killed in action

When a soldier goes missing in action, it becomes an unthinkable phenomenon for their family. Really, when anyone goes missing and can’t be found, it is unthinkable for the family, but for a soldier, it’s particularly strange, because we knew where they were and what they were doing, and their disappearance isn’t really connected with anything like an abduction. I suppose it could be classified that way, but Missing In Action (MIA), is not classified as an abduction, but rather an act of war. Often, they were killed in action, and someone other than their company took care of their body. Of course, there is also the possibility that they were taken prisoner of war, but when the prisoners are all released, and our loved one is not among them, we have to face the possibility that something else happened. Every war has its list of Prisoners Of War (POW), and its list of MIAs, and these are people that we hope will never be forgotten, so that maybe someday the truth about what happened can be found out. If they are forgotten, then it is a very real possibility that they will never be found.

In every war, there are kind people who will bury the dead of the enemy right along with their own dead, but often they can’t read the names, so the dead are in an unmarked grave, possibly with their dog tags as the only definitive proof that the remains belong to that soldier. Some of those kind people have remembered where they buried the soldiers, and kept track of the proof of identity, so that maybe, somewhere down the road, they could reunite the soldier with his family…and some of those people have been returned to their families in recent years. The stories, when that happens, are so heart-warming. It reminds us once again, that there is good in this world, even if it’s harder to find these days.

Of course, it is my opinion that no matter what, God knows where these lost ones are, and that someday people will be reunited with lost loved ones, either here on Earth, or later, in Heaven. That is something I have to believe when I think of anyone who has a lost loved one out there. I personally do not have a lost loved one out there…at least no one I knew personally. I have a great uncle (not sure how many greats) that went missing when he was forced into war as a result of the German government taking him in the middle of the night, but I never knew him personally. Nevertheless, I feel very sad for those people who have suffered such a loss as this. As of September 18, 2020, the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) lists a total of 85,394 Americans MIA, including 4,422 from World War I, 71,692 from World War II, 7,717 from the Korean War, 1,561 from the Vietnam War. They don’t list any from other conflicts, whether there are missing ones or not.

The hardest part about being a commander in any war situation is that moment when you have to tell a soldier’s family that they have been killed in action. It’s even easier to tell them that their soldier is missing, because at least then they have hope. The only thing that could possibly be harder than telling a soldiers family that they have been killed is to tell sibling soldiers’ family that they have been killed. That is the lot that fell to President Abraham Lincoln, according to legend, on November 21, 1864, except it came to him in spades. On that day, Lincoln composed a letter to Lydia Bixby, a widow and mother of five men, all of whom had been killed in the Civil War. It was a completely tragic state of affairs, and so made national news when a copy of the letter was published in the Boston Evening Transcript on November 25. It was signed by “Abraham Lincoln.” Oddly, the original letter has never been found, so it continues to be “legend” to this day.

After expressing his condolences to Mrs Bixby on the death of her five sons, who had fought to preserve the Union in the Civil War, Lincoln goes on to express his regrets on how “weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming.” He then continued with a prayer that “our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement [and leave you] the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.”

Historians continue to debate the authorship of the letter, and the authenticity of copies printed between 1864 and 1891. Nevertheless, at that time, copies of presidential messages were often published and then sold as souvenirs. Many historians and archivists agree that the original letter was probably written by Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay. As to Mrs Bixby’s loss, scholars have since discovered that only two of her sons actually died fighting during the Civil War. A third was honorably discharged and a fourth was dishonorably thrown out of the Army. The fifth son’s fate is unknown, but it is assumed that he deserted or died in a Confederate prison camp. The facts in this case seem to show that sometimes Presidents are given misinformation, resulting in heartbreaking mistakes. If Mrs Bixby did receive this letter, it is my opinion that she quite likely fainted on the spot, and then to find out later that the president had been given wrong information that caused him, gentle man that he was, to feel the need to write this particular letter himself, rather than letting the commanding officer be the bearer of such bad news.

I’m sure that upon finding that there had been an error, President Lincoln was appropriately appalled, but at that point there was not much to do about it. The letter had been sent, and to bring up the additional facts, especially the son that was thrown out of the army, would have only made matters worse. In addition, they did not know where the missing son was, and possibly didn’t know for sure where the others were either, so it made sense to leave well enough alone. Still, I’m sure their mother would like to have known where her sons really were. While this situation was possibly, or at least partially, an awful mistake, it is still the hardest part of the job of commander, and one that is usually felt very deeply by those who have had to write such a letter.

CCI10012013_0007I have never had to experience the horror of a knock at the door, by a telegraph or phone call or military personnel, bring the most awful new a parent could possibly receive…their child has been killed in action. I can only imagine how the family felt after hearing that news…the feeling of having your heart literally ripped out of your chest…knowing that nothing in your life will ever be the same. The parents will now have to bury their child, and no parent should ever have to do that…for any reason. I have to think that sleep will be very hard to come by after that, because every time they close their eyes they will see their child in the middle of a battle and that moment when their child will lose that battle. I don’t think I would want to close my eyes.

I don’t think there have been a lot of my family members that were killed in action, but I can’t say that for sure. The two I know of were Christopher Columbus Spencer and William Henry Davis. I don’t know much about Christopher’s parents, Christopher and Anna Rice Spencer, because they lived in the 1800’s, but I know they both died within 5 years of their son’s death in the Battle of Opequon, also called the Third Battle of Winchester. It was a battle in the Civil War fought in Winchester, Virginia. This was a fierce and bloody battle, with 5,020 Union casualties and 3,610 Confederate casualties. I suppose that one might thing the battle was won by the Confederate side, but as there were 39,240 Union soldiers and 15,200 Confederate soldiers, the losses were really heavier on the Confederate side. Christopher was a member of the 114 Regiment New York State Volunteers. The Civil War was such a hard war…but then they all are. Still, when you are fighting your own countrymen, and brother is fighting against brother, it is even harder to bear. Christopher was not the only son of Christopher and Anna, of course. Theirs was a large family with 10 children, one of whom was my Great Great Grandfather, Allen Spencer. While there were 5 daughters and 5 sons, at least 3 of them had already passed away, and now this horrific loss would also strike this family. I have to wonder if these losses became too much for these parents to bear, and Anna would pass away in 1868 and Christopher in 1869. By the time this couple passed away, at least 2 more of their children would be gone. The loss of your children for any reason is horrible, but to lose them to war…so far away, must have been awful.

William Henry Davis was killed in action on the West Bank of the Meuse in France. There were several battles going on at that time, so I’m not sure which battle Henry, as he was called, was killed in. Nevertheless, his parents had to live with the reality that their son was killed in a battle far from home. I think that sending your child over seas to fight in a war would be one of the hardest things a parent could do. Knowing that you are sending your child into battle, and you are so far away in the event of something happening. From a mother’s perspective, that would be a horribly helpless feeling. Casualty notifications during an active battle in World William Henry DavisWar I, would most likely have been very slow in coming. The death could come weeks before the notification. Just knowing that your child has been dead for that long and you are just finding out, would be enough to tear your heart out. That was quite likely the way things were for William and Theresa Spencer Davis. The news likely came by way of a letter. My guess is that even though Henry’s commanding officer tried to be kind, his words felt like a knife in their chest. It was likely very hard to breathe. Life would never be the same for them either, because their son had been killed in action. In the end, William and Theresa would also bury several other children before their own deaths. I can only imagine how awful that must have been.

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