they believed in, or were any conscripted and unable to pay enough to have someone else go in his place?

When one considers the celebration of the nation's independence on this day, it's easy to recall the names of Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Patrick Henry and many more of that era. One remembers the consequential days of July 1863 at Gettysburg and is reminded of those who "gave the last full measure of devotion", as Abraham Lincoln said in his famous address.

There are hundreds of thousands of others throughout our history who have defended the cause of freedom, in places like Concord and Lexington, Monroe, Michigan, Fredericksburg, Virginia, Normandy, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and hundreds of places in this country and around the world. 

Many gave until there was no more to give. As we celebrate our freedom in this day and beyond, let us not forget those Wesley F. Millers, who died way too young, and those who are simply "Unknown".

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