Once again, I was racing the clock. Unsurprising for those who know me, I was writing a paper due in a matter of minutes — but then the phone rang. Normally in these circumstances, I’d ignore it, but I had been waiting for this call for a week and a half.
“You have been selected for OCS. Congratulations, Candidate.” I knew then that, come May 28, my life would become quite different.
I stopped writing.
As most people on campus know, our college has a tradition of students joining the armed services, and the school has enshrined this tradition since its founding. During the Civil War, more than 400 students fought to preserve the Union. “The percentage of male students who enlisted was higher than that of any other private college in the North,” notes the Hillsdale Historical Society. “Volunteering became infectious, and no Hillsdale students were drafted during the war.”
Why did these students join the war? It may have had something to do with two of Hillsdale’s founders: professor Ransom Dunn and Edmund Burke Fairfield, the second president of the college. In addition to founding the college, Dunn and Fairfield helped found the Republican Party, which soon propelled Abraham Lincoln to the presidency. If the way students and faculty today devote themselves to one another is a sign of anything, then I can only imagine the type of devotion Fairfield, Dunn, and their students had for each other and the Union which they loved. By the end of the war, more than sixty Hillsdale men had paid the ultimate sacrifice.
Such was their measure of devotion that the College began a tradition. The first “Decoration Day” — what we now call Memorial Day — was held on May 30, 1868, when the professors and students marched to Oak Grove Cemetery, just north of our campus, to honor those who died in the war. We have lost this annual tradition perhaps because most of today’s students are gone when it would take place. Yet we still remember and honor the dead. Some of our professors sneak us out of the classroom to visit the cemetery , reminding students of their heritage as citizens of America and students of Hillsdale College.
Despite the unfortunate reality that the academic year closes before Memorial Day, the College still has one prominent reminder. Today, we have a statue of a lone Union soldier bearing Old Glory placed between Lane and Kendall, staring down Manning Street.
When people learn that I applied to be a Marine Corps Officer, some thank me, and leave it at that, but others ask what I’m willing to fight for.
But I like to remind these friends that it’s for the small things. It’s for going home and having dinner with my family; it’s for summer sunsets on the lake; it’s for conversations with good company and friendship over a bottle of wine; it’s for a liberal education; it’s for laughter, joy, and all things that are good.
There are some scary things out there. But we can’t be ruled by our fears. My family, faith, and Hillsdale College have taught me to live my life in accordance with what is good, true, and beautiful, and it is for the sake of those things that I wish to orient and, if need be, sacrifice my life.
The Civil War will have ended 151 years ago on May 9. The war took sixty of our forebears with it, and although we no longer face the threat of a republic-rending civil war, there is always a need for good people to serve the nation’s armed forces. This piece is dedicated to those joining our nation’s military, as well as to our peers who gave their lives for the preservation of the Union so many years ago, each of whom was willing to give the “last full measure of devotion.”