The lessons of history are all around us, but they sometimes are obscured by the fog of the present. And in our current age, the fog can become so dense at times that lessons as fundamental as who we are as Americans, as Hoosiers, can get lost.
Indiana senior Sen. Todd Young reminded us in a speech honoring veterans in advance of Veterans Day recently, but he chose to do so in a way that remarkably, clearly, cut through the fog.
In a troubling time of rising anti-Semitism, extremism and intolerance, Young chose to salute the life and legacy of Hoosier Gen. Frederick Knefler, the highest-ranking Union officer of Jewish descent during the Civil War.
In his later years, Knefler fought another battle: ensuring that his fellow Hoosiers who fought to preserve the Union and defeat the evil of slavery would be remembered by future generations. The result of Knefler’s persistence was the construction of what gives the Circle City its name and identity: the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in downtown Indianapolis.
It was a remarkable speech on the Senate floor by Young — notable for the subtext as much as the actual text — honoring a figure whose memory has faded in the mists of the last century.
Recalling Knefler’s life at a time when many Americans are subject to open political hostilities, Young reminded us of some of the things that make the United States a great nation whose founders set it on a course toward a more perfect union.
“He was a Jewish immigrant, one of the soldiers who saved our Union, a private citizen who spent his final days building a still-inspiring monument to their example,” Young said.
“… In 1861 when the southern states deserted the Union, Abraham Lincoln called for volunteers to form an army to bring them back.
“Knefler, whose adoration of America was equaled only by his hatred of slavery, answered the call. … He vowed he would not do a days’ work until the war was over and the nation reunited.”
Thus, Young detailed how Knefler was involved in some of the most significant battles of the Civil War, leading heroic charges that broke the back of the rebel Confederacy.
Back home years later, Young said, Knefler led another charge: to commemorate Indiana’s Civil War veterans with a grand monument he had willed into existence, but which he didn’t live to see dedicated in 1901.
“For over two centuries, this nation, however imperfectly, has been a rare outpost of freedom and tolerance in a world where both, throughout history, were the exception, not the norm,” Young said.
“… This nation, with its singular values, has endured thanks to our veterans … men and women, to use Knefler’s words, of ‘heroic mold’ who have ‘held it with fire and steel.’ … On Veterans Day we give them our deepest gratitude and pledge to do our part to guarantee what they have held is never lost.”
The powerful monument Knefler championed honors the sacrifices of Hoosier soldiers who fought and died to preserve the union and abolish the institution of slavery. It still speaks to who we are, or at least it speaks, in Lincoln’s words, to the better angels of our nature.
It’s worth remembering, and it’s worth celebrating. We thank Sen. Young for reminding us that unity endures as an American and Hoosier virtue.