Saturday, June 7, 2014

“Keep Up Good Courage”

Any retelling of Gettysburg’s bloody wheat-field is incomplete without the tale of Captain Henry Van Aernam Fuller, the commander of Company F, 64th New York Volunteers. At approximately 6:30 P.M., Confederate infantry from Lafayette McLaws’s division slammed into the Union position near the Rose Woods, driving out Brig. Gen. John C. Caldwell’s division. Outnumbered and short on ammunition, Caldwell’s 4th Brigade ran pell-mell into the wheat-field. One of the 4th Brigade’s five regiments—the 64th New York—lost ninety-eight of its 204 officers and men.

As the 64th New York made its retreat, a bullet struck Captain Fuller in the leg. One of his friends, Private George Whipple, dropped his gun and carried him to the rear. Bracing each other, Fuller and Whipple made their way off a craggy ledge. As they descended into Rose Woods, another ball struck Fuller in the back. Fuller could no longer stand, so Whipple laid him down near Rose Run, shielding him behind a rock. Not knowing what else to do, Whipple asked if he should stay or flee. Fuller asked his friend to remain by his side. Whipple clenched his captain’s hand. As Fuller lay there, his life’s blood ebbing, he looked his friend in the eye and said, “George, keep up good courage.”

In a minute, Confederate soldiers surrounded the two New Yorkers. With little ado, they pulled Whipple away at the point of their bayonets, taking him to the rear as a prisoner of war. Fuller died a few minutes later. Whipple, though, was not there to see it.

Years later, Whipple remembered the moment vividly. He wrote, “It was hard to leave my best friend and captain.” He continued, “[It was] the saddest moment that I have ever seen since I have been a soldier. It seemed as if I were leaving the last friend that I had, and to me he had always been.”

Today, a small monument marks the place where Fuller expired.

When I used to lead tours at Gettysburg National Military Park, I told visitors this story. (If I had an adventurous group, I led them to the Fuller marker so they could see the site for themselves.) I did not tell the story because I thought it was a uniquely Civil War tale. Quite the opposite, I thought that many of us could relate to it. I told it to emphasize the gut-wrenchingly human moment involved in Whipple’s leaving and the meaning of Fuller’s last directive: to “keep up good courage.”

Let me explain.

Whipple experienced a timeless moment, one that always tests the human character. We see our friend lying prostrate; we are wrenched away, unable to do anything further. We wish we could do more, but it is beyond our power. He is scared but he does not show it. He might reveal his true feelings to us as he stands upon the precipice of death, but instead, he tells us to keep up good courage. It is imperative that we listen to that command. It is not for our sake, but for his. He must see bravery in our eyes so that he can have it in his.

These are life’s dark moments. They will come to us eventually. When they do, we must follow Fuller’s instruction. We must keep up good courage.
(Capt. Henry V. Fuller was known by Gen. W. S. Hancock as "the fighting captain.")
(Here is Fuller marker along Rose Run. Although not often visited, on the autumn day pictured here, my wife and I decided to pay our respects.)

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