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The Broken Saber

April 2024
1min read

During my years of growing up in a county-seat town in central Illinois, the memory of Lincoln and the Civil War was still a near thing.

First, there was Decoration Day, when the graves of departed soldiers were decked with flowers and little flags. A few surviving veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic shuffled along in the march to the cemetery. I remember, too, when I was quite small, eyeing the green binding with gold lettering on the spine of my father’s two-volume Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. The “U.S.,” I surmised, was doubtless an honorific title bestowed upon the general by a grateful nation. Later an old gentleman lectured in the assembly hall of the Carrollton High School and told of being present in Ford’s Theatre the night Lincoln was assassinated. In a dramatic closing of his recital, he held up a discolored handkerchief. He said it was stained by the blood of the martyred President. One does remember an experience like that.

But most vivid of all is the recollection of my grandmother Kemper holding a broken cavalry saber and telling me of her two brothers, Napoleon Bonaparte and Thomas Jefferson Kemper, one fatally wounded in a skirmish on the Rapidan River, the other shot as he carried his brother from the scene. Even after fifty years her grief was unassuaged. The memory of her pain still stirs me, and I think of the words and hear the tune of the state song of Illinois: Grant and Logon and our tears, Illinois, Illinois,/Grant and Logon and our tears, Illinois.

The broken saber, with some six inches missing from the end of the blade, now hangs in my living room. I do not know whether it belonged to “Poly” or to “Tom.”

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