Let Us Die to Make Men Free

My Great, Great, Great Grandfather Justus Wright, a Union soldier.  He died in Stafford, Virginia, exactly 150 years ago today.  He was one of the tens of thousands of troops massing east of Chancellorsville, preparing for a battle which would begin within hours after his death from "consumption."

 


Death Certificate issued by the Surgeon General's Office,
dated April 30, 1863.

 

As we approach the sesquicentennial observance of his death, I've had to ask myself, "What did Grampa Justus die for?"  Had he stayed home, milking cows and tending crops, he no doubt would have lived considerably longer.

 

Grandpa Justus, a farmer from western New York, was a member of the state's 154th Volunteer Infantry, better known as the Hardtack Regiment.  He fought because he was called to fight.  He fought for the abolition of slavery and to hold the Union together.

Were he alive today, I'm certain he would be proud that he has among his multitude of descendents, spread from sea to shining sea, quite a few biracial and black grandchildren, including my own sons.  Over the years, through both marriage and adoption, his family has transformed from its pasty, potato-white British origins to a beautiful spectrum ranging from black to brown to white, with many, many beautiful shades in between.

I am reminded of one of the latter verses in the Battle Hymn of the Republic:

 

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

 

We are extremely proud of our grandfather today, and of his son, Joel Wright, who also fought for the Union Army, but in a different regiment.  For the first ten years of my life, I was lucky enough to know Joel's daughter, Hattie, my great grandmother, born just a few years after the end of the Civil War and who lived to be nearly one hundred years old.

 


 

Historic Ford's Theatre, Washington, D.C.

 

Fast-forward to 2006.  My eleven-year-old son, Mike, was cast in Washington, D.C.'s Ford's Theatre's production of Shenandoah, a musical about the Civil War.  Mike held his own with a mostly Broadway-based cast as he played a slave boy, Gabriel.  The second act opened with a showstopper, "Freedom!," a duet performed by Mike and an actress, Garrett Long:

 

Freedom ain't a state like Maine or Virginia
Freedom ain't across some county line
Freedom is a flame that burns within ya
Freedom's in the state of mind

...

Freedom, freedom
Freedom, freedom
Freedom is a notion sweeping the nation
Freedom is a body's 'magination
Freedom is a full-time occupation
Freedom's in the state of mind

 

You can hear the original Broadway rendition of this rousing song here.

 


Mike Mainwaring and Garrett Long in Shenandoah.
Photo by Charles Erickson.

 

In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, who in the Wright family would've thought that over one hundred forty years later, one of Grampa's great, great, great, great grandsons would be half black and would play the role of a slave boy, singing a song about freedom, in the very theatre in which President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated?  What's more, nobody would have dreamed that his African-American grandson would have gone on to perform another duet from the musical, "Why Am I Me?," with the forty-third President of the United States sitting front row center during Ford's Presidential Gala.

 


Kevin Clay and Mike Mainwaring in Ford's Presidential Gala.
Photo by Charles Erickson.

 

None would have imagined it, but it happened. And we have men like Grampa Wright, who laid down their lives, to thank. My family would not, could not exist without his sacrifice.

Thanks to Russell and Edward Payne for their help with this.

My Great, Great, Great Grandfather Justus Wright, a Union soldier.  He died in Stafford, Virginia, exactly 150 years ago today.  He was one of the tens of thousands of troops massing east of Chancellorsville, preparing for a battle which would begin within hours after his death from "consumption."

 


Death Certificate issued by the Surgeon General's Office,
dated April 30, 1863.

 

As we approach the sesquicentennial observance of his death, I've had to ask myself, "What did Grampa Justus die for?"  Had he stayed home, milking cows and tending crops, he no doubt would have lived considerably longer.

 

Grandpa Justus, a farmer from western New York, was a member of the state's 154th Volunteer Infantry, better known as the Hardtack Regiment.  He fought because he was called to fight.  He fought for the abolition of slavery and to hold the Union together.

Were he alive today, I'm certain he would be proud that he has among his multitude of descendents, spread from sea to shining sea, quite a few biracial and black grandchildren, including my own sons.  Over the years, through both marriage and adoption, his family has transformed from its pasty, potato-white British origins to a beautiful spectrum ranging from black to brown to white, with many, many beautiful shades in between.

I am reminded of one of the latter verses in the Battle Hymn of the Republic:

 

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

 

We are extremely proud of our grandfather today, and of his son, Joel Wright, who also fought for the Union Army, but in a different regiment.  For the first ten years of my life, I was lucky enough to know Joel's daughter, Hattie, my great grandmother, born just a few years after the end of the Civil War and who lived to be nearly one hundred years old.

 


 

Historic Ford's Theatre, Washington, D.C.

 

Fast-forward to 2006.  My eleven-year-old son, Mike, was cast in Washington, D.C.'s Ford's Theatre's production of Shenandoah, a musical about the Civil War.  Mike held his own with a mostly Broadway-based cast as he played a slave boy, Gabriel.  The second act opened with a showstopper, "Freedom!," a duet performed by Mike and an actress, Garrett Long:

 

Freedom ain't a state like Maine or Virginia
Freedom ain't across some county line
Freedom is a flame that burns within ya
Freedom's in the state of mind

...

Freedom, freedom
Freedom, freedom
Freedom is a notion sweeping the nation
Freedom is a body's 'magination
Freedom is a full-time occupation
Freedom's in the state of mind

 

You can hear the original Broadway rendition of this rousing song here.

 


Mike Mainwaring and Garrett Long in Shenandoah.
Photo by Charles Erickson.

 

In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, who in the Wright family would've thought that over one hundred forty years later, one of Grampa's great, great, great, great grandsons would be half black and would play the role of a slave boy, singing a song about freedom, in the very theatre in which President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated?  What's more, nobody would have dreamed that his African-American grandson would have gone on to perform another duet from the musical, "Why Am I Me?," with the forty-third President of the United States sitting front row center during Ford's Presidential Gala.

 


Kevin Clay and Mike Mainwaring in Ford's Presidential Gala.
Photo by Charles Erickson.

 

None would have imagined it, but it happened. And we have men like Grampa Wright, who laid down their lives, to thank. My family would not, could not exist without his sacrifice.

Thanks to Russell and Edward Payne for their help with this.

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