"No, I was never wounded, for which I count myself very lucky. But I've been shot at. Frequently I have had my gear sniped by the shells . . . I have done some shooting back myself, but I never can recall whether I ever hit a man. I wouldn't care to."
A soldier's account of his tour in Iraq? A firefight in Fallujah? No, those are the words of Isaiah King, my great-grandfather, describing his own experience in the Civil War as a soldier with Company D of the all-black Fifth Massachusetts Cavalry. His interview, recorded at age 87, appeared in the New Bedford (Mass.) Evening Standard of May 26, 1932, on the eve of Memorial Day services. At the time, he was the sole survivor of Post 146, Grand Army of the Republic, a post made up of black veterans of the Civil War.
My great-grandfather was talking about warfare fought without airpower, smart bombs, and high-tech predator drones. But the human experience he described seemed strikingly similar to that of today's troops in Iraq.
According to the Evening Standard, a recruiting sergeant had assured Isaiah King's anxious mother that the boys on their way to the front would be sent home as soon as they had a scratch. Young Isaiah thought at the time that it would be good to get away from home. He was 17 years old, barely of age, when he enlisted on Jan. 16, 1864.
"But there were many times I wished I was back home," he told the newspaper, "and many men I saw with 'scratches' they'd never get over, who weren't sent home." The paper said my great-grandfather made that statement "with a smile half sad, half regretful for the days that were gone."
He said he had enlisted in the cavalry, "figuring I would have it easier riding than walking." But great-granddaddy found out the cavalry was the eyes of the Army, always awake, while the foot soldiers got the chance to camp for the night.
Reported the Evening Standard: "The Fifth Cavalry rode into their first engagement at the siege of Petersburg [Va.] As the enemy burrowed in within the city walls and re-enforcements came in from the hills, the Yankee horsemen engaged the rebel Dearborn's riders. For Isaiah King and mates, the siege was one long tour of picket duty and skirmishing, dodging sharpshooters and smoking out enemy nests by day, standing watch in the outlying forests by night."
Again, from the Evening Standard: "Picket duty meant a man went out to within hailing distance of the enemy at sundown and stayed on the alert until morning," said Mr. King. "Usually we would tether our horses and take up our watch in pairs. A move from the enemy and it was time for us to be into the saddle. The cavalry opened the battle to hold the line and give the alarm, then fall back to the secondary lines. . . . We often ran into ambush. We often started up a skulking band of rebels when riding picket duty. We often drove them to cover and we often had to gallop to cover ourselves."
The article covered fascinating bits of history: The Fifth Massachusetts Cavalry's entrance into Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy; Isaiah King's frequent sightings of Gen. Ulysses Grant, and, during a victory banquet in Richmond, King's seeing "a tall gangly looking man in a tall silk hat walking up through the aisles between the tables, stooping a little as if he were afraid of touching the ceiling. . . . I asked a waiter who that farmer was and learned that it was our president."
The story shed light on the King family's roots. "I was born in slave times in Washington, although my mother was a freed woman," my great-grandfather said. "I know that when I was about four, she took us children North to New Bedford." Ironically, my father, Isaiah King III, was 4 years old when he came to Washington from New Bedford, where he was born, with his parents and sister, Bernice. Were it not for the adoption of my mother's maiden name, Colbert, as my first name, I would have been Isaiah King IV.
Why this post-Thanksgiving Day reverie?
I was sitting on the side of the bed Thursday morning listening for the voice of my latest grandson, 7-month-old Elijah, or "Eli," who was sleeping across the hall. (We love those biblical names.) Eli is in town for the holiday, accompanied by two adults who tag along wherever he goes -- parents, I think they're called. His Dad's name is Rob.
Eli, along with my other son Stephen's four children, William, Robert, Henry and Audrey, and my brother Cranston's grandchildren, Sean and Stephanie, is a sixth-generation King.
In between my great-grandfather's Civil War experience 140 years ago, others in our bloodlines have volunteered or been drafted to go off to war.
My mother's older brother, Marshall, fought in World War I. Her younger brother, Robert, was in the Pacific Theater during World War II. All of them are now gone. I wore the silver bar and uniform of an Army commissioned officer; my brother was a U.S. Air Force captain.
Now I found myself thinking: Here comes the latest line of Kings, ages 10 to 7 months old, and America is at war again. A war against an enemy without uniforms and national borders. Will there come a time in the lives of these young Kings when they are called on to serve?
Wars are fought, or so we're told, so the next generation will not have to fight. By that standard, are we failing? My great-grandfather fought, said the New Bedford Evening Standard, for the cause of freedom "and for his own race." His life after being discharged in October 1865 took him into a brief stint of whaling, a year with the Eskimos after being stranded, and ports in China and Japan before he returned to New Bedford, settled down and married my great-grandmother in 1873, in an America where he still was not free from prejudice. Neither did the world become completely safe after his war -- or my uncles' -- or after my brother and I put our uniforms to rest. Would that we had made this a less dangerous place for this new generation.
So I think of them, in this evening of my life, wondering with a deep ache if they will grow up having to prepare to fight wars not of their own making, as have others in their family bloodline. Have I done right by them?