Traverse City Record-Eagle


May 31, 2011

Memorial Day speaker focuses on Civil War

Civil War was 'a dark time'

NORTHPORT — The Northport Community Band played. The Leelanau County Sheriff's Department mounted patrol led the procession of village scouting organizations into the center of Memorial Day activities at Leelanau Township Cemetery.

Two Girl Scouts raised the flag half mast under an obliging blue sky. And once again hundreds of people settled into their lawn chairs to listen, to watch, to remember and pay tribute to area veterans at Northport's annual Memorial Day observances.

Birds chirped through the prayers. A gentle breeze made flags wave but not flap. Giant pines, cedars and old maples stood sentinel.

It was enough to make people old enough to remember the Saturday Evening Post think they had been dropped into the magazine noted for its Norman Rockwell covers.

Descendants of Civil War veterans dressed in their blue uniforms stood at attention, played the bugle and fired rifle salutes to the veterans of all American wars.

Each year for the past eight years, Northport's Memorial Day speaker, Jerry Dennis, has focused his talk on one American war — not to glorify but to explain and place in context of its time. This year, the subject was the Civil War, often called the War of the Rebellion in the North or the War of Northern Aggression in the South.

Dennis stood out. He wore a gray Confederate cap. He hadn't had his hair cut since last Memorial Day and he had grown a beard for this year's speech. He wore a suit.

All of his previous talks have focused on Americans fighting foreigners in other countries. This time he knew he talked about 620,000 Union and Confederate soldiers killing each other on domestic soil. The Civil War, 1861-1865, produced the most American fatalities of any U.S. war, when Union statistics and Confederate estimates are taken into account.

Dennis has been a military history buff since his boyhood, but this year's talk was the most difficult speech to prepare of the eight, he said in an interview last week. He grew up in Arkansas in the Deep South.

He believes slavery is wrong.

"Abraham Lincoln got it right," he said in an interview last week. "The fact of the matter is that it is simply wrong for one person to own another. The South allowed its economy and emotion to cloud the issue between right and wrong, and it shouldn't have done it. A lot of people died because of it."

But he also thinks Sherman's March to the Sea and "scorched earth" policy was over the top. It devastated the South in such a way economically and psychology that it still has not recovered completely today.

A quarter of the South's men were killed in the war and the number of men in the Confederate Army by the war's end in April 1865 was 26,000 men — less than the number of black soldiers in the Union Army, he told the crowd Monday.

After living most of his adult life in northern states, Dennis thinks the Civil War stirs more emotions today in the South than in the North. He attributed that to the fact the war was fought predominately it the South.

Dennis worked a number of years in marketing and sales for Ford Motor Co. and also had a Detroit real estate business for 10 years before moving to Leelanau County in 1998.

During his 30-minute talk he mentioned the impact of Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin in the late 1700s. It automated the process of cleaning cotton and made it a profitable crop for the first time. The need for slaves increased and the South became more dependent on slavery and a plantation economy. By 1850, the South was creating 75 percent of the world's cotton.

There were 10,500 documented armed conflicts during the war, he said. Of those, 384 were considered significant. Of that total, 167 battles were fought in Virginia. He highlighted major battles and total casualties — 51,000 casualties at Gettysburg, 34,600 at Chickamauga, 26,000 at Antietam to name just a few.

"The Civil War is a dark time in our history," he said.

He talked about the importance of Memorial Day and remembering veterans of all American wars for the sacrifices they made.

"Sacrifice is meaningless without remembrance," he said.

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