April 26, 1898
The white-haired man behind the desk threw the newspaper down on the blotter. “It is
completely out of the question,” Jeremiah Dawson said. He sat back in the leather chair and
stroked his beard. “The semester is not yet over. If you fail to complete the term, you shall not
graduate with your class next year.”
The well-built young man sitting in front of his elder responded with a sober nod.
“I am aware of that, Father. After my service in Cuba, I can return to the campus and take my
final examinations. I have spoken to my professors. My standing in the class has earned me
some measure of…leeway, let’s call it.”
The young man leaned forward. “If you’re concerned about me delaying my joining the firm,
rest assured, Father, I have every intention of coming back here once I complete law school.
When the new century dawns, I will be here, at your right hand. Just as you and Mother planned
all these years.” He sat back, crossed his legs and joined his hands. “I know that was her wish,
God rest her soul.”
“It was most certainly not her wish for her only son to become cannon fodder.” The older man
frowned, then stood, boosting himself up with a hand on the heavy oak desk. He reached for a cane.
“You have no idea,” he whispered, shaking his head. He walked to the display case on the far wall of the office, using a cane to compensate for his limp. Pausing before the case, he placed a hand on it. “Son, war is not a lark. It is not…not some grand adventure.”
The young man stood, tugged at his waistcoat, and strode confidently to his father’s side. He moved with the easy grace of an athlete, and indeed he was one of the best boxers at the University of Wisconsin. He’d also taken up polo, further developing the horsemanship skills he’d honed riding through the ridges and valleys of Grant County. Fully three inches taller than his father, he stood next to the old man and placed a hand on his shoulder. “I understand that, Father,” he said. “Truly, I do.”
“That is not possible. You have not seen the elephant.” He flipped the latch and raised the glass lid. Reverently, he reached down and touched the old sword that rested on the red velvet. “We were like you. Fit as a fiddle, all of us hankering to whip the Reb. One battle was all we would need. It was a holy crusade, we were told. I shall never forget what Governor Randall told us at the camp we named after him in Madison.” He stared at the flag on the wall behind the case, his eyes seeing through the mists of memory to a day thirty-seven years past. “He said we were instruments of God’s vengeance, ‘His flails wherewith on God’s great Southern threshing floor, He will pound rebellion for its sins.’” The old soldier looked up at his son, and his eyes were hard. “Let me tell you something, boy, I was at Antietam, and Gettysburg, and a lot of other places where it seemed God was conspicuous by His absence. General Sherman said war is hell, and he was absolutely right. If it is glory and adventure you desire, Cuba is the last place you shall find it.”
“But your father let you go, did he not?” Charles pointed to the citation printed on a plaque, below the bronze medal held by the red, white and blue ribbon. “Seventh Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, Company C. The Platteville Guards. You were the same age as I, Father. A lieutenant, second in command to Captain Udelhofen. Assumed command of the company when he fell at Antietam, promoted to captain. And it was at Gettysburg that you won the Medal of Honor.”
“One does not win the Medal of Honor, boy, it is awarded.”
“Yes, through the mail. It should be worth more than that, Father. It should be presented by the President of the United States himself.”
“Well, perhaps someday it will be. But do not mistake my pride in that medal with my purpose here today.” He closed the lid and latched it, then stepped aside to face his son. “Do you know how many men we lost? Just at Gettysburg alone, the regiment went into action with three hundred and seventy men. We lost thirty-nine killed, one hundred and three wounded, fifty-two missing. You can do the arithmetic. Our casualty rate was more than one-half.” He rubbed his right leg. “The Rebel ball I took on Cemetery Ridge is a reminder that is with me every moment of every day.” His eyes misted. “One other man from the regiment was awarded the medal from that battle. Francis Coates, from Company H, the Badger State Guards. He was from Boscobel. Lost both his eyes on the first day, leading his men. He came home and then moved to Nebraska. Died at the age of thirty-six. I doubt if he ever thought war was glorious.”
“I have no illusions about war, Father. But I do want to serve my country, and help free the Cuban from Spanish bondage, just as you fought to free the Negro from his. And I shall be honest: I want to prove myself, beyond what I can find in the boxing ring. Just like Mr. Roosevelt, I would suspect.”
The older man raised his cane and pointed toward the newspaper on the desk, which in bold headlines announced that the United States was now officially at war with Spain. Another article on the front page took note of Roosevelt’s appointment as lieutenant colonel of a volunteer regiment. “That four-eyed rich parlor soldier? Thinks he has to be the biggest toad in the pond. He has no more business leading a regiment than your little sister!”
Charles laughed. “You’d best not let Margaret hear that. And as for Colonel Roosevelt, I think he might very well be president one day.”
The old soldier shook his head. “He is a lunatic. If he manages to survive this war, mark my words, the Republicans will not let him within a mile of the White House. Nobody takes him seriously.” He pointed again at the paper. “Why, they are calling his regiment ‘Roosey’s Red-Hot Roarers’! In my day, we at least had some sense of dignity.”
Charles led his father back to the desk. “It is the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, and I believe they will call themselves the Rough Riders.” He turned his father toward him. “And I would like to join them, Father. But I need your help. You are acquainted with Senator Spooner. A letter from you, asking him to put my name forward to Secretary Roosevelt, would be extremely beneficial to my application.”
Jeremiah sank into his chair. “Charles, I am to be sixty years old next year, assuming the Lord does not call me before then. I have no desire to bury my son. I have had to bury my wife and that was a hard thing. I….I do not know if I would have the strength to bury you.” He folded his hands on the desk blotter, unable to stop them from trembling.
The young man came around the desk and placed his hand on his father’s. “It may be that I am…naïve about this endeavor,” he said, “but I intend to try. If I am not chosen by Roosevelt, then I shall do whatever else I can do. Please. I need to do this.”
The old man was silent for a moment, then said, “I said much the same to my own father. He was a farmer, you know. Always wanted me to be more than a farmer. I promised him I would become a lawyer, if he would just give me his blessing to join the Guards.”
“I have already given you that assurance,” Charles said. “But I shall add another promise. First, though, I must ask you something I have always wondered about. Why have you never chosen to share your wartime experiences with me?”
Jeremiah looked up sharply. “It was a terrible thing! I saw men blown to bits in front of me! There is no romance on the firing line. The only glory comes with survival. And some of the boys could not handle that, either.”
“Then I shall make sure my own sons, and all Dawson men into the future, know the truth of such an experience. You know I have been a diarist. I intend to continue this in my service. And I promise you that your grandson will know what it was like, so if his country calls, he can make a more informed decision than his father did.” He squeezed the liver-spotted hands. “Or his grandfather.”
There was silence. Charles heard the ticking of the grandfather clock in the corner. With each tick he felt the regiment slipping away, Cuba slipping away, his chance to prove himself…
“Very well,” Jeremiah Dawson, Civil War hero, said. “I shall wire the senator tomorrow morning. The rest is in God’s hands.”
Charles felt his heart leap in his breast. “And in the hands of Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt.”
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