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Let ‘em Up Easy
June 2 2014


“Let ‘em Up Easy”
Remarks of Larry Skogen, North Dakota University System Chancellor
  May 26, 2014,  
  Memorial Day Observance at the North Dakota Heritage Center  
  Bismarck, ND  

The commemoration of Memorial Day began shortly after the Civil War in both the North and the South. There are arguments about which city and which region started the observation, but there is no argument that it began on the national scene in 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery.

Our nation’s most hallowed ground, Arlington, was once the plantation of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and is directly linked to our first president George Washington. General Washington never had any offspring of his own, but his beloved Martha had four children with her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis. Two of those children survived and were raised by her and her second husband, George Washington. One of her grandsons actually built the mansion and plantation of Arlington, and Robert E. Lee married his daughter. Thus Robert E. Lee was married to Martha Washington’s great-granddaughter, with whom he lived at Arlington.

When Virginia seceded from the Union and offered Lee command of its army in 1861, he and his wife left Arlington, which was then soon occupied by Union troops. In short order the Union began burying its dead on Lee’s plantation grounds. It was there in 1868 the first Decoration Day—a day set aside to remember soldiers of the Civil War and decorate their graves—was held and from there became a national tradition.

And today, 150 years later, we use this day to remember all our service members who gave the supreme sacrifice in all our nation’s wars.

Because this observation began in the Civil War, it’s worth recalling how that war ended—because all wars are, of course, fought to end. In early April 1865 the Union army occupied Richmond, Virginia, capital of the Confederacy, as the Confederate government fled deeper into the South. President Abraham Lincoln visited the city and was hailed by the recently freed slaves as “Father Abraham.” Upon visiting Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s residence, Lincoln sat in Davis’s office chair in what, according to witnesses, was a supreme moment. Ever since assuming the office of the presidency, his country had been locked in a civil war. Now after his reelection in 1864 and second inauguration in March 1865, Lincoln could hope that the war was ending. How he felt that day, we can only speculate, but we do know that when Union General Godfrey Weitzel asked him what should be done with all the defeated Confederates, Lincoln replied, “Let ‘em up easy.”

“Let ‘em up easy.” What a remarkably simple but eloquent statement about his hopes for a post-war world. For four long and bloody years, state against state, brother against brother, father against son, and 700,000 uniformed deaths, and the President tells one of his generals to “Let ‘em up easy.”

There is no doubt that Lincoln believed that the nation needed to heal its wounds quickly. Unlike civil wars elsewhere in the world, where victors execute and imprison thousands, even tens of thousands of former foes, Lincoln was going to let ‘em up easy. In his Second Inaugural Address just weeks before, he had said:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Less than a week after Lincoln’s visit to Richmond and five weeks after his second inaugural address, Lee surrendered to General Ulysses Grant at Appomattox Courthouse.

General Lee arrived at the courthouse on time and dressed in his finest uniform. General Grant arrived late wearing a private’s uniform splattered with mud. After they worked through the very lenient terms of surrender, Grant introduced his former adversary to his staff, including Eli Parker, Grant’s assistant and a Seneca Indian. When Lee was introduced to Parker, Lee said: “I’m glad to see there’s at least one real American here.” Eli Parker responded, “Today, General, we are all Americans.”

The Union soldiers had won; the Confederate soldiers had fought for a lost cause. The war was over; the healing had to begin. If only all war leaders had the wisdom of Lincoln.

This year 2014 marks one century since the start of the Great War to end all wars, or as we call it World War I. President Woodrow Wilson understood Lincoln’s wisdom. If Germany were going to be reintegrated into the European and Western sphere, she had to be treated with justice and fairness, despite the pains and destructiveness of the war, which lasted from 1914 to 1918. His European counterparts felt otherwise and a “guilt clause” and war reparations foisted upon Germany set the stage for World War II. Adolph Hitler was both a product of World War I and the cause of World War II. Had the Europeans lived by Lincoln’s “Let ‘em up easy” dictum, World War II would, in my opinion, have been completely averted, at least in Europe.

So after World War II, which cost the world millions of souls, leaders were more willing to follow Lincoln’s wisdom. In what surely must be the most successful reconstruction program ever, the Marshall Plan, named after Secretary of State George Marshall, completely rebuilt Western Europe. When I was stationed in Europe in the early 1970s, just thirty years after WWII, my parents came to visit. I picked them up at the airport in Frankfurt, West Germany. My father sat quietly looking out the window as I steered the car onto the autobahn skirting Frankfurt. After a long silence and with industrial buildings and the modern city whipping by as we sped along the marvelously constructed highway system, by father finally said only, “So this is the Marshall Plan.”

Yes, we’d let the Germans up easy.

As we did with the Japanese. Just twenty years after Colonel Paul Tibbets piloted the Enola Gay over Hiroshima and dropped the first atomic bomb used in human conflict on that city, Japan had immerged as a major economy, ranking in the top handful of the largest economies—as did West Germany, then Germany after unification in 1990.

I will argue that the United States has a history of post-war activities with our former enemies that would demonstrate a penchant for letting them up easy.

And, I will argue, the soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and coast guardsmen we honor today, sacrificed themselves in a cause that says that after the guns have fallen silent we need to let our enemies up easy. It is only then that true reconciliation and reconstruction can happen.

This situation is more complex, but not different from our national dealings with our Native American nations. I wonder when we’re going to let them up easy?

Indian soldiers have fought in every American war—either against the United States, as with the Lakota up to the 1890s, or with the United States as allies, as with the Crow against the Lakota—or as citizens of this nation. American Indians fought on both sides in the Civil War and have fought in every American war since—despite the fact that blanket citizenship for Indians was not granted until 1924. Famously, the Code Talkers baffled the Japanese in the Pacific. Pima Ira Hayes helped hoist the flag at Iwo Jima and returned to a reservation of despair. North Dakota Rough Rider recipient Dakota Master Sgt Woodrow Wilson Keeble won the nation’s highest honor, the Medal of Honor, in Korea. Private 1st Class Lori Piestewa, a Hopi from Arizona, was struck down by enemy fire in Iraq in 2003. Corporal Nathan Good Iron, a member of our own Three Affiliated Tribes, gave the supreme sacrifice in Afghanistan in 2006.

In recognition of the sacrifice and service of Native Americans during World War I, Crow Chief Plenty Coups spoke at the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers on November 11, 1921, saying:

“I feel it an honor to the red man that he takes part in this great event, because it shows that the thousands of Indians who fought in the Great War are appreciated by the white man. I am glad to represent all the Indians of the United States in placing on the grave of this noble warrior this coup stick and war bonnet, every eagle feather of which represents a deed of valor by my race. I hope that the Great Spirit will grant that these noble warriors have not given up their lives in vain and that there will be peace to all men hereafter. This is the Indian’s hope and prayer.”

I say that it is my hope and prayer that to ensure that those we honor today, those who died making the supreme sacrifice for this country, have done so to help make this a better place. And that means a country—the third most populous country in the world, the most heterogeneous nation in the world ever, a nation of every race and religion—is a country that appreciates all its citizens, and judges none to be less than any others. We are greater by the sum total of our whole, rather than by our individual distinctions. So our service members will not have died in vain when we as a nation and all our citizenry respect and embrace all our differences, “with malice towards none, and charity for all.”

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